Into the Bog: Oregon’s drought affects crops

Oregon State University researchers forecast that the rain-deprivation and snow-challenges of this past year will lead to excessively dry conditions in years to come.

Oregon has a diverse climate — with snow-capped mountains, a dynamic coastal range, a desert to the east and a rainy west.

Oregon has water issues like most of the western U.S., according to Kathie Dello, associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research institute at OSU.

Because the rain and snowfalls from October to March, Oregon relies a lot on the snowpack and precipitation in the summer months.

Climate change in Oregon and climate issues are the OCCRI’s primary focus.

Based on the OSU campus, the state legislature in 2007 created the OCCRI to focus on climate change issues and research — past, present and future — across the Oregon University System campuses. Some faculty are housed at Portland State University, University of Oregon and Southern Oregon University.

Much of the work behind OCCRI connects other disciplines that are ardently working on climate change.

“It’s not just a bunch of climatologists here,” Dello said. “We’re looking at it from pretty much every angle.”

This year, researchers at OCCRI have found Oregon to be in a looming drought situation.

“We didn’t receive the winter precipitation that we normally get, and now we’re worried about the summer months ahead,” Dello said. “The concept of drought is really difficult to talk about here because everyone thinks of Oregon as a wet place.”

There currently exists a drought situation in Southern Oregon, which is due to the lack of precipitation and low snowpack, according to Dello.

“What little amount that fell, fell as rain and not snow,” Dello said. “That’s bad because we need the snow to last up in the mountains and melt down throughout the spring and summer.”

Receiving enough snow is a crucial component for agriculture, salmon, basic water needs and recreational activities like skiing.

For the first time in a 50-year history, Mt. Ashland Ski Area didn’t open for business this year due to the ski area having less than a foot of snow at the lower elevations — not nearly enough to open the ski slopes.

“A lot of what’s going to have to happen is at the state and federal level,” Dello said. “Some aid will need to be considered, as farmers may not plant certain crops.”

Pretty much every crop grown in Oregon will be affected, including the cranberry crops.

Oregon is the fourth-largest cranberry-producing state in the U.S., growing and harvesting its berries along the coastal ranges of Southern Oregon.

Vincent Family Cranberries, located 11 miles south of Bandon, a mere 660 yards from the ocean surf, has been in the business of growing cranberries since 1957.

Housed in a cooler and temperate climate, a sweetspot in the tidal zone of the Oregon coast, it generates a longer, more sustained growing season benefitting Oregon cranberry farmers relative to the east coast of the U.S.

“Oregon cranberries crop really accentuate this unique dynamic and capacity for growing by being so close to the ocean,” said Tim Vincent, president of Vincent Family Cranberries.

In order to farm cranberries in Oregon, three main ingredients are needed, according to Vincent.

The first is a sufficiently stable water supply throughout the year.

The second requirement is acidic soil, which the coastal terrain chocked. The last component for growing Oregon cranberries is mild weather; if it gets too cold, it will damage the crop during the spring and if it gets too hot, it will damage the crops in the summer-fall timeframe. Any severe fluctuations in one direction could prove harmful to the crops.

In terms of water supply for cranberries farmers, it is dependent on rain at the right times, according to Vincent.

“Right now really doesn’t matter,” Vincent said. “When we really need rain is in the midsummer to early fall timeframe in order to support the irrigation of during the harvesting process.”

The rain allows cranberry farmers to irrigate less and pull from a water source.

For Vincent Family Cranberries, the rain also allows the existing aquifer it uses to recharge.

Vincent farm is unique among Oregon cranberry farmers that pull water from an aquifer, as the majority pull water from water rights that are attached to local streams.

And as streams come from snowpack and precipitation, the decrease in both this year is a widely shared concern for water among farmers, Vincent said.

“We have had years that it’s been a dry summer and fall relative to years past,” Vincent said. “But if we run into a dry fall this coming year, it would cause sever risks to our ability to harvest crops in a timely fashion.”

According to Dello, droughts in Oregon are not going away in the future.

And based on researchers’ current findings, there is evidence that droughts may get worse.

OCCRI is actively working toward studying ways by which to better detect drought earlier in order to get the word out to people sooner.

“If we could get some lead time, I think that would really help a lot of people,” Dello said.


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