35th Annual Crops and Conservation Tour shines spotlight on local agriculture

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer June 29, 2011 08:21 pm

People taking part in the 35th Annual Crops and Conservation Tour last Wednesday listen in as speakers talk about Willow Creek rehabilitation and establishment of a western larch seed orchard on the Glen McKenzie farm. The tour attracted 250 to 300 people. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
People taking part in the 35th Annual Crops and Conservation Tour last Wednesday listen in as speakers talk about Willow Creek rehabilitation and establishment of a western larch seed orchard on the Glen McKenzie farm. The tour attracted 250 to 300 people. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

Union County agriculture was showcased in a big way last Wednesday, with 250 to 300 people turning out for the 35th Annual Crops and Conservation Tour.

The event, sponsored by businesses, individuals and organizations involved in the local farming and ranching industry, introduced the public to people who work in the fields every day, and stressed the importance of agriculture to the economy.

As noted in the tour literature, alfalfa hay, wheat, grass seed, peppermint for oil, wheat and other crops grow well here, and always have. At last count, in 2007, there were almost 900 farms in the county, with an average size of 550 acres.

Craig Nightingale of Banner Bank, one of many presenters who took up a microphone during the tour, said agriculture is no less a major local employer than Boise Cascade or Eastern Oregon University.

 “It’s a $67 million industry. It’s the biggest economic driver we have in the valley,” he said.

Following some introductions and opening remarks early in the day at Crop Production Services on Booth Lane, tour participants loaded into buses and traveled through the mid-Grande Ronde Valley, making stops at three local spreads.

On Brett Rudd’s farm at the corner of Booth Lane and Wallsinger Road, tour participants had a look at a money-saving irrigation device called the Variable Frequency Drive pump.

As tour guides noted, irrigation consumes more power in the Grande Ronde Valley than anything else. The VFD reduces pressure on systems and  saves energy by adjusting a pump’s revolutions-per-minute to demand.

“It’s an aggressive and pretty effective solution,” said Dave Whelan of Pendleton Grain Growers.

About 20 percent of irrigation pumps in Union County feature the device. Installation costs run into the thousands, but there are a number of programs to help.

Oregon Trail Electric Co-Op offers a rebate to farmers installing the pumps, as does the Bonneville Power Administration.

The OTEC rebate is based on the horsepower of the system, while the BPA rebate, available in addition to the OTEC award, is based on kilowatt hours of electricity saved.

“There is grant funding through the utility. This thing (VFD) is going to pay for itself in a couple of years,” Charles Koenig of BPA said during the Rudd farm stop.

Mike Burton of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service also spoke at the Rudd farm, saying the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is another source of funding for those installing the device.

Second stop on the tour was the 2010 Union County Conservation Farm of the Year owned by Kirk and Mikki End.

Kirk End told the crowd he is a third generation farmer successful thanks to loving guidance from his parents and grandparents.

“Every year it’s a different challenge, but I’ve had good people to follow,” he said.

The Ends are dryland wheat farmers always willing to experiment. Currently they are raising soybeans as a rotational crop. They also raise garbanzo beans as part of their effort to keep the soil healthy and productive.

“Beans put nitrogen back in the ground,” said Kirk.

Northeast Oregon never has been considered good soybean country, mainly because of cool nights during the growing season.

But Oregon State University Extension Agent Darrin Walenta said recent experiments in the valley have been moderately successful. He said he helped local farmer Matt Insko plant and grow five different varieties last year.

“Yields were respectable from our point of view, though people in the Midwest might laugh at us,” Walenta said. “Union County never will be the soybean capital of the world. We’re just trying to find out where they fit in the rotation.”

From the End farm, the tour traveled to the Glen McKenzie farm on McKenzie Lane along Willow Creek near Summerville.

The farm, formerly the home of the late Glen and Jean McKenzie, is overseen by the Oregon Agricultural Foundation, a group founded by Glen McKenzie in the 1990s.

Jean McKenzie died in 1993, and the foundation took ownership of the farm after Glen McKenzie’s death in 2006. According to his wishes, the farm benefits Eastern Oregon University.

“If we make money, we make generous donations to scholarships and so on,” said Foundation President Bill Howell.

In 2007, the foundation liquidated the cattle, machinery and equipment. Today, the croplands are leased while the foundation, in cooperation with many agencies, concentrates on environmental stewardship.

“We’re completing the work that Glen started but didn’t have time to finish,” Howell said.

Partners in the improvement efforts include Grande Ronde Model Watershed, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Together, those agencies are working to protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat, maintain commodity production, contribute to the EOU Foundation and provide educational opportunities.

Under way is a major effort to rehabilitate Willow Creek on the farm. The agencies are working to improve salmon habitat, reduce streambank erosion and more.

“I’m confident that had Glen lived, this would have been a program of his,” Howell said.

Willow Creek restoration isn’t the only innovative project happening on the farm. Tour presenters also talked about the Oregon Department of Forestry’s establishment of a western larch seed orchard on the property.

Half of the 66 trees selected for the start of the project were planted in April, and the other half will be planted in 2012. People involved with the project hope eventually to raise some 600, five-to-six-foot tall trees.

Generally, western larch trees don’t produce cones until they are 55 years old, but a grafting process will greatly speed production in the orchard.

“What’s amazing is that we’ll start to see cones in seven or eight years,” said Jamie Knight of the Oregon Forestry Department.

From the McKenzie ranch, the buses drove to the Pendleton Grain Growers grain storage facility, where a steak dinner was served. Along the way, guides pointed out damage caused by this year’s severe floods.

In May, the Grande Ronde River, Catherine Creek and other drainages spilled their banks. That, coupled with a generally long wet spring in the valley, wiped out some crops and in other cases caused delays in planting.

Agricultural and infrastructure damage in the county is estimated at more than $2 million. Tour guide Reed Stewart, who works for Pendleton Grain Growers, called attention to farms along the route that were devastated.

But Stewart added some optimistic words. A hardy green-up followed the wet weather.

“If there’s a silver lining in the spring we’ve had, it’s that the crops that aren’t underwater look exceptional,” he said.