Water Worries Worsen

Oregon Grower Braces for Third Consecutive Year of Water Shortage

Published in the March 2014 Issue Published online: Mar 14, 2014 Allen Thayer
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A global sugar supply glut can eventually be overcome as that sugar works its way through the system.

Sugarbeet growers in the West are facing a more severe problem that at present has no end in sight. Persistent dry conditions led to an expansion of drought in the week that ended Jan. 14, with most of the recent change in Oregon and Washington, said U.S. Drought Monitor authors.

The map now shows 33.22 percent of the contiguous 48 states in drought, up from 30.95 percent a week earlier, and up from 30.28 percent on Dec. 10, which was the least area in drought for any week of 2013, and the smallest drought coverage since Dec. 27, 2011, said Brad Rippey, meteorologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist.

“Most of the recent increase in U.S. drought coverage has been due to a lack of cold-season precipitation in the West,” Rippey said. “In particular, drought coverage has sharply increased in Oregon, from 38 to 88 percent between Dec. 10 and Jan. 7.

“Western drought concerns are most acute in those areas—including California—moving deeper into a third consecutive year of drought,” Rippey said. “According to the state Department of Water Resources, California’s 154 intrastate reservoirs were collectively brimming with water (125 percent of average storage) on Nov. 30, 2011. In subsequent years, as drought moved past the one- and two-year marks, storage fell to 97 and 74 percent of average, respectively, on Nov. 30, 2012 and 2013. Without a sudden reversal in California’s dry weather pattern from January to March 2014, there will be little snow in the Sierra Nevada to melt and feed the reservoir system.”

“Little—if any—drought relief is expected from the Plains to the Pacific Coast states, with precipitation during the upcoming monitoring period mostly confined to the northeastern quarter of the nation,” said Eric Luebehusen, USDA meteorologist, in the drought summary released Jan. 14. See the latest drought monitors in Figure 1 and Figure 2.

Bruce Corn, 56, of Ontario, Ore., is well aware of this fact. He grows around 235 acres of beets annually at various locations on the Oregon Side of Ontario.

“The biggest concern in our area is drought and water shortage,” Corn said. “There could be limits on the amount of beet acres grown. In mid-January, the snowpack and reservoirs are low. We can grow anything in the world as long as we have an adequate supply of water, but we’re facing a shortage of it.”

Family Heritage

“I have two sons who are farming individually,”

Corn said. “Dan is pretty well established. Kevin is just getting started. Dan’s been growing for about eight years and Kevin for about two.” Corn and his wife, Renae, have five daughters as well. They are Amanda, Annie, Mary,Ruth and Rachel.

“Renae’s my partner on the farm,” Corn said.

“She manages the family and is the key to our success.”

Education is another vital component for the future of farming.

“It’s important that young people be involved in agriculture,” he said. “All my kids went to college and got degrees. That’s so important to handle the new technology that’s coming in— thrive with it rather than be afraid of it.”

His sons are carrying on a tradition now in its fifth generation, Corn said. His greatgrandfather Bill Corn and grandfather Fay Corn had beet contracts with Amalgamated Sugar in 1938. His father Dick did as well.

“There has been a Corn growing beets for Amalgamated Sugar every year since the national factory opened in Nampa, Idaho,” he said.

“I’m happy they find value in wanting to continue with the life,” he added. “There’s always going to be a need for the crops we produce. I’m excited for them to have that opportunity.” Ho me in Ontario

Ontario is the largest city in Malheur County, Ore. It lies along the Snake River at the Idaho border. The population was 11,366 at the 2010 census. The city is the largest community in the region of far eastern Oregon, also known as the Western Treasure Valley.

Ontario is located halfway between Portland and Salt Lake City. It’s the closest city to the Idaho border along Interstate 84. The city’s slogan is “Where Oregon Begins.”

It’s also where the Corns live and work.

“We’ve got pretty good ground, and the rotations have been good,” Corn said. “We’ve been able to maintain pretty good productivity in sugar content at 16.5 percent, which is above average for the area.”

Corn said his beets averaged about 43 tons per acre last year, above average for Treasure Valley as well as Magic Valley, a region in south-central Idaho consisting of Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.

“But this year’s our own sugars are a little bit higher than Magic Valley,” he said.

Corn attributes that to the sugarbeet varieties in use.

“We’ve had neighbors who have had higher tonnage, but our sugars have been near the top of the area,” he said. “I think the varieties make a difference in sugar content, especially in a low sugar year.”

Corn ships his beets to the Amalgamated Sugar Company Factory in Nampa, Idaho. The company was incorporated in 1996 and is based in Boise, Idaho. It has facilities in Idaho and Oregon. Amalgamated operates as a subsidiary of Snake River Sugar Company.

The Snake River Sugar Company, formed in 1994, bought Amalgamated Sugar in 1997 for $250 million. Snake River Sugar Company is an Oregon-based farmer’s cooperative.

Why beets?

“Onions are almost our mainstay, but we’ve grown beets forever,” Corn said.

Stability is the best factor for beets, even in the current climate with overproduction and Mexico’s surplus.

“Still it has been pretty stable,” he said. “You can count on the checks being there on time. With the co-op structure, we can also count on the stability of the acreage. We have an obligation to grow, but we also have a right to grow. I think that’s really important.

“It’s something you can count on and build your crops around. With some of the other crops the acreage varies from year to year, depending on the need of processors or who you are selling to.” Western Treasure Valley features many specialized crops.

“Farms here seem to be smaller than in Magic Valley,” Corn said. He uses wheat, corn and alfalfa as rotational crops, in addition to onions. Water matters

“Water is going to be a huge issue going forward,” Corn said. “There will be more demand due to population growth.”

The Boise Metropolitan Area with a population of 292,233 as of 2012 is bringing pressure of urban growth to the Ontario area. Ontario is within 42 miles of the Boise Metropolitan Area.

“We have to find better ways to manage the water we have,” Corn said. “We need to be proactive and get more efficient in our water use—use techniques and farming practices that will conserve water. There is an ever growing list of environmental issues. We have to be active politically. Everybody needs to be doing something. If everybody works together, we can have success.”

Corn represents Ontario for the Eastern Region on the Oregon Water Resources Department Commission. His term expires in 2016. He previously served as chairman of the Owyhee Irrigation District and on various boards, including the Nyssa/Napa Sugarbeet Growers Board for 20 years, Snake River Sugar Company and American Sugarbeet Growers.

Corn uses furrow irrigation. He said more beet growers around Ontario are converting to sprinklers to save water. Seed growers are also experimenting with drip irrigation for conservation. Onion growers are rapidly converting to all drip irrigation. A few beet growers have started to use the drip method.

Growers who use sprinklers or drip usually strip-till.

Corn does not because wind erosion is not of great concern. “We bed the seeds to conserve moisture,” he said.

Banking on Technology

“The critical need in our area is Roundup Ready beets,” Corn said. “There have been effective alternatives for Roundup Ready corn but not beets. It’s essential for us to stay in business. We can’t go back and be as successful growing beets.” Roundup Ready has led to higher yields and higher content in conjunction with university research into disease, pest and weed control. Seed technology has advanced dramatically.

“Because we have these technologies it has lowered production costs,” Corn said. “At this point, it’s the key to us being successful.”

Herbicide-resistant weeds have not been a problem, Corn said.

“We haven’t seen any resistance issues,” he said. “We’re really concerned about it. We do have four-, five- and six-year rotations. We grow other non-Roundup Ready crops and try to be careful about how we use Roundup with the beets. We try to do all we can to manage resistance issues as far as chemistries and rotating our chemistries. The rotation we have with wide variety of crops allows us the opportunity to not use all Roundup Ready crops.”

The longer rotations help increase productivity, Corn said. They also boost soil health and decrease disease problems. Corn said misperceptions and misinformation about genetically modified sugarbeets are a concern.

“Continued education and publicity about the benefits of Roundup Ready is needed to dispel some hysteria and misinformation,” he said. “We need to promote the benefits of technology that we use. Seeds today are much more friendly to the environment than what we’ve used in the past.

“There are opportunities all around us,” he said. “We’re at the beginning of realizing the potential that’s all around us with new products and new seeds coming on the market.

We’ll be more productive.

“Sugarbeets have been part of our family for generations,” Corn said. “I hope it can be for generations to come. It has provided opportunities to our family and our community. I hope it continues to do that in the future.”