Feed aggregator

Small grower opens chicken processing facility

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

WALLOWA, Ore. — Following a growing national trend, state licensing is making it easier for small farms to bring locally raised chickens to market. As of Sept. 1, Hawkins Sisters Ranch in Wallowa is the only Oregon Department of Agriculture processing facility in Eastern Oregon.

ODA-licensed facilities are exempt from FDA regulations and allow up to 20,000 chickens to be processed a year. Mary Hawkins raises chickens on her family’s farm in Wallowa, a small town in northeastern Oregon.

Hawkins said she and her sisters moved with their mother to Portland when they were in elementary school and spent summers on the farm. She started raising chickens on her own not long after she graduated from Smith College.

“I came straight home after college, had various jobs and raised and sold chickens,” Hawkins said.

After a few years she said she took what she called a “walk about”; she left Eastern Oregon and worked on farms in New York. While raising and preserving food was still the norm back home, it was becoming a movement across the country in the late 2000s.

“My time in New York pushed me into the idea that sustainable, local food is a growing national concern,” Hawkins said.

While on the East Coast, she worked in a chicken slaughterhouse. While Wallowa County is known for its beef, Hawkins decided to continue raising chickens when she returned to Oregon.

“I thought meat processing was something practical that could work here,” Hawkins said.

With microloans from the USDA Hawkins bought chicks, feed, coops, feeders, water troughs and wire cages. She raised around 800 chickens a year, processing them at an ODA facility in Cove, an hour’s drive. But last fall the family who ran the processing plant moved to South Dakota.

She said she purchased their scalder, plucker and vacuum sealer, took out a home equity loan and combined with her savings she bought a pre-fab, 14x40 shell made outside of Baker City. Once delivered she and her partner, Mark Kristiansen, followed the ODA specifications to install washable walls, hand and commercial sinks, proper lighting and ventilation, and insect and rodent-proof.

“I can’t believe how supportive ODA has been throughout,” Hawkins said. “If I had a question about what paint to use I could email them and get quick reply.”

On Sept. 1, with license in hand and two helpers, Hawkins butchered and packaged chickens in her new facility. She said she expects to process about 150 a day two times a week through Thanksgiving and will start getting chicks again in May.

Hawkins said she sells her own chickens directly from the farm and at a local farmers’ market and processes birds for other farmers as well. She said her goal is to process 2,000 of her own and another 4,000 to 6,000 a year for customers.

For Hawkins, raising her chickens holistically is as important as creating a viable business and part-time employment in a rural county. She said she gets her wheat and barley grown and milled from a local farm and can use the effluent from the processing plant on her compost piles or pump it onto her fields. She said Oregon Department of Environmental Quality permitting allows her to use up to 10 tons of effluent a year on her farm, which is mostly water, some bleach and detergent and guts and feathers.

In her second week in business Hawkins said she didn’t expect to be so busy right away.

“The plant solves a problem for the area and its fun to be in there getting it done,” Hawkins said.

Conservation groups sue over Oregon’s wolf delisting

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

BEND, Ore. (AP) — Conservation groups argue in a new lawsuit that Oregon violated its own Endangered Species Act by removing the endangered status of gray wolves.

The Bulletin reports that the lawsuit was filed Tuesday, coinciding with preparations to update the state’s wolf management plan. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission removed the wolf from the endangered species list last year, saying the species had rebounded within significant portions of its range.

But the Center for Biological Diversity’s West Coast wolf organizer Amaroq Weiss says wolves are still in danger of extinction in Oregon and should not have been delisted. The group argues in its brief that wolves occupy only 8 percent of their natural range in Oregon.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy had no comment on the conservation groups’ filing.

Judge threatens to hold Bundy lawyer in contempt of court

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — U.S. District Judge Anna Brown warned Ammon Bundy’s lawyer that she will hold him in contempt of court if he keeps trying to bring up Robert “LaVoy” Finicum’s death in front of jurors.

Police fatally shot the occupation spokesman Jan. 26 during a traffic stop north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The judge has repeatedly said this trial is about whether Bundy and his co-defendants engaged in a conspiracy during last winter’s armed occupation of the refuge.

The judge told Bundy lawyer Marcus Mumford on Thursday that she will fine him $1,000 each time he raises the Finicum issue while questioning witnesses.

“I have ruled on this issue and it appears to me you disregard it,” Brown told him while jurors were away.

“Do you understand what I’m saying ... yes or no?” the judge asked.

“I don’t understand. Your honor says I’m asking improper questions?” Mumford said.

The judge reminded Mumford that he had just tried to question a rancher whose property is adjacent to the refuge about the Finicum shooting.

“You are not to do that,” Brown said.

“You’re telling me I’m allowed to inquire about the shooting, but not the circumstances of the shooting?” Mumford asked.

Brown reminded Mumford that he can’t mention anything about the Finicum shooting, beyond that it occurred and the date.

“I can understand the words,” Mumford said.

“I hope you can comply,” the judge replied.

The trial resumes Monday after a three-day weekend.

The government plans to conclude its case by Tuesday afternoon. Defense lawyers are expected to start presenting their side Wednesday.

The seven defendants are charged with conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs at the remote bird sanctuary. Five of them are also charged with possession of a firearm in a federal facility.

They occupiers wanted the federal government to free two ranchers imprisoned for arson and relinquish control of Western lands.

Portland container shipping faces broad challenges

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

SALEM — Labor disputes are often blamed for discontinued ocean container shipping at Port of Portland’s “Terminal 6,” but the facility faces broader problems, a port executive said.

Even if conflicts between the port, the terminal operator and the longshoremen’s union were resolved, turmoil in the global shipping industry would affect the facility, said Keith Leavitt, the port’s chief commercial officer.

“There’s no one silver bullet here,” Leavitt said during a Sept. 22 hearing before the Oregon House Interim Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Ocean carriers ordered gigantic “megaships” nearly a decade ago that can carry a huge number of containers with the idea of improving efficiency, he said.

Now that the vessels have come online, though, there’s not enough cargo to justify the investment, Leavitt said.

“They are not filling those vessels because the demand for space on those vessels is not keeping up with capacity,” he said.

As a result, the price of freight on ocean liners has dropped so low that shipping companies aren’t able to pay off debts, which recently caused the bankruptcy of Hanjin, a company that long serviced the Port of Portland before stopping service last year, he said.

Because ports are afraid of not getting paid for loading and unloading containers from Hanjin ships, that’s left a lot of cargo stranded across the globe, including Northwest farm goods, Leavitt said.

Leavitt said he expects the shipping industry’s problems will be sorted out over the next several years, but even then, Port of Portland’s Terminal 6 will face some headwinds.

The new “megaships” carry up to 25,000, 20-foot-long containers, but the Port of Portland can only handle ships that carry 7,000 such containers, he said.

“The megaships are just not going to be calling on the Columbia river,” said Leavitt.

However, it’s difficult to imagine that Pacific Ocean shipping will be reduced to megaships traveling between large ports in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, he said.

Terminal 6 should be able to attract some vessels, but the facility’s niche is likely to be more “surgical” than it was in the past, he said.

“We’re a niche port, we always have been,” Leavitt said.

Shelly Boshart Davis, whose family owns farming and trucking operations, agreed that the resumption of activity at Terminal 6 “wouldn’t fix everything,” but it would help Oregon agriculture remain competitive.

Baled straw was, by volume, the largest Oregon export commodity to depend on containerized shipping from the Port of Portland, said Boshart Davis. Even so, less than 40 percent of the state’s straw volume passed through that facility.

When productivity at West Coast ports severely declined during labor contract negotiations between longshoremen and port operators in late 2014, straw that would have been exported to Asia backed up in Oregon, she said.

That higher inventory, in turn, depressed prices for growers, Boshart Davis said.

Shipping complications have also affected the Christmas tree industry, particularly in export destinations like the Philippines, where retailers expect to display trees by mid-November, said Gayla Hansen of Kirk International, which exports trees.

The more time Christmas trees spend on the dock, the less profit there is for exporters, she said. “There is no one to call to help you. You’re on your own. There’s no hotline.”

The lack of containerized shipping at the Port of Portland has indirect effects on the nursery industry, because fewer trucks are available in the area, said Leigh Geschwill, president of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

“Not having a fully functional port reduces the number of trucks willing to come,” she said.

Trooper: Driver for refuge occupier a government informant

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon State Police trooper testified a government informant was driving Ammon Bundy when the Oregon standoff leader was arrested on his way to a community meeting north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Trooper Jeremiah Beckert said Wednesday that informant Mark McConnell alerted police that Bundy and other occupiers were traveling Jan. 26 and provided their location.

Beckert then described the ensuing traffic stop and arrests. He said he did not see what happened to Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, the occupation spokesman shot by police after fleeing the stop.

U.S. District Judge Anna Brown warned attorneys not bring up the circumstances of the Finicum shooting in front of jurors. When it was mentioned, she told jurors this trial is not about the Finicum shooting.

Bundy and six co-defendants are charged with conspiring to impede federal officers from doing their jobs at the wildlife refuge.

Wildfire rehab in Idaho, Oregon includes fall herbicide

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The federal government’s 5-year, $67 million rehabilitation effort following a 2015 rangeland wildfire in southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon is entering its second year with another round of herbicide applications combined with plantings of native species.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has started applying the herbicide Imazapic on federal lands to knock out invasive weeds in Oregon and will begin in Idaho in October, officials said this week.

The rehabilitation is part of the federal government’s plan to develop new strategies to combat increasingly destructive rangeland wildfires, mainly in Great Basin states that contain significant habitat for greater sage grouse, a bird found in 11 Western states. About 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million.

About 100 square miles of aerial spraying is taking place in Idaho and Oregon and visitors are asked to stay away from posted areas.

Other areas previously treated with herbicide will be re-planted with bluebunch wheatgrass, squirrel tail and Sandberg’s wheatgrass, to name a few, said Cindy Fritz, a natural resource specialist with the Boise District of the BLM. It is hoped the native plants will keep out invasive species, particularly fire-prone cheatgrass.

The 2015 wildfire scorched about 436 square miles of sagebrush steppe that supports cattle grazing and some 350 species of wildlife, including sage grouse.

Federal officials chose not to list the ground-dwelling bird as endangered last year but that decision will be reviewed in about four years, and what happens with the wildfire rehabilitation in Idaho and Oregon could play a role.

“The sage grouse wasn’t listed but it will be reviewed for listing soon enough, and some kind of evidence that you can recover habitat for the bird is an important habitat question that they’re trying to get right,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert.

Part of the new strategy on the rehabilitation is extending the effort to five years rather than the typical three, as well as applying what scientists call adaptive management that allows changing plans if something doesn’t appear to be working.

Fritz said the adaptive management is currently being used with about 8 square miles treated with herbicide last year that failed to eliminate invasive species.

Previously, Fritz said, with the shorter three-year timeline, “we would have walked away. The fact that we get to do multiple treatments is something very new to us.”

Much is riding on the rehabilitation effort that is expected to produce proven strategies to help restore future rangeland wildfire areas with the goal of making them more resistant to fire and resilient if a fire moves through.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell toured the area in May to get an update on the work that’s a result of her order last year calling for a “science-based” approach to safeguard greater sage grouse while contending with fires that have been especially destructive in the Great Basin.

Freemuth said adaptive management has been talked about for a long time but is rarely used due to staffing levels and lack of resources.

“I think they needed a signal, as Jewell gave, to monitor things long term and change things if something doesn’t work out,” he said.

The BLM has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to quantify results with some 2,000 sample monitoring plots being tracked.

Oregon lawmakers discuss groundwater problems

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

SALEM — Groundwater depletion problems Oregon discussed during a recent legislative hearing in Salem potentially foreshadow policy proposals during the upcoming 2017 legislative session.

While participants in the “legislative days” informational session did not address the recent newspaper series by name, the Oregonian’s “Draining Oregon” package obviously loomed over the hearing.

Printed stacks of the series, which was printed last month, sat on a table near the entrance during the Sept. 21 hearing.

The newspaper’s allegations that state regulators are allowing farmers to over-pump groundwater were also clearly on the minds of lawmakers on the House Interim Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water — as well as those of Oregon Water Resources Department staff called to testify.

Committee chair Brian Clem, D-Salem, said the topic will likely be a source of conversations during the next series of “legislative days” in November and during next year’s legislative session.

To avoid “brutal neighbor-on-neighbor warfare,” lawmakers should try to find a collaborative approach for water conservation, he said.

With the caveat that he didn’t want to attack journalists who “buy ink by the barrel,” Clem said he was concerned about loaded terms that imply farmers are greedy and wasteful.

“Farmers don’t become farmers to become rich,” he said. “There are much easier ways of getting rich.”

The basic thesis of “Draining Oregon” was that OWRD had insufficient information about groundwater levels across much of the state but nonetheless freely allowed well drilling, depleting aquifers.

Tom Byler, OWRD’s director, conceded that over-pumping in past decades had led to several critical groundwater areas across the state, which led the agency to restrict uses.

“We haven’t done as good a job as we should on that item,” he said.

Byler said groundwater is tough to manage given the complex geology of underground aquifers and because farmers have become more reliant on this irrigation source when surface waters dwindle during the dry months.

Since 1955, when legislators passed a law requiring groundwater regulations, the number of wells across the state has increased from 4,660 to 256,800, said Justin Iverson, groundwater section manager for OWRD.

Agricultural wells — which require permitting — make up roughly 10 percent of the total number, but they represent about 90 percent of total groundwater usage in Oregon, Iverson said.

While domestic users must only report the location of new wells, drillers of agricultural wells must also provide information about water levels and irrigators must report their usage, he said.

OWRD also monitors groundwater with more than 1,200 observation wells, Iverson said.

Rep. Ken Helm, questioned whether water regulators were “driving in the dark” in regard to well-drilling and the effects of climate change on water availability.

“Does that change the paradigm under which we should be operating?” Helm said.

He also asked if the OWRD is simply short of funding to robustly study groundwater, or if policy changes are also needed.

Byler replied that the agency already has many regulatory tools but is always open to looking at new ones.

Retired professor donates timberland to benefit rural school

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PHILOMATH, Ore. – The forestry program at Philomath High School, already considered robust for a small school district, will be the chief beneficiary of 20 acres of timber donated by one of the pioneering figures in agricultural and resource economics.

Emery N. Castle donated the Castle Family Forest near Wren, Ore., to the Philomath Community Foundation, which will lease it to the school district. Philomath High has a four-year forestry and natural resources program that includes course and field work in reforestation, timber inventory and harvest practices.

“We teach them to be good stewards of the land,” forestry instructor Simon Babcock said.

The timberland donated by Castle, primarily Douglas fir, will serve as a land laboratory, Babcock said, and will be available for use by all students in the district. He envisioned science or other classes at all grade levels being able to use the site as part of their learning.

Babcock said the first work for students will be to rock an existing road to provide better access into the site. The land and timber, located along Kings Valley Highway, was appraised at about $160,000.

The donation was an idea pressed by Van Decker, a former cattle rancher who has a 250-acre tree farm in the area and, at 77, still works for a local logging company. Decker took classes from Emery Castle at Oregon State University in the 1960s, impressed the professor with a paper on water economics, and has remained friends with his mentor over the decades.

Decker also teaches a timber accounting class at Philomath High and hosts students at his shop and lets them practice timber cruising on his land. He wrote a proposal to Castle about donating the land, took him to visit Babcock’s classes and arranged for a student video about forestry skills they were learning.

Castle, now 93 and living in Portland, had his doubts at first.

“I was not terribly enthusiastic about it,” he said. “I was not opposed to doing something like that, I just wasn’t sure it was going to pay off in the long run.

“I was thinking of the students,” he added. “I wondered if they really should be spending a lot of time on something of a vocational nature instead of tearing into their academic work and maybe mastering that a little bit better.”

But Castle didn’t hesitate long. He acknowledged there is a segment of students who are better served by vocational or hands-on learning. He said some might find an opportunity in forestry, otherwise they might “float by” in school.

“I grew up through agriculture, I went to college in agriculture, then left and got into a broader field (economics),” he said. “I would like for something like that to happen to them.”

Castle had another concern, as well: his daughter, Cheryl Rogers.

“She was the one that would lose in the long run,” Castle said. “She’s an only child and would have an inheritance there.”

Rogers, an accountant, gave the proposal a rigorous examination and fully supports the donation. She said the broader educational use of the land is a tribute to her late mother, Merab Castle, who taught speech, drama, English and grammar in rural Kansas until she became pregnant with Rogers.

“It’s really important to my dad that this be recognized as something not just done for him, necessarily, or by him, but done as a memorial to the great teaching my mother did,” she said.

Her dad was no slouch either. He grew up poor during the Depression, served as a radioman aboard a B-17 bomber during World War II and arrived at Oregon State in 1954 to begin his academic career. He taught and did research for more than 50 years, and in addition to teaching spent 10 years as vice president, then president, of a Washington, D.C., think tank, Resources for the Future.

Bruce Weber, emeritus professor and director of the Rural Studies Program at OSU, said Castle is “one of the most influential agricultural economists in the United States.”

Working with fellow OSU prof Manning Becker, Castle wrote a farm management textbook that educated generations of students, Weber said. Castle started OSU’s Rural Studies program, and funded the Castle Endowment in Resource and Rural Economics to support faculty work in that area.

“He has a continuing and ongoing interest in rural people and places, and their well-being,” Weber said.

Prosecutor: Bundy had $8,000 cash when arrested

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A prosecutor says Ammon Bundy had more than $8,000 in his jacket at the time of his arrest.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel told the court Tuesday the cash indicates Bundy planned to continue occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for a long time. Gabriel said the Idaho resident also had a withdrawal slip for $6,000 from a bank he visited in that state the day before his arrest.

Bundy was arrested Jan. 26 during a traffic stop as he and other occupation leaders were traveling to a community meeting north of the refuge.

He and six others are on trial in Portland, accused of conspiring to prevent federal workers from doing their jobs at the refuge. Two refuge employees and a Harney County sheriff’s sergeant testified Tuesday morning.

Some farm groups endorse Hanson for ODA chief

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

Multiple Oregon farm and agribusiness groups have requested that outgoing Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba be replaced with Lisa Hanson, the agency’s deputy director.

Some organizations, however, are withholding judgment until Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has a chance to vet multiple candidates for the position.

Coba is leaving the agency to take the reins at Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services and serve as the state’s chief operating officer in early October.

Hanson will serve as the ODA’s interim director but several farm groups wrote Brown a letter urging her to make the appointment permanent.

Those organizations include Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregonians for Food & Shelter, Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, Oregon Association of Nurseries, Oregon Seed Council, Oregon Seed Association and Northwest Food Processors Association.

It’s important that the agency be led by someone who is solution-oriented in regulating agriculture, knowing when to use incentives and enforcement measures, said Barry Bushue, OFB’s president.

“Lisa has proven herself as a leader in the department who can perform all those functions,” Bushue said.

Hanson said she’s honored by the endorsement and considers it a reflection of the entire agency’s work with farmers and ranchers.

Armed with a degree in agriculture and resource economics from Oregon State University, Hanson began her career as a field representative for several food processing companies that sell products under the Green Giant brand.

In 1996, Hanson joined ODA as the agency’s commodity commission program manager and was promoted to head its commodity inspection division two years later. She became assistant director in 2001 and then deputy director in 2005. In that position she is a legislative liaison and oversees natural resource programs.

Hanson said she believes the agricultural industry needs education about how to comply with regulations before enforcement tools are used.

“We need to help people understand how and what to do to be in compliance,” she said.

Bushue said he’s heartened that Brown chose someone of Coba’s caliber to lead DAS, which shows she understands the value of collaboration.

A multitude of crops and livestock are grown in Oregon, so the ODA’s director must value this diversity, he said. “Oregon’s agriculture can’t afford a narrow focus.”

Friends of Family Farmers, which has criticized ODA for favoring large operations, isn’t currently making any endorsements for ODA’s director, said Ivan Maluski, the group’s policy director.

Maluski said he’s not opposed to Hanson, but would like to see an “open and transparent process” for choosing Coba’s replacement.

“We’re not sure if anyone inside the agency, including Katy Coba’s top deputies, would be able to make needed changes at the Department, which is partly why we think a broader search is necessary,” he said in an email.

Oregon Tilth, which certifies organic farms, believes it’s too early to come out in favor of any particular candidate, said Chris Schreiner, the group’s executive director.

The ideal candidate should have a strong understanding of protecting natural resources, including water, soil and biodiversity, and be prepared to confront the clashes between different types of agriculture, Schreiner said.

“It seems premature to support someone without a comprehensive search,” he said.

A state notice advertising the position said the ODA’s next director would earn roughly $100,000-$150,000 a year and is required to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and at least 10 years experience as the director, deputy director or assistant director of a state agency, among other qualifications.

Recruitment efforts to replace Coba have begun, with the Department of Administrative Services in charge of the initial vetting of candidates, said Bryan Hockaday, the governor’s press secretary.

DAS will then present the list of qualified candidates to Brown, who will ultimately make the appointment, which must be confirmed by the Oregon Senate, he said.

“We do want a diverse pool of qualified candidates,” said Hockaday.

Nursery adopts plasticulture for trees

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

MOLALLA, Ore. — With farmworkers in short supply, nursery producers Jim Gilbert and Lorraine Gardner faced an uphill battle against weeds.

Two years ago, labor shortages caused some fruit tree blocks at their Northwoods Nursery to be completely overrun with weeds, forcing them to take a new approach.

“The weeds won. We couldn’t put enough people on it to keep them under control,” said Gilbert.

That same year, they decided to experiment with a technique they’d encountered in South Korea: Growing bare root trees in raised beds covered in plastic sheeting.

The method, known as plasticulture, is more commonly associated with strawberry production, but South Korean farmers — who also face labor shortages — use it with persimmon trees.

“When you have limited land and limited labor, you need to find more efficient ways of growing,” Gardner said.

Though weed control provided a major motivation for Northwoods Nursery to try the technique, plasticulture has since proven to have other benefits.

Plastic heats the soil by 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit while preserving water, allowing the trees to grow quicker — especially since they face less competition, said Gardner.

“There’s no weed competition in the root zone,” she said.

Improved plant vigor allows Northwoods Nursery to grow twice as many plants per row, which means Gilbert and Gardner can devote less land to nursery stock and can plant it with cover crops more often.

The nursery plants Sudangrass during the summer for biomass, then common vetch over the winter to fix nitrogen.

Gilbert and Gardner initially doubled the number of plants per acre, but then had to widen the space between rows to better accommodate tractors for mowing. Nonetheless, their nursery still produces 70 percent more plants per acre with the method.

Plasticulture also improved the operation’s flexibility, since the soil can be worked up in fall and then covered in plastic sheeting with a special $7,000 tractor-pulled implement.

Before the nursery switched to plasticulture, Gilbert and Gardner sometimes had to wait until April for soils to dry enough for planting.

Now, they can plant trees during the winter because the plastic sheets “lock in” soil conditions during the fall, Gardner said.

Better drainage also means fewer problems with diseases associated with water-logged soils, such as phytophthora, Gilbert said.

Soils retain water for a longer time under plastic, so the nursery doesn’t have to begin irrigating until July.

In the past, plants have grown so quickly under the system that they’d become too big for the nursery’s customers to conveniently handle.

The solution is likely to reduce fertilizer and water usage, Gardner said. “We’re still learning as we go.”

Ocean conditions portend uncertain winter weather across West

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

Weather forecaster: ‘Get the dart board out’

By Tim Hearden

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO — Weather forecasters are backing off their earlier prediction that La Nina atmospheric conditions would drive weather patterns this fall and winter.

That means all bets are off when it comes to how — and how many — storms will approach the West Coast, advises Michelle Mead, a National Weather Service warning coordinator.

The federal Climate Prediction Center had issued a “watch” for La Nina — a mixture of atmospheric and ocean surface temperatures that tends to steer storms toward the Pacific Northwest and Northern California.

But the center abandoned the La Nina watch as ocean surface temperatures dropped to neutral, portending neutral oceanic conditions that don’t influence storms in a particular direction as they approach the coast.

“(T)here are no strong atmospheric signals to indicate strong correlations to winter conditions,” Mead said in an email.

She said people can “get the dart board out” as winter outlooks show equal chances of above-, near- or below-normal precipitation throughout virtually the entire West.

For the Central Valley and much of the West, an early-season reprieve in the form of ample rainfall may be elusive. From December through April, the Climate Prediction Center sees a good chance of wetter-than-normal conditions only in parts of the inland Northwest, including Eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and northern and central Idaho.

A drier-than-normal winter is expected in Southern California, while the rest of the West could go either way, according to the center’s long-range models.

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook expects the drought to persist in most of California and in Eastern Oregon through Dec. 31. The U.S. Drought Monitor still shows abnormally dry conditions or moderate drought throughout the West, with Central California still rated as in extreme or exceptional drought.

For the Golden State, a return to neutral oceanic conditions after a year-long El Nino could mean more dry winters after one good-but-not-great precipitation season in many areas.

As the water year draws to a close, Redding’s 40.49 inches of rainfall for the year topped its average of 34.32 annual inches, and more rain in the area was possible late this week, according to the National Weather Service. Fresno’s 14.29 inches since last Oct. 1 is above its normal annual rainfall total of 11.4 inches.

But Sacramento will likely finish on Sept. 30 with slightly below-average precipitation, with 16.19 inches for the season compared to its normal 18.37 inches, according to the weather service.

The season was largely capped off with big storms in March that filled Northern California reservoirs and enabled the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to give full water allocations to Northern California farms. But in a majority of past years when sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific remained mostly average, California’s rain and snow totals were below normal, Mead noted.

Hazelnut growers reach minimum price agreement with packers

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

Oregon’s hazelnut growers, with growth and market questions always in the background, agreed to a minimum price this year of $1.18 per pound.

The figure is the floor price, the lowest amount growers will receive from packing companies for nuts harvested this year. The finishing price is typically higher.

Farmer Doug Olsen, president of the Hazelnut Growers Bargaining Association, called it a good starting point.

The initial minimum price was $1.22 in 2015 and a record $1.70 per pound in 2014, when a bad freeze hammered Turkey, by far the world’s largest producer, and demand for Oregon nuts jumped in response.

Olsen said the initial minimum price decreases since then aren’t a major concern. He said 2014 was an anomaly — “Unheard of,” he said of the price — and the four cent drop from 2015 doesn’t amount to much.

In a Sept. 16 news release announcing the price agreement, growers’ representative Terry Ross attributed the dip in price to a “decent” Turkish crop and a carryover of nuts, and good supply of nuts that compete with hazelnuts in various uses. Those include almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios, according to the news release.

In addition, the Turkish lira is weak against the U.S. dollar, making Turkish nuts cheaper. That could eat into the export market for Oregon growers.

Olsen, the bargaining association president, said fluctuation in the initial minimum price isn’t a big deal. In 2014 and 2015, the ending price was 6.5 percent and 13 percent higher, respectively, than the initial price.

“As long as it stays above $1, I think the interest to plant is still there,” Olsen said.

“Interest to plant” has been hazelnut growers’ operative phrase for many years, as the industry continues to add 1,500 to 2,000 acres per year, Olsen said. He estimated Oregon now has about 60,000 acres of hazelnuts, with about 35,000 acres in production. Willamette Valley grass seed growers, in particular, have converted fields to hazelnuts. It takes three or four years for trees to begin producing nuts.

One of the open questions in the business is whether a ceiling exists for Oregon hazelnut acreage. As things stand, Oregon dominates U.S. production but is a tiny presence on the international market, even with strong sales of snack nuts to China.

Growers wonder if increased production might attract a company to build a manufacturing plant in the Willamette Valley. Hazelnuts are used in candies, baked goods and spreads such as the popular brand Nutella.

Noted Oregon State University researcher Shawn Mehlenbacher has speculated in the past that Oregon could double its hazelnut production just to replace nuts now imported into the U.S. from Turkey.

In August, OSU was awarded a $3.1 million, five-year USDA grant to continue research. Mehlenbacher is credited with saving the industry in Oregon by breeding varieties that could resist Eastern filbert blight. In its grant application, OSU indicated the money would be used to expand commercial hazelnut production in the U.S., with a focus on the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon’s crop was worth close to $90 million in 2015.

McDonald’s adds Northwest spud varieties to approved fry list

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

BEND, Ore. — Northwest potato breeding program officials anticipate an influx of seed-sale royalties following the recent additions of two of their protected varieties to a short list of spuds approved for making McDonald’s french fries.

After several years of accepting only four potato varieties — Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Umatilla Russet and Shepody — the world’s largest chain of hamburger fast-food restaurants added the Northwest variety Blazer Russet to the list earlier this year.

On Sept. 13, McDonald’s confirmed to industry sources it’s also accepting the Northwest variety Clearwater Russet, and the foreign-developed spud Ivory Russet.

“It’s something we have been expecting for over a year,” said Jeanne Debons, executive director of the Potato Variety Management Institute, which markets potatoes developed collaboratively by the Idaho, Oregon and Washington public potato breeding programs, including Blazer and Clearwater.

In the past, new varieties have appeared promising in testing, only to fail in the late stages due to a quality concern. Four of seven approved McDonald’s spud varieties now originate from from Northwest programs, also including Ranger and Umatilla.

Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir regards the news as a sign that PVMI is effectively leveraging research dollars and providing the biggest return on growers’ money.

“When McDonald’s approves something, they’ve obviously put a lot of scrutiny in it,” Muir said.

Clearwater is a later-maturing, high-protein spud well suited for processing or the fresh market, according to PVMI. It has yielded from 20 to 47 percent more U.S. No. 1 potatoes per acre than Russet Burbank. It also stores well and resists sugar ends and most internal and external tuber defects.

Rupert, Idaho, grower Dan Moss raised 150 acres of Clearwater this season. Moss finds Clearwater requires a bit less fertilizer, and he has ordered more seed for next year. He’s also been pleased by his yield and quality with the variety.

“I’m happy that McDonald’s is being a bit more progressive in that they’re looking at these newer varieties that should have traits they’re wanting but will also be more grower friendly,” Moss said.

Blazer is early maturing and can be used for both the fresh and processed markets. It is resistant to external tuber defects, sugar ends, common and powdery scab and PVX.

Jeff Stark, director of University of Idaho’s potato breeding program, said McDonald’s rigorous demands set the industry standard.

“Both of these varieties have attributes that will allow the processing industry to produce a higher quality product that will benefit producers, processors and the restaurant industry, as well as their customers,” Stark said.

Debons said Clearwater, released in 2010, generated $3,373 in royalties in 2011, and royalties gradually increased to $41,482 by 2014. She said 894 acres of Clearwater seed were raised in 2015. By comparison with an established McDonald’s variety, 6,651 Ranger acres were planted.

“I’m expecting there will be a sharp shift upwards of Clearwater Russet seed acres,” Debons said.

McDonald’s officials could not be reached for comment.

Livingston, Frketich will be honored at Oregon Aglink’s annual dinner and auction

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

Eastern Oregon cattle rancher Sharon Livingston and Willamette Valley farmer-blogger Brenda Frketich will be honored at this year’s annual Denim & Diamonds dinner and auction.

Livingston, whose family farming and ranching roots stretch back 100 years in Grant County, was selected 2016 Agriculturalist of the Year. She’s a member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture, which advises the state ag department, and a past president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. She’s been active with the Oregon Beef Council as well, and in addition to ranching spent 10 years teaching school and coaching volleyball in Ontario, Ore. She and her husband, Fred, and their three children, started operating their own ranch in 1966.

Livingston is known for her plain-spoken advocacy on behalf of Oregon’s farmers and ranchers, most of whom she counts as true conservationists. She’s told an interviewer, “I have timber, I have water, I have grass, I have wildlife, and I am very proud of what I have, because we have always worked to make it sustainable.”

Frketich was selected for the 2016 Ag Connection of the Year award. She comes at the urban-rural divide from a digital perspective, using her blog, Nuttygrass.com, to explain farming practices and give city residents a taste of farm life. Frketich earned a business degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, but returned home to Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul to intern with her father, Paul Kirsch. She’s since advanced to manager and owner, and grows grass seed, hazelnuts and other crops with her husband and two sons.

She’s among a cadre of young farmers who frequently testify on ag issues at the Oregon Legislature, and in 2014 was chosen one of America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers by John Deere and DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Denim & Diamonds happens Nov. 18 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. It’s put on by Oregon Aglink, formerly known as the Agri-Business Council of Oregon. Event details are at http://www.aglink.org/event/denim-diamonds/2016-event/

Katy Coba says goodbye to the Department of Agriculture

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

Paulette Pyle is a Reagan Republican and Katy — everyone calls her Katy — is a Robert Kennedy Democrat. But Pyle, who for many years was grass roots coordinator with the pro-industry Oregonians for Food and Shelter, loves Katy Coba.

When Pyle deemed The Oregonian newspaper was picking on Katy in its coverage of pesticide mishaps, she called a reporter with a rival publication to complain.

Because everybody loves Katy.

Not literally everybody, of course. Some in the media believe she’s been a lax regulator of Oregon agriculture and some in activist groups believe she’s too friendly to what they define as Big Ag. But it’s fair to say most people who have dealt with her for more than a decade love Katy Coba.

“We do,” Pyle said.

And as Coba leaves the Oregon Department of Agriculture after 13 years as director — she’s both the first woman to hold the job and the longest-serving — people who make a living in farming, ranching and natural resources are bidding her bittersweet goodbyes.

They hate to see Coba leave the ag department, but they’re pleased Gov. Kate Brown appointed her director of the state Department of Administrative Services and her administration’s chief operating officer. They hope Coba’s model of collaborative problem-solving and her calm, respectful manner will spread in state government.

Coba herself said the Governor’s Office made multiple pitches before she said yes. She finally asked what the governor was looking for, and the answer swayed her. Brown didn’t want someone focused on the internal workings of DAS. She wanted an ambassador for public service.

“I have two passions,” Coba said during an interview in her Salem office as her final month as ag director unwound.

“One is agriculture, the other is public service. I believe in it. I’m concerned about the disconnect between citizens and government, between Oregonians and state government.”

She asked herself if she could take the new job and make a difference.

“I would say it grabbed me right in the heart.”

Jill Thorne says her daughter, Katy, and son, Todd, were immersed in public service.

Jill and Mike Thorne were Pendleton wheat ranchers, but their world views extended beyond the blonde stubble that covers the rolling hills of Eastern Oregon this time of year.

Recognizing the region’s isolation from Oregon decision makers in Portland and Salem, they threw themselves into politics.

“Our theory was, we’re so far from the Willamette Valley, if we didn’t get involved, who would?” Jill Thorne said.

In 1968 they found themselves hosting a campaign breakfast at the ranch for Robert Kennedy as he swung through in a bid to win the Oregon primary and secure the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Kennedy and the campaign press corps descended on the ranch. In a favorite family story, Todd Thorne, then 3 1/2, demanded to know who CBS reporter Roger Mudd supported. “If you aren’t going to vote for Kennedy, you can’t eat breakfast here,” he told Mudd.

Katy Thorne, then 5, sat in Bobby Kennedy’s lap. A black-and-white photo of her father and Kennedy, taken during the ranch breakfast, is in her Salem office. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles a month later.

Mike Thorne, now 76, served in the state Legislature, headed the Port of Portland and Washington State Ferry system, and worked on numerous state and local civic projects in the decades that followed. Jill Thorne, 75 in November, was and is equally involved, and among other things worked for Gov. Neil Goldschmidt.

The Thornes’ children accompanied them on campaign trips and sat through dinners and meetings where the Thornes and guests debated issues of the day. Katy Thorne absorbed it.

“She’d just sit there and listen,” Jill Thorne said. “She just grew up with it. How do you come to solutions? How do you work with people? She’s got a gift.”

Katy was a legislative page as a teen, earned an economics degree from Whitman College and her early government work included a stint at the ag department and positions in the first Gov. John Kitzhaber administration as chief policy adviser, economic development and international trade policy adviser and director of executive appointments.

But she worked the family wheat harvest, too, lettered in basketball and volleyball, competed as a barrel racer and was queen of the Pendleton Round-Up in 1982. All of that served her well when Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed her ag director in 2003, Jill Thorne said.

“She brought to the director’s office that background and empathy for the work farmers do and their care for the land,” she said.

Being the first woman to hold the job was significant as well. Male farmers in Oregon “sometimes walk to one tune,” Jill Thorne said. “To have a woman leading them, that’s a compliment.”

Jim Johnson, the Department of Agriculture’s land and water planning coordinator, is a big man with big opinions. He’s a fixture at public hearings, frequently testifying as local or state officials wrestle with land-use decisions that might affect farming. By public employee standards, he is unusually self-assured, direct and plain-spoken. It’s a trait some elected officials don’t appreciate.

He says Katy Coba is one of the best he’s seen at managing inter-governmental relations.

“She’s always had my back,” he said. “She trusted me to do my job.”

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said it takes a certain skill to advocate, market and regulate agriculture at the same time, as the ODA director is required to do.

Katy Coba was unique in her ability to do so, he said.

“She wasn’t just the referee between staff and stakeholders, or even stakeholders and stakeholders,” he said. “She also tried to get ahead of issues.”

An example: The recession hammered Oregon’s nursery industry, as the sale of landscaping and ornamental plants is closely tied to development, especially housing. In 2010, South Carolina began pulling aside and inspecting trucks from Oregon, the leading nursery state, looking for plant diseases.

Stone said other states were attempting to use the regulatory system to protect their own markets. One thing Oregon can’t afford, he said, is a trade war between states.

Under Coba, the Oregon Department of Agriculture worked with USDA and other nursery states to adopt a “presumed clean until proven otherwise” stance.

“It had tremendous impact, especially at the height of the recession when any sale was critical,” Stone said. “She was an advocate of proportionality.”

Following that, the nursery association and Oregon State University wrote a Safe Procurement and Production Manual to guide the industry.

“That’s a lot of trust, when it means staying in business or not. To have faith in the department to solve a problem that really could bring you to your knees,” Stone said.

“Trust between industry and the department, those things aren’t assumed — they are earned.”

Anne Marie Moss, communications director with the Oregon Farm Bureau, heard about it late last fall and reached out to the woman she’d met but didn’t know well.

“Oh my God,” she recalls her email to Katy Coba, “I have breast cancer, too.”

Diagnosis brings a flood of information, Moss said, “It’s like learning a new language.” Over the winter months the women supported each other by phone and email, and a couple times ran into each other in the “chemo corral” at the Salem hospital where both received treatment. Each lost their hair to chemotherapy and radiation. Moss opted for a wig; Coba chose to wear a scarf.

“I have to say she always looked healthy and radiant even going through chemo,” Moss said. “It really helped to have a friend — frankly, a friend in Oregon agriculture. It helped me a lot.”

Each is now cancer-free. As their hair grows back curly gray, each has adopted a stylish bob.

“And I kind of love that both Katy and I are rocking the chemo curls these days,” Moss said by email. “I think we look fabulous!”

Jill Thorne said Katy’s breast cancer diagnosis was a shock to the family, but Katy was always upbeat. It helped that it was discovered early.

“She just rolled with it,” Thorne said. “It’s been a family challenge, but our daughter set the tone for all of it.”

Katy Coba, 54, says she’s blessed to have a happy and supportive family. She and her husband, Marshall Coba, a lobbyist on behalf of engineering firms, have two grown daughters, Claire and Meredith. She said her parents, Mike and Jill, are her most important role models. They took the ideals the Kennedys espoused, she said, and “put them into action that I witnessed and experienced.”

In her new job, she will seek to develop leadership within state government and attract a younger and more diverse workforce to public service. She’ll push for accountability and transparency.

She wants to restore trust in government. The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in southeast Oregon was an “explosion” of the public’s angst and frustration with government, she said.

The biggest change she’s seen in agriculture is consumers’ interest in food, she said. “I sometimes say ag suffers from too much love,” she said. “If you’re a farmer and figure it out and take advantage of it, good for you.”

The biggest surprise of her tenure was the development of tension within the industry over farming practices and crop co-existence. Organic versus conventional, or canola growers bumping against specialty seed producers, “Who could have predicted that?” she said.

Political challenges for Oregon ag include labor, maintaining transportation infrastructure and continuing land-use disputes and competition for water, she said.

Ag hasn’t seen the last of Katy Coba.

“I’ve already told the governor I’ll be an advocate for Oregon’s natural resource industries, I’ll be an advocate for rural Oregon in this new job.

“And she said, ‘Good.’”

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