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'It's going to be a bad year'

Farmers, orchardists are preparing for drought
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Sams Valley farmer Dalton Straus decided it wasn’t worth his time this year to plant his alfalfa field due to a lack of water. Mail Tribune / Bob PennellBob Pennell
 Posted: 2:00 AM June 09, 2014

Dalton Straus stands in a 45-acre field of bare dirt and scattered weeds in Sams Valley that should've been knee-high in alfalfa by now.

"Usually, it's pretty green at this time of year," he said.

Straus, using dry-land farming techniques that his father employed a generation ago, normally gets two cuttings each year from the field.

A thirst for water

Sunday: Severe drought and early irrigation withdrawals have made parts of Bear Creek lethal for juvenile salmon and steelhead

Today: Farmers already affected by the drought expect a hot, dry summer will make matters worse

Tuesday: Despite drought conditions, many farmers routinely flood-irrigate their fields

But this spring's insufficient rains meant the soil wasn't hydrated enough for Straus to even bother planting a crop of alfalfa. He said he didn't want to gamble on spending $100 an acre to plant the seeds.

"The way this spring turned out, I didn't think it would survive," he said.

The effects of historically low snowpacks and below-average rainfall are being felt by farmers across the valley who depend on streams and irrigation ditches to sustain their crops. And they expect a hot dry summer will make matters much worse.

"I'm really concerned about this drought," Straus said.

While it's difficult for the 83-year-old farmer to gauge how bad the summer will be, he expects crop yields to plummet.

Just beyond the 45-acre field where Straus stands is a pasture with cows and young calves. Normally the pasture is still green and filled with clover, but this year it's already brown.

"I'm afraid the drought has reduced the cows' milk supply for the calves," he said.

Straus, who won the 2010 Agriculturalist of the Year award from the Agri-Business Council of Oregon, faces the same story on 60 acres of alfalfa in Cave Junction, because water flowing in the Illinois River is almost at September levels.

Straus said he's converted his watering systems to sprinklers over the years to save water and prevent runoff. He said other farmers are reluctant to make the switch because a sprinkler system increases the electricity bill.

Ron Meyer, an orchardist in Talent, believes his livelihood is at the mercy of the Talent Irrigation District water supply.

He blames the looming water shortage on mandatory releases of water from Emigrant Lake to keep flows in Bear Creek high enough for spawning fish.

"Historically Bear Creek went dry," he said. "Actually, the disaster is man-made."

Meyer said he can't cut back on the water for his orchards because the fruit won't get big enough to be marketable.

A 2.5-inch Bosc sells for much less than a three-inch pear, he said.

He puts the equivalent of a 2.25-inch rainfall on his crops every two weeks through a sprinkler system.

"We have never wasted any water," he said. "Nothing runs off."

Gil Mastrofini, who depends on water from the Westside Neal Creek Ditch Association, said water normally flows in the creek until October, but he doubts it will make it to August.

"Unfortunately, it's going to be a bad year," he said.

The ditch association is made up of dozens of property owners and almost 100 acres of irrigated fields.

Water in the creek flows from runoff from the flanks of Mount Ashland, which received a very scant snowpack this year.

Mastrofini said he irrigates about an acre of his 2.5-acre parcel for pastureland.

He said other neighbors are more dependent financially on the water from the creek for gardens as well as production of alfalfa and hay.

"Most people here flood irrigate," Mastrofini said.

He said he used to flood irrigate on a property off Crowson Road, but now he uses sprinklers that are controlled automatically.

He said he's lived through other dry summers, but his neighbors are on edge about running out of water.

"It's going to be real, real dry," Mastrofini said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

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