Hotter, Drier, and Less Predictable

How Oregon farmers are adapting to climate change

Amy Martin

Oregon is the perfect place togrow berries.

The Willamette Valley’s cool, rainy springs allow strawberry plants and the canes of red raspberries, blackberries, marionberries, and boysenberries to grow tall and sturdy; temperate, dry early summers allow the berries to ripen slowly, becoming plump, sweet, and juicy.

But not this past summer. The hottest temperatures in Oregon’s history were recorded over the weekend of June 26–28, when a heat dome settled over the Pacific Northwest, bringing highs of 108, 112, and 118 degrees. Darcy Kochis, the administrator and marketing director of the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, reacted like many other Oregonians to the late June weather forecasts—she didn’t quite believe them. On Friday, June 25, she and the members of the commission’s board of directors met over Zoom. “What is going to happen?” Kochis remembers them asking. Then: “We don’t know.”

On Monday, June 29, there was a small window of time when berries were ripe and ready to be picked. The heat dome had passed, but highs were still in the nineties. By the following day, the plants and fruit had burnt. All told, Oregon’s berry farmers lost 50 percent of their crop—the largest loss in the Raspberry and Blackberry Commission’s history. “It was catastrophic,” Kochis says. “This year was a devastating year.”

 

In the mid-nineteenth century, when White settlers began to flock to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon was touted to potential homesteaders as an agricultural Eden. In an 1830 pamphlet, Hall Jackson Kelley described the Willamette Valley as “well watered, nourished by a rich soil, and warmed by a congenial heat.” Although Kelley himself had never been west of the Rockies at the time of publication, he wasn’t entirely wrong. West of the Cascades, winters are wet and cool, the summers warm yet mild, allowing for long growing seasons. East of the Cascades, the dry landscape, cold winters, and hot summers are ideal for raising livestock and growing potatoes, wheat, and other cereal grains. Oregon is the world’s top producer of grass seed and among the top-producing states for Christmas trees, wine grapes, hazelnuts, and vegetable starts. The state is home to nearly one hundred farmers’ markets, and Oregonians are able to purchase fruit from U-pick orchards, vegetables from CSA farms, and meat directly from ranchers. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, more than six hundred thousand jobs in the state are related to agriculture.

Climate change imperils Oregon’s status as an ideal place for farming. According to the Fifth Oregon Climate Assessment, published by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, the average annual temperature in Oregon has increased by approximately 2.2°F since 1895. If climate change continues unabated, temperatures will be another five degrees hotter by 2050. The assessment predicts summers will be warmer, with more days over ninety degrees, and drier; winters will see more precipitation. Droughts, wildfires, and floods are expected to become more common and more severe.

Farming has always been risky. “Farms and farmers are used to losing a crop. Or having lousy prices. Or not being able to find workers. They are used to lots of uncertainty, but hopefully, you can take one or two bad years,” says Jeff Reimer, a professor of applied economics at OSU. “But how long can you sustain that?”

While climate change will make many crops harder to grow, it may also present opportunities. Oregon’s nascent olive oil industry, which got its start nearly a decade ago, could continue to develop and thrive. The state’s wine industry, internationally celebrated for pinot noir, could expand its production of other grape varieties. Climate change may affect the number of farms in Oregon, or their size—some becoming larger and others smaller—as well as crop diversity and local food security.

No one interviewed for this article was willing to say that particular kinds of crops, fisheries, or livestock will no longer be viable in Oregon. Instead, there is a focus on adaptation and opportunity. Farmers and ranchers in the state are preparing for an uncertain future by looking to practices that are thousands of years old, incorporating modern-day technology and research, and becoming even more attuned and connected to place.

“Whatever we were expecting before isn’t sustainable,” says Amy Garrett, an associate professor of practice at Oregon State University and the director of the Dry Farming Project. The question she says Oregon farmers must now ask is, “What do we need to change to make this work?”

 

Maud Powell and her husband, Tom, own Wolf Gulch Farm, a 180-acre vegetable farm in the Applegate Valley west of Medford that includes a small creek and irrigation ponds. This year, Maud hoped for early spring rains, but this spring was one of the driest in Oregon’s history. “Our ponds were already lower than they’ve ever been,” she says. During the 2021 heat dome, she watched water levels in her ponds drop a couple of inches each day. The creek dried up completely.

After the heat broke, the Powells decided they couldn’t farm Wolf Gulch anymore. They plan to sell the farm. “We’ve been here for twenty-three years,” Maud says. “We thought we were going to bury each other on this property.”

They plan to lease land from neighboring farmers in the coming years and possibly move to a wetter, cooler region. In the meantime, Maud is working with other farmers in southwestern Oregon to establish an emergency fund, maintained by a nonprofit, that will disseminate grants to farms too small to qualify for emergency funding from the US Department of Agriculture. It’s part of a wave of increased advocacy for financial assistance for smaller farmers and for crops that have traditionally been considered too small to qualify for federal relief. The Raspberry and Blackberry Commission is also working with Oregon’s Congressional delegation to have berries covered by USDA crop insurance in the future, and to pass funding for emergency grants to help growers until the next season.

Some growers escaped the heat dome unscathed, an example of how climate change can mean disaster for one farmer or commodity, and be a boon to another. Greg Jones, the CEO of Abacela, a vineyard and winery near Roseburg, says the heat “came at the best possible time.” Abacela’s vines had finished flowering and grown enough of a canopy to protect the young grapes from the heat. Had the heat dome happened two weeks earlier, Jones suspects the impacts on the wine industry would have been terrible.

But while 2021 has been a bumper year for Oregon’s grape growers, 2020 was catastrophic. In September, just before harvest time, smoke from wildfires smothered the Willamette Valley for more than a week. The skins of wine grapes are so thin that the fruits absorb compounds from the air, bringing the smell and flavor of smoke into the wine.

“Those compounds came through so strongly,” says Mimi Casteel, the founder and former owner of Hope Well vineyard. “I wouldn’t drink it.” Under Casteel’s management, Hope Well was an eighty-acre farm with twenty-seven acres dedicated to wine grapes, alongside a small orchard, a vegetable farm, and livestock. The smoke destroyed nearly 85 percent of Hope Well’s wine grapes. “It was pretty insurmountable from a business standpoint,” she says. That was when Casteel and her family decided to sell their property. “There were lots of moments spent [asking] how we can stay here, pay the bank.”

The events driving farmers like Maud Powell and Mimi Casteel to sell their farms are part of a phenomenon known as “climate chaos.” Climate chaos refers to extreme and unpredictable weather patterns such as heat waves, large fluctuations in temperature over short periods of time, and larger wildfires over a longer season. “It alters the framework of extreme events,” says Jones, the CEO of Abacela, who in addition to being a winemaker is a climatologist specializing in climate change and wine climatology. While extreme events have always occurred, Jones explains, climate change has the potential to make such events “more extreme, a little bit … longer lived,” and could also cause them to “shift geographic location.”

 

One of the biggest challenges Oregon farmers will face in the future is getting enough water. Most farmers water their crops using irrigation, in which water is transported from natural sources such as rivers, streams, and creeks via ditches, pumps, pipes, and other technology. In much of Oregon, those water sources are continually fed by melting snowpack in the Cascades. But now, with warmer temperatures in early spring, the snowpack melts sooner and faster than it did in the past, meaning the availability of water throughout the summer is not as reliable as it once was. Oregon’s reputation as “well watered” may become a part of state history.

Water usage and sustainability are now top priorities for the Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, which is researching drip irrigation as a sustainable alternative to other forms of irrigation for berry growers. Drip irrigation uses soaker hoses and pipes, located at the base of plants, to control how much a plant is watered. It also decreases the amount of water lost to evaporation and runoff.

Other farmers are finding ways to transport water without any technology at all. Powell, of Wolf Gulch Farm, critiques irrigation in general: Open irrigation systems—ones that use ditches and expose water to open air—lose water to evaporation. Piping water is more efficient, but electricity and ongoing maintenance make it costly. She and her husband ascribe to the principles of permaculture, a system of farming and land management that reflects and takes advantage of the natural ecosystem. Their crops are downslope from a creek, so they built ponds along the slope to store water for irrigation. The system is gravity-fed, allowing water to flow to crops without a pump or other equipment. In 2001, they also installed pond liners to prevent the loss of water to the ground.

“We felt like we had taken all these steps to conserve water,” Powell says. Were it not for three years of low rainfall in southwestern Oregon, compounded by the heat dome, Wolf Gulch might have been able to make it.

Then there are farmers who think it may be possible to use little to no water at all. Dry farming is a technique that grows food without irrigation, relying instead on water held in the soil. Farmers “are not growing without water—they are growing without irrigated water,” says Amy Garrett, the director of the Dry Farming Project.

Garrett says dry farming allows farms to “grow within the restraints of the environment.” The ability of soil to capture and store water is crucial; Garrett explains that farmers must amend their soil in the late summer with compost and nutrients, and plant cover crops after harvest, like clover or cereal grains, to capture nitrogen and prevent evaporation. When a crop is first planted, it may be watered once with irrigated water. Plants are placed deeper in the soil than they usually would be, allowing their roots to grow deep enough to access water stored below the surface. Growers plant fewer plants with more space between them than in conventional agriculture, decreasing competition for water.

Dry farming is a centuries-old practice developed by Native American and Indigenous cultures throughout the American West, particularly the Hopi and other peoples in the southwestern United States—a sunny and hot region, perfect for growing many crops, yet with scarce water resources. Garrett first learned of dry farming in the early 2010s, when she met an older farmer who used the technique. In 2015, she started a dry farming plot of about four thousand square feet. Since then, the project has doubled in size and become what Garrett calls a “multifaceted participatory climate adaptation research project.”

At the Dry Farming Project, around fifty farmers work plots, growing different varieties of corn, beans, squash, potatoes, and other vegetables. They also conduct sensory experiments and taste tests. One project is testing the Early Girl tomato variety; Garrett says initial yields had issues with blossom-end rot, so experimentation continues. “We are demystifying this,” she says.

The Dry Farming Project’s trials already show promise. According to Garrett, a tomato’s flavor is intensified when plant yields are smaller, and dry-farmed squash can be stored longer during the winter. Garrett criticizes traditional farming and agricultural practices, which tend to take Oregon’s wet winters and access to water for granted, and which depend upon fertilizer and other substances to manipulate the environment and maximize yield. Of dry farming, Garrett says, “This is an old way of farming. We, maybe, have lost touch with it.”

In addition to using less water, farmers are deepening their relationship with the land. After selling her vineyard earlier this year, Mimi Casteel turned her full attention to a new ten-acre farm where she uses the land management and regenerative agriculture techniques she started testing at Hope Well. Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that focuses on the conservation and rehabilitation of a farm’s land and environment, including improving the availability of water in the soil, generating topsoil, increasing biodiversity, and sequestering carbon—the main driver of climate change—in the soil.

At Hope Well, Casteel allowed her sheep and chickens to graze in the vineyards, using livestock to “manage the understory of the farm … and cycle nutrients into the soil.” First, she ran her sheep through the vineyard to till the soil and eat grass and weeds. The chickens followed, eating worms, bugs, and other insects. Casteel did not till her soil mechanically—the animals’ activity provided enough disturbance. She also planted native trees on her property, including cottonwoods, poplars, oaks, and maples, and she is a proponent of other farmers doing the same. The trees’ deep roots, she says, help the ground maintain moisture. Ultimately, Casteel’s farming practices are as much about rebuilding the ecological infrastructure as growing food.

The principles of regenerative agriculture extend to livestock as well. Carman Ranch, a cattle and pig ranch in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County, has earned a degree of fame in the ranching world for its holistic ranching practices. Carman’s four thousand acres include grasslands and timbered rangeland. Sam Humphreys, the ranch’s manager, says a drought in 2021 resulted in the loss of nearly 50 percent of the grasses the ranch had predicted would be available for grazing. In such a scenario, ranchers have a few options: move the cattle more frequently to maintain the health of the grass and soil; allow cattle to remain in a pasture longer and chew down grasses further, which harms the health of future grass and soil; or destock—sell cattle earlier in the year than planned, which can be financially destabilizing.

Holistic ranch management involves paying attention, throughout the year, to the ranch’s entire ecosystem—being attuned not only to the cattle’s growth, but also to the growth of grasses in the pasture, the health of the soil, the time of year that ponds dry up, and even when migratory birds nest in the pastures. Cattle are moved from pasture to pasture more frequently, sometimes as often as once a week, to keep the grass from being grazed down to the ground. As they graze, cattle trample the earth, mixing grass into the soil and exposing it to oxygen, as well as fertilizing it with manure. Cattle don’t return to graze the same pasture again for at least a year, which Humphreys says allows plants to recover: “There is better spring growth when we leave a significant portion of the plant.” As a result, root systems retain more water, and grasses absorb more nutrients.

Record-keeping—of grazing schedules, rainfall, grass growth, and so on—allows the ranch to plan for the following year, Humphreys says, and allows him to manage the ranch “based on experience and science.” Jones, the CEO of Abacela, thinks that nexus of experience and science has always been essential for agriculture: “If I wasn’t considering how to be the best steward of my ecosystem and planning for the future, I wouldn’t be around,” he says.

When Abacela was first founded, Jones worked with his father to collect data on every aspect of the terroir of the land where the vineyard came to be located, including soil type, elevation, rainfall, and temperature. “It was about trying to understand what the environment could give us,” he says. Abacela originally planted twenty-seven different grape varieties. Some didn’t grow as well, so they were taken out. Abacela is not located in a cool climate, so grapes conducive to such climates were never planted. All those decisions, Jones says, were based in science: “All of these different crops have different sensitivities … looking at them more critically is really important.” He adds, “That’s why research is extremely important overall.”

Research has given Oregon’s Dungeness crab industry answers and hope. Each summer in Oregon, as the Dungeness crab season ends, crabbers find themselves fishing in “hypoxic zones,” also known as “low-oxygen zones,” where the amount of dissolved oxygen in ocean water drops, sometimes close to zero, killing crabs and other marine life.

For the past two decades, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission has collaborated closely with Francis Chan, an Oregon State University professor who specializes in coastal ocean ecology, to better understand low-oxygen zones. He helped develop an oxygen sensor that can be zip-tied to crab pots to track oxygen levels while crabbers fish. When the pots are brought up, the data is transmitted via Bluetooth to a data collection system on board, giving crabbers and scientists real-time information on low-oxygen zones. That information helps crabbers decide, in the moment, whether to move their vessels and fish in a different location. It also helps Chan gather data in a more cost-effective way: planning trips on research vessels is expensive, he says, but crabbers are already at sea for more than six months of the year. “They cover so much more territory than we can ever do as a research community,” he says.

Tim Novotny, the communications director of the Dungeness Crab Commission, says research like this helps ensure Oregon’s Dungeness crab industry will survive into the future. “Information and data is a good thing for the industry,” he says. “We can adapt to it and work around it.”

The environmental and climate catastrophes Oregon experienced in the past year—drought, the heat dome, wildfires, a dry winter—were inflection points for many Oregonians, tangible proof of the impacts of climate change. But farmers are hopeful that between innovative research, the revival of heritage agricultural practices, and a deeper connection to Oregon’s natural environment, they will be able to adapt for the future.

Casteel, of Hope Well vineyard, combines hope with pragmatism. “I believe agriculture is the biggest opportunity to influence what’s happening with our climate,” she says. “The solutions are there. It’s about ending a lot of paradigms we are clinging to because we are terrible at imagining a better world.”

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Thanks for this great piece on farmers experiences on climate change. I hope the optimism from most of some of the subjects turns out to be true, that adaptability turns out to be a viable future action. The discussion about dryland farming comes up from time to time. I have observed market gardeners swear by dryland tomato culture although it appears they are beneficiaries of sub irrigation geology Likewise, the ancients, the prehistoric cultures, who inhabited the dry locations probably were keen observers and/or learned by trial and error where good deep moist soils occurred naturally. My main point is that our family farm has a few locations like this but it is certainly not a broad option in the dry Mediterranean type climate. Jones of Abacela has the right idea. Most of our soils are more like a jig saw puzzle, often changing quite dramatically over distances as short as 10 - 50 feet due to millions of years of churning upheaval. My other main observation about farmer optimism is that I find many farmers dismissive of climate change, notwithstanding there general dependency on the scientific methods for cropping technology developments. I attribute their dismissal of the risk of climate change rooted in the developing tribalism left-right kind of group-think. It seems quite strange to see farmers so benefiting from farming technology and science and then so dismissive of the 98% virtual unanimity of qualified climate scientists who post we're facing an existential crisis of geologic proportions. But hey, it's more comfortable to lull ourselves with optimism than to admit we've just really screwed things up. As Trump would say: sad.

Tom Bowerman | December 2021 | Rural Lane County

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