Along with soil, sunlight and water are the most vital elements to a healthy agricultural climate.

Oregon, especially the Willamette Valley, is hailed as just such a climate, producing a healthy, varied crop inventory within the loam of its equally varied terrain.

But as this year’s growing season spots much more sunlight and significantly less water than normal, what does that mean for these various crops? Reports from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the OSU Extension Service suggest the impact is a weighty one.

Oregon’s agronomic diversity means dry weather effects are difficult to pinpoint. Broken down there are some signs that portions of the ag industry are smarting while others are harboring a guarded optimism.

Assessing that is tricky, even for the experts.

“It’s difficult to paint the canvas of Oregon’s agriculture since it’s so diverse,” said Oregon Department of Agriculture spokesman Bruce Pokarney. “If we were in Iowa I could say the corn is doing this, and the soy is doing this.”

What Pokarney can say is that the dry season does make a difference and, for some, poses substantial challenges.

“Everything is early this year, and it’s been that way since the start of the season; we are two to three weeks behind on everything.”

With that backdrop, a broad landscape swath shows negative effects on grain and seed yields, fresh fruit coming to consumers earlier and exiting sooner, and the livestock industry enduring grave challenges.

Mid-Valley agrarians Kevin and Carla Chambers view it with clarity. The Chambers produce cider apples and wine grapes, but they also apply permaculture principles at their Koosah Farm in Amity where they garden strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, mulberries, paw paw, pears, plums and even pomegranates — a microcosm of the greater valley agriculture landscape.

“Species diversity reduces pest pressures as in a natural ecosystem,” Kevin Chambers noted, while itemizing weather effects on his bounty.

“Almost all berries have had a poor season; they just don’t perform well when it’s hot,” Chambers said. “The June heat did a lot of damage to cane berries (raspberry, blackberry, Marion berry, etc.), and blueberries have also been too soft as a result of the early heat.

“Nuts and veggies have done fine so far, but the veggies have required lots of water,” he added.

Meanwhile, state agricultural officials report seed-crop yields down 20 to 30 percent, and Mid-Valley farmers affirm that.

“The seed ripened around three weeks earlier than normal, which always leads to lower seed weight (because of) smaller seed with less moisture and fewer seed heads,” Sublimity farmer Jeff Kropf said. “It’s lighter seed, and we get paid on weight.”

The dip seems consistent.

“Yields are off for me around 20 percent, and my father says his are off around 22 percent,” Kropf said. “I have heard as high as 30 percent off for some other farmers in the Santiam Valley, but haven’t heard yields around Sublimity, though I expect they are probably off around 20 percent like mine.”

Wheat growers are in the same boat.

“The hot and dry growing season has certainly affected the wheat crop; many growers are experiencing below average yields and higher than average protein levels in their grain — not preferred in soft white wheat, which is about 85 to 90 percent of what we grow in Oregon,” said Oregon Wheat CEO Blake Rowe. “There’s probably less of an impact on irrigated wheat fields on the west side (of the Cascade Mountains), but the extended periods of high temperatures have affected these areas also.

“Harvest is generally several weeks ahead of normal in most areas, but that isn’t unexpected in years like this,” he said.

Rowe said unease of the conditions stretches beyond this season.

“Growers are also getting concerned about how long the current weather patterns continue,” he said. “We need significant moisture to get good fall planting conditions for next year’s winter wheat crop.”

Many in livestock have transcended concern and pushed into emergency-prep mode as the weather has ravaged much of their environs and, in some cases, created hazardous conditions.

Pokarney said: “The challenges have been that pasture and rangeland across the state, though not as much in the western part, has been drying up; 46 percent of the pasture and rangeland is (categorized) either in very-poor or poor condition because it’s been so dried out.”

Dryness affects two things: feed and fire.

“Not only do the dry conditions affect water resources, they create a breeding ground for wildfires,” said Kayli Hanley, communications director for Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. “Ranchers in Central and Eastern Oregon have had to be ready to go at the first sign of a wild fire.”

Hanley said many ranchers also serve the Rangeland Fire Protection Agency.

“They are often one of the first people to arrive on scene at a fire, working to contain it until other agencies can arrive,” she said. “Wildfires are a threat to Oregon livestock long after they are gone. They burn valuable land that cattle graze, often times forcing ranchers to dig into their winter food supply to keep their livestock fed and healthy.

“This year’s drought has not helped rangeland and pastureland that has been burned before to recover from past wildfires.”

Beyond pastures and fields, both state and local reports suggest that many orchards are maturing early.

“Yes, we just finished with our first variety of apples and we already have Gravensteins,” said Jeannie Berg at Scio’s Queener Farm. “They are early and small, but the flavor is amazing. Of course, apple growers are paid by weight so we tend to (see) less when our crop is extra delicious but small.

“Too bad we’re not more like wine-grape growers who get more when the taste is better.”

That section of regional agriculture does kindle a cautious optimism.

Chambers said this season equals the earliest season (1992) he’s seen for grapes in the valley over the past 35 years.

“Since grapes are a late season fruit, we don’t really know how they’ll fare, but right now they are fine,” Chambers said, adding he anticipates harvest to being very late in August and run through September. “Thus far I’ve seen little or no water stress, even in dry farmed sites. So, I think grapes will likely be one of this year’s ag successes. But I try not to declare things before the fruit is harvested.”

Others share his outlook.

“As far as our growing season is concerned, it’s true that it’s going to be an early harvest,” said Michelle Kaufmann, communications manager for Oregon Wine Board. “From what most of our wineries are projecting, assuming the summer and fall continue on this track, harvest is about two to three weeks ahead of schedule depending on the area. The dry, warm season should enhance the quality of the finished fruit, and we expect that in the end the 2015 vintage will be of exceptional quality.

“That said, with wine grapes the last two weeks are what will make the harvest so only time will tell.”


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