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Crews make progress on large wildfire near John Day

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Evacuation warnings remain for those threatened by a wildfire south of John Day, but mild weather helped crews fighting the blaze that has burned 165 square miles and destroyed 43 homes.

Fire spokeswoman Stacey Weems says crews made good progress on priority hot spots Monday. Firefighters on the southeast part of the fire completed a burnout along the Strawberry Wilderness boundary and plan to start mopping up Tuesday.

On the northeast, firefighters used dozers to complete a control line around a hot spot that flared just outside the perimeter. Hotshot crews, meanwhile, scouted the eastern flank to assess options for a direct attack.

The fire is 49 percent contained, but Weems says that figure could soon jump considerably.

Though wind gusts of up to 35 mph were expected Tuesday evening, much cooler weather is on the way. From Wednesday through Sunday, the forecast calls for high temperatures in the 60s and low 70s.

Prize-winning state fair steer to go to food bank

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Now that his stint at the Oregon State Fair is over, a prize-winning steer will soon be feeding the needy.

The Salem Statesman-Journal reports that Cascade High School students have been raising the steer, named Red Box, with the intention to donate his beef to the Marion-Polk Food Share, where it will head to a food bank so they can give back to their neighbors.

Red Box weighs 1,070 pounds, and students say they expect him to be larger when he’s butchered Sept. 23. They are fundraising for another $200 to offset the cost of getting his beef U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected.

Red Box was crowned grand champion feeder calf at the Marion County Fair. He took third place in the market steer class against other student groups showing at the Oregon State Fair.

FFA officers answer public’s questions at state fair

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

SALEM — Ag youth at its best was on display opening day at the 150th annual Oregon State Fair.

While 4-H Club and FFA exhibitors worked with their animals in the stalls, pens and show rings, the 2015 FFA officers positioned themselves up front in an information booth and orchestrated much of the action.

They arrived before the fair started to help exhibitors move into the barns and they will stay after it’s over to help exhibitors move out.

They were there to answer questions from the public and sent runners to the nearby FFA staff trailer if they didn’t have the answer.

“Our focus this year is to help educate the public about FFA and its youth in the future of agriculture,” Luis Mendoza, state FFA president, said. “We are doing a lot of that here in our information booth here in the barn. We are also getting some new chapters started like reopening one at McKay High School in Salem and a new one in Portland that is excited about developing a rooftop garden project.”

Mendoza said about 330 exhibitors from the 35 to 40 FFA chapters are involved in the fair this year who are showing an average of two to three animals each. In addition, 20 members are competing in tractor driving, 20 in livestock judging and another 10 in horse judging.

“These exhibitors are proud to show off their hard work on their projects and they love earning and taking home the champion ribbons to prove it,” Emily Krazberger, associate director of Oregon FFA programs, said. “We’re all really proud of our state FFA officers for doing a great job of coordinating everything. They are extremely passionate about the future of agriculture and it shows in everything they do. They are doing a great job representing agriculture.”

The National FFA Organization is dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.

For more information

Call 541-737-2395 or email Emily@oregonffa.com.

Oregon firefighters helped by lighter winds, cooler temperatures

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Crews fighting a large, home-wrecking wildfire south of John Day, Oregon, caught a break as cooler weather, lighter winds and even a bit of rain helped them get ahead of the flames.

John Kennedy is the planning operations section chief on the Canyon Creek Complex, which has destroyed more than 40 homes and burned 158 square miles since Aug. 12.

Strong winds got the weekend off to a difficult start, but Kennedy says Sunday’s change in the weather gave firefighters a chance to “close doors on the fire.”

The forecast calls for mild temperatures all week, with highs in the low-to-mid 80s Monday and Tuesday and then no more than 70 degrees through Saturday.

Firefighters were able to connect control lines on the southeast corner of the fire, and Kennedy says the western and southern portions of the massive blaze are now mostly in a monitor and patrol status.

Overall, the wildfire was about 50 contained Monday morning. Nearly 1,000 people are battling it.

Some Oregon wheat regions do better than others in dry year

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

Despite the fact wheat yields were down substantially in the Willamette Valley and in areas of Eastern Oregon, for the most part, Oregon wheat growers weathered this summer’s drought in reasonable fashion, according to the state’s top cereal agronomist.

“I think overall things turned out OK, even given the dry weather that we had,” said Oregon State University Extension Cereals Specialist Mike Flowers. “For many people, we had more average yields and better test weight than what we had feared going into harvest.”

Looking across the state, Flowers said growers in Wasco and Sherman counties and in the Pendleton area were able to pull in average crops.

“Then, going up into the Walla Walla Valley, they caught some really timely rains,” Flowers said. “So even though they had a lower than average rainfall, when they did get the rain, it came at the right time. I would say they also cut close to an average crop.”

Then there were the down areas.

In the Willamette Valley, which accounted for about 100,000 of the state’s 900,000 wheat acres in 2015, yields were down about 20 percent, Flowers said.

“For winter wheat, most of the guys in the valley are looking for somewhere in that 120 to 130 (bushel-an-acre) range. I would say on average that this year we were probably closer to somewhere between 100 and 110,” Flowers said.

Yields in the drier areas of the east side apparently took even bigger hits.

“And as you get into the drier areas — Morrow, the western side of Umatilla — those guys are the ones that really got hurt,” Flowers said. He estimated that their yields were down between 40 and 50 percent and, in some cases, even more.

“When you only get 10 inches (of rain a year) and you knock 3 inches off of that, it makes a big difference,” he said.

Protein levels also fluctuated across the state, Flowers said, but, in general, stayed low.

“While yes, we do have areas that had high protein, we had large areas that had normal protein levels,” Flowers said. “I don’t think we are in that bad of shape as far as protein goes, compared to where we worried we would be.”

In soft white wheat, growers like protein levels of between 8.5 to 10 percent, Flowers said. Anything over 10 generally will need to be blended.

Looking forward, Flowers said the biggest need now for Oregon wheat is rain.

“Let’s just hope that we get some of this rain they are calling for,” he said on Aug. 26. “This is the second year that we are going into a dry fall, so rain is important.”

Oregon hemp farmer says startup going slow

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — One of Oregon’s first hemp farmers says a lack of seed is making it tough to get going.

Josephine County Commissioner Cheryl Walker says that fertile seed is expensive and hard to come by, because the federal government prohibits imports. Harvesting machinery is expensive, and there is no plant in Oregon to process the plants into fiber, seed and oil.

“We are at the beginning stages of an industry,” she said. “It will probably be years before you see significant production. It might take five to seven years from that before we have an operating industry.”

This is the first year Oregon farmers can grow hemp, following the Legislature’s approval in 2009. Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance and relation to marijuana. Hemp that is grown must contain less that 3 percent THC, the compound found in marijuana that makes you high.

Oregon is among 26 states that have removed barriers to hemp production, according to Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for the plant’s legal cultivation. The other states include Colorado, Washington, California, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia, it says.

National legislation is in the works to exclude industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.

Walker figures it will take three years to save up enough homegrown seed on her farm south of Grants Pass to produce a crop big enough for traditional products — fiber, oil and seed.

Until then, she will send the flowers from her 500 plants to a local facility used by medical marijuana growers to extract compounds known as CBDs, which are also found in marijuana, but don’t get you high, and are believed to have medicinal qualities.

There are no hemp processing facilities in Oregon, and no one has applied for a permit, said Lindsay Eng, who oversees the hemp program for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Oregon’s hemp law was written to regulate it as an agricultural crop, with large fields of densely planted hemp grown for fiber, seed and oil, said Eng. Instead, the nine operations inspected by the department this year seem more interested in producing CBDs. Only a few met the minimum acreage of 2.5 acres laid out in the law.

Eng says the current law does not work well to regulate growers, who are growing small plots, sometimes in greenhouses, with the emphasis on flowers that contain the CBDs. So the department will get together with growers and policymakers to make recommendations to the Legislature for changes.

So far, Walker says she has been growing hemp seedlings in a greenhouse, and transplanting them to a field. The 700 plants she started with were barely enough to cover the state-mandated minimum of 2.5 acres. About 200 of them died as she experimented with irrigation methods. She expects to harvest the flowers in October, and chop the plants and turn them into compost.

“There’s a lot of money now in CBDs,” Walker said. “But if you want an industry that is long-term, a lot of us want to grow for fiber, which has huge potential. The problem is getting the seed.”

EPA water rule impact clear as mud, ag groups say

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

The new federal Clean Water Rule went into effect Friday in Washington, Oregon and California with agricultural groups still uncertain about whether the law will put farmers, ranchers and irrigation projects under more federal control.

Washington State Dairy Federation director of government relations Jay Gordon said he met in the morning with representatives from other farm groups and didn’t hear answers to questions he’s posed for months, including in meetings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“There was a lot of speculation and not a lot of clarity,” said Gordon, a Western Washington dairyman. “Until they arrest me, I guess I won’t worry about.”

The uncertainty about the rule extends to whether it’s actually in effect. North Dakota U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson granted an injunction Thursday sought by 13 states, including Idaho, to delay the rule’s implementation. North Dakota’s attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, said he believes the injunction applied to all 50 states.

The EPA asserts the injunction only applies to the 13 states and that the new rule went into effect in the other 37 states as scheduled, 60 days after it was published.

Gordon blasted the EPA for forging ahead rather than waiting for clarification from the judge and a ruling on the underlying issue — whether EPA exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act.

“It was immature behavior by the EPA,” he said. “They should have said, ‘We’ve got split decisions in the court. You know what? We’re not going to implement the rule today.’”

In response to an inquiry from the Capital Press, the EPA issued a statement saying it was evaluating the order and considering its next legal steps. EPA noted that U.S. District Courts in Georgia and West Virginia denied requests for injunctions.

All together, attorneys general in 28 states have sought to delay implementation. Washington, Oregon and California — all with Democratic attorney generals and governors — were not among the states.

“EPA is moving forward with implementation because the Clean Water Rule is fundamental to protecting and restoring the nation’s water resources that are vital for our health, environment and economy,” according to the agency’s statement.

The California Cattlemen’s Association director of government relations Kirk Wilbur said Friday the group is advising ranchers to be cautious about undertaking projects near water or places that are occasionally wet.

Ranchers should be wary about assurances from the EPA that the new rule won’t hinder agriculture, he said.

“When an agency is attempting to regulate you, it’s not always the smartest thing in the world to take their word for it,” Wilbur said.

Judge Ericksen, in his written opinion, stated that states were likely to prevail in seeking to permanently block the rule. The EPA rule positioned the agency to regulate “intermittent and remote wetlands” that have no connection to navigable waterways, he stated.

Wilbur said California’s state water pollution law already imposes strict standards, but agreed with Ericksen’s observation about the potential scope of the new federal rule.

“We don’t know to what extent the law will be enforced,” he said. “There’s a lot of ambiguity in the rule. You’re adding another level of bureaucracy.”

Oregon and Washington state agencies enforce federal and state water pollution laws, and officials in both states said the new federal rule won’t change their enforcement practices because they already have broadly defined the waters that must be protected.

“We do not think it will have a significant effect on how the state implements its various programs,” said Jennifer Wigal, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s water quality manager.

Washington Department of Ecology’s water quality manager, Heather Bartlett, also said the new EPA rule won’t change how DOE polices water pollution.

“The Legislature defined state waters over two decades ago,” she said in an email. “Ecology has used this state definition for any enforcement act. In addition, ecology retains enforcement discretion that we will continue to exercise.”

Washington Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Jack Field said the new rule may not change DOE’s actions, but it’s uncertain how EPA will wield the authority.

The EPA could interfere with DOE’s recent efforts to work with ranchers on protecting water, he said.

“The biggest question is what the EPA will do with expanded authority, and that’s anybody’s guess right now,” Field said.

The Washington, California, and Oregon cattlemen’s association have all joined federal suits by private groups against the new rule.

In a written statement, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association said Friday that EPA should rescind and rewrite the rule.

The rule “because of its broad language, has the potential to take water management on private property away from landowners and threatens locally driven initiatives that are proven to be effective,” according to the association.

Stan Wangberg, general manager of the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District in Northern California, said Friday he was trying to learn whether the new rule will require the district to obtain federal permits to clean and line with concrete irrigation ditches.

“I’ve been thinking about it for the past couple of days, and I don’t know,” he said.

Wyden seeks change in Forest Service wildfire budgeting

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

PORTLAND — Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said freeing up federal natural disaster money to fight fires, rather than dipping into the U.S. Forest Service’s operating budget, is the primary thing he wants to accomplish when Congress reconvenes in September.

Speaking during a briefing at the Northwest Coordination Center, which coordinates the air and ground response to wildfires in Oregon and Washington, Wyden said there is bi-partisan support in the Senate for the idea.

“We can’t have business as usual any longer,” Wyden said. “The business as usual has been that fire prevention always gets shortchanged.

“I have no higher priority this fall than of getting this fixed,” Wyden said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, attending the briefing with Wyden, said 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget is eaten up by fire suppression work, compared to 16 percent in 1995. At this rate of increase, responding to wildfires will take two-thirds of the agency’s budget within a few years, he said.

The Forest Service has seen a 115 percent increase in personnel assigned to fight fires, and a 38 percent decrease in people assigned to do everything else, Vilsack said.

As Wyden and Vilsack spoke, forest and rangeland officials have counted 3,382 fires in Oregon and Washington since June 1, with 1.4 million acres burned. Three firefighters died in Washington, and dozens of homes and outbuildings have been destroyed in the two states. To date, the fires have cost an estimated $370 million to fight, with nearly 11,000 firefighters deployed. Fire managers have counted nearly 60,000 lightning strikes this summer.

Wyden said much of the West has “just been slammed” by what he called a “terrible trifecta” of drought, high temperatures and an enormous build-up of fuel on the forest floor.

The legislation he favors would treat the largest fires as natural disasters, on par with hurricanes and floods and eligible for response and recovery funding from such agencies as FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That would free up Forest Service money for its intended purpose such as increased thinning and salvage logging, which would reduce the intensity of fires by eliminating fuel.

Wyden, a liberal Democrat, said one of the key supporters is Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, a conservative Republican. The Obama administration strongly supports the proposal, Wyden said.

During the briefing, Wyden and Vilsack were told the fire season is projected to last through October. Heavy rain was predicted to hit western Oregon and Washington the weekend of Aug. 29-30, but it wasn’t expected to reach the eastern side of both states, where the fires are raging. Instead, the system was likely to kick up fierce windstorms east of the Cascades, which could cause “extreme” fire behavior, said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Coordination Center.

Saltenberger said the first six months of 2015 were the warmest six-month period on record in the West since 1895. Fire season began about a month early; there were even some fires in the Oregon Coast Range in January, when the coast is normally socked-in and drizzly.

Budget meter is running for Oregon wildfire costs

Capital Press Agriculture News Oregon -

SALEM — Oregon has yet to burn through its firefighting budget, despite ongoing catastrophic wildfires around the state.

In what now appears to have been a prudent decision, lawmakers and a committee of forest landowners agreed earlier this year to more than double the amount of money budgeted for the Oregon Department of Forestry to fight fires to a total of $50 million annually.

“I’m pleased we did it,” said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. “We had been warned that fires this summer, with the kind of moisture that was predicted, could be pretty high.”

The size of the Canyon Creek fire in Grant County and the Grizzly fire in northeastern Oregon “are well over 120,000 acres and growing,” he said. “And I think we’ve probably got another several weeks or so at least until we get some good rain.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the Canyon Creek Complex near John Day had burned nearly 85,000 acres and the Grizzly Bear Complex had burned more than 68,000 acres in the Umatilla National Forest and private land in Oregon and Washington state. An additional 17 large wildfires continued to burn in other areas of the state Thursday, according to an interagency fire tracking website.

Oregon relies on a unique system to pay wildfire fighting costs. Property owners with land classified as forest pay a state assessment to help cover firefighting costs in addition to money the Legislature appropriates from the general fund. The state has also purchased an insurance policy most years since 1973 to help cover firefighting costs.

After two severe fire seasons, however, the state’s insurance deductible more than doubled from $20 million to $50 million. When lawmakers and forest landowners decided to purchase the policy earlier this year, they had to prepare to spend up to $50 million before they could tap into the $25 million insurance policy.

Rod Nichols, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said this week that the agency estimated its net spending this year at $26 million, when expected reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources are factored in. Oregon spent an estimated total of $63 million to fight the wildfires, and fire officials so far expect to receive approximately $15 million in reimbursement from FEMA and $22 million from other federal sources.

“The main thing everyone is focused on now is getting the fires out,” Nichols said. “We cannot not respond to fires, so we just have to do it. That said, we’re spending a lot of money obviously from those figures.”

The state has to pay contractors in a timely manner, for example, to ensure they remain in business and can continue to work on the fires, Nichols said.

At the start of fire season, the Oregon Department of Forestry had 500 seasonal firefighters, 220 fire engines, 15 bulldozers and 14 aircraft. The state also had access to three 188 private contract hand crews, inmate hand crews from state prisons, three incident management teams and National Guard helicopters.

Oregon has since pulled in resources including additional fire crews, aircraft and fire managers from other states and Canadian provinces to fight the wildfires.

“Basically, the cupboard is bare, though some of the large fires are winding down and resources are starting to return from them,” Nichols wrote in an email.

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