When we think about climate resilience on Oregon’s farms and ranches, we often think of the soil, of rootedness...
But what if this is not the only way forward? What if farming for climate resilience means picking up and starting somewhere new? As our farm partners are dealing with the impacts of drought and heat domes in already water-deprived regions, they are beginning to ask these big questions about how agriculture is changing in Oregon.
Guest Blog by Maud Powell of Wolf Gulch Farm in Jacksonville, OR:
Tom and I learned to farm in India, in a region that receives an average annual rainfall of 3 inches. Our host family irrigated their barley and potato fields from ancient ditches fed by glaciers. While there, we fell in love with small scale agriculture and decided to return home and start our own farm. Our vision was to create a profitable, sustainable business on land considered to be marginal, knowing that property with ample water and fertile soils was becoming increasingly scarce. We believed that to survive in the long run, humans needed to be able to grow food on the edge—in all kinds of soil types and with less water.
In the summer of 1998, we bought a scabby, mountain property in Southern Oregon with steep slopes and acres of the pernicious weed, star thistle. Wolf Gulch, the property’s water source and namesake, is intermittent, running underground for long stretches of the creek bed. Though the land is not technically designated for farm use, we forged ahead. We dug three large storage ponds to collect winter rains and planned to keep them topped off by creek water during the summer. We designed a gravity fed irrigation system that requires no pump or electricity.
We believed that to survive in the long run, humans needed to be able to grow food on the edge—in all kinds of soil types and with less water.
Implementing resilient practices
Meanwhile, we studied permaculture design and applied its principles to our new farm. Permaculture, a system of holistic land management practices, aligns with our practical, ecologically-minded approach to life. First and foremost, we learned to conserve water. A key practice of permaculture is to keep water as high on the land for as long as possible to maximize efficiency.
We purchased a keyline plough. The heavy sub-soil implement creates deep furrows in the fields which increases water retention. We plowed along the slope’s contour so that water would fan out laterally along the furrows and cause less erosion. Every fall, we seeded cover crops to increase the soil’s organic matter and water holding capacity. Within ten years of production, our best fields boasted a full foot of topsoil.
Between the fields, we planted hedgerows to mitigate the north wind, which dries out the crops through increased evapotranspiration. The hedgerows, consisting of conifers, fruit and nut trees, and nitrogen-fixing shrubs, provide food for us and the birds, as well as much-needed summer shade.
Within ten years of production, our best fields boasted a full foot of topsoil.
2001 marked our first brush with drought. Our valley received eight inches of rainfall that winter, just over a third of the usual twenty-two. The ponds dried up and cracked, and became useless for holding water. After some soul searching, we decided to invest in thick plastic pond-liners- an expensive but full-proof solution to the cracking. We also transitioned to irrigating exclusively with drip tape, which uses 25-40% of the water needed for overhead irrigation. There are downsides to drip tape—additional labor and maintenance, and more plastic, though we’ve managed to reuse most of it for at least eight to ten years. But upsides (beyond water conservation) include less weed and disease pressure. The pond liners worked, and we declared ourselves back in business.
For twenty-three years we have grown produce for local markets, run a cooperative Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, improved and produced hundreds of seed varieties, supported our son in developing his own variety of pepper seed, and trained dozens of new farmers through Rogue Farm Corps’ internship program. We’ve participated in a wide and deep community of friends, artists, activists, and farmers. Most importantly, this is where we raised our two children. We have grown deep roots and built networks of human, animal, soil, and plant communities. This is home. Some of those winters brought less than average rainfall, but the steps we’d taken to conserve water and build topsoil made our farm resilient... Or so we thought.
Recent impacts of drought
During the summer of 2020, after several winters of below average rainfall and months of record-breaking temperatures, the creek dried up completely. Tom fought to keep the crops irrigated. He pumped water from the lower pond to the upper pond, shortened watering intervals, and harvested early when needed. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall.
The winter of 2020-21 passed with continued lower than average rainfall. Every day in April brought sun and warmth. While acquaintances on the street marveled at the good weather, a pit lodged in my stomach. We began to notice scores of dying doug fir trees in our woodlot. Our favorite incense cedar and red fir trees died. I prayed for a wetter May. One blustery Wednesday afternoon, we got a tenth of an inch of rain. But no more. We marched into June with our ponds lower than ever and alarming weather forecasts. And then an unprecedented heatwave arrived the fourth week of June; Medford hit 117°. Strong, high-pressure atmospheric conditions created vast areas of sweltering heat trapped under a high-pressure "dome." The dome continued for weeks with no break. For twenty-five days straight, the high temperature did not fall below 95. The ponds dropped, the crops withered in the heat.
Tom moved into triage mode, working to keep crops alive with the last remaining water, sometimes resorting to extreme measures. Farming is notoriously hard work. Add drought and relentless heat (not to mention months of smoke and fire danger), and the work becomes demoralizing and untenable.
July 2021, Tom and I faced the fact that farming at Wolf Gulch is no longer feasible. We smashed headlong into the reality of our current climate catastrophe. If we want to keep farming, we need to find a different property. So, we reckon with moving from the land and community we have poured our passion and sweat into for over two decades.
One August night, I lay awake wondering how we could store and save more water. We collect rain from our house and barn roofs during the winter. But the tanks only hold 2,000 gallons each. What if we pump rainwater from the tanks into our ponds all winter long, every time they fill? Surely there would be enough. I shook Tom awake, eager to talk. He was confused and groggy at first, then slightly irritated at being woken up. I explained my idea.
He nodded. “I already do that. But it’s a good idea.”
Of course he already does that.
Farming is notoriously hard work. Add drought and relentless heat (not to mention months of smoke and fire danger), and the work becomes demoralizing and untenable.
Meanwhile, in India, the farmers who mentored us are grappling with the disappearance of the glaciers that feed their ditches. Our heartbreak, shared amongst so many farmers around the world, means less local and regional food security everywhere, and the unraveling of once vibrant agricultural communities.
Our neighbors have rallied around us, offering leases, leads on property with more water, and boundless empathy. They share in our heartache and outrage. We count our blessings every day. And yet to know that the work we’ve done to protect and steward Wolf Gulch, the lengths we’ve gone to collect and store water, is simply not enough to shield us from climate collapse, is both heartbreaking and terrifying. We are left with existential dread and anxiety. We are left with the difficult question of, where to call home?
Thank you to Maud Powell and family for sharing your farm story.
If you experienced climate related hardship on your Oregon farm in 2021, consider applying for Oregon's Farmer and Rancher Disaster Relief Program by 05/20. The application process is easy and intended for those who would not be eligible for or who can not feasibly apply for ODAP. Current applications are being accepted through May 20, 2022 and will reopen for a third round again starting May 23, 2022.