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Costs spike, fields go fallow in Klamath

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By Kathy Coatney
California Farm Bureau,

Photo/Kathy Coatney: Modoc County farmer Lucky Ackley says extreme dry conditions in the Klamath Basin have impacted farmers and ranchers who this season had to make difficult choices, such as whether to fallow ground or sell herds, during a time of skyrocketing energy and other production costs.

The Klamath Basin has dealt with reduced water for decades, but this year is particularly grim.

The region is facing extreme dry conditions, as one of many ground zeros in a western U.S. multiyear drought some scientists describe as the worst in 1,200 years. For a third straight year, the amount of water farmers can receive from Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River is a trickle at most.

But Lucky Ackley, owner of the Ackley Ranch in the Modoc County town of Newell, is still farming and ranching—even though it is costing him a small fortune to do so.

Ackley runs 600 head of cattle on rangeland and grows 1,300 acres of grass alfalfa, alfalfa, orchard grass and grain hay. All his hay acreage is on well water and, so far, he hasn’t had to fallow any ground or sell off any cattle.

That’s a very small relief in this region, in which more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers were told by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in April that they could have barely one-seventh of their normal surface-water allocation this year.

The water shortages impact livestock grazing and result in increasing numbers of fallowed farm fields, which in turn threaten production contracts for farmers growing many Klamath Basin crops.

That Ackley still has water doesn’t mean he’s profitable. Using well water increases his cost of production. Last year, he paid $75,000 a month in utility costs for pumping well water. This year, with increased pumping, those costs jumped to $110,000 to $120,000 a month.

“We’re almost to the breaking point where if they don’t release the water from the lake, there’s no profit left,” Ackley said.

Margins get smaller when costs of keeping his wells operational are added. He has spent $50,000 on upgrades so far and estimates he will invest $150,000 in total to maintain his well system. He’s also paying irrigation districts $75 an acre-foot for water, even though he’s not getting any this year.

On April 11, the bureau announced that the water inflow into Upper Klamath Lake stood at record lows, meaning farmers would get 15% or less of their full surface-water allocation.

“We wish we had better news today,” Ernest Conant, the bureau’s regional director of the California Great Basin region, said in making the announcement. “Obviously, there are no winners in this critical year, as all interests are suffering—fisheries, farmers, tribes and waterfowl alike. But given the current hydrology that we have to work with, we did the best job we could.”

The water-allocation decisions were based on considerations, including legal rulings, on maintaining lake levels to protect two federally endangered fish species.

In its analysis, the Klamath Water Users Association said federal mandates for water use from Upper Klamath Lake break down this way: 40% of the lake’s water will be dedicated to river flows for salmon; 28% will be used to protect lake levels for Klamath suckerfish; and 27% is expected to be lost to evaporation.

The association, which advocates for irrigated agriculture, said that means “5% or less may be available to Klamath Basin food production.”

Ackley said he feels as if promises are being broken for farmers and ranchers who have long relied on the federal Klamath Project for irrigation water.

“That (Upper Klamath) Lake did not exist other than wet years before they built the Link River Dam,” he said. “It was built to store water for dry years to irrigate and farm with, and now it’s totally being misused, mismanaged, and all the water is getting flushed down the river for salmon or being held in the lake at unhistoric levels for suckerfish.”

He said many beef producers have had to sell their cattle at a loss because they can’t feed them. If Ackley were eventually forced to sell off his herd, he said, he would lose about 80 years of genetic selection for the best cattle for this rangeland. “You can’t just go buy that back,” he said.

It would mean starting over from scratch, because those cattle couldn’t be acquired from a neighbor’s herd and thrown onto the rangeland. If he were to do that, the animals wouldn’t know how to survive, he said, comparing it to releasing domestic animals into the wild.

Jeff Boyd, owner of Boyd Farms in Tulelake, said some scant rain and snow in the Klamath Basin has helped some growers in difficult water situations.

“It’s delayed things a little bit, and things are cool, so we’re not drawing the water that we usually draw at this time,” Boyd said.

Boyd mostly produces alfalfa, but he also has about 50 pairs of cows, which have been particularly difficult to manage due to water shortages and lack of irrigated pasture.

“The hardest part with the cows is finding pasture,” Boyd said.

Even though alfalfa remains a major part of his operation, he takes particular pride in raising cattle. But pasturing them himself in a short water year is not economical, he said, so he will have to liquidate some of his herd.

As for his alfalfa, Boyd said he is trying to keep the established stands alive. He estimates he’ll fallow somewhere between 35% and 40% of his cropland so he could use his water on established hay. In better water years, he’d plant a grain crop or rent the fallowed ground for a rotational crop.

Alfalfa is a semi-permanent crop that has a seven- to eight-year lifespan. Because of water shortages, growers are keeping their alfalfa stands longer. They’re not planting new hay because young plants do not tolerate lack of moisture as well as established stands.

“We’re hesitant to put in new stands of alfalfa,” Boyd said, adding the old stands are probably in the ground longer than they should be.

Boyd is 100% dependent on surface water. “I felt like drilling wells is just cost prohibitive for me,” he said.

Boyd is in the Tulelake Irrigation District, which he said has some large wells to pump from.

But that pumped water now comes at an extra charge, Boyd said, meaning farmers have to calculate whether they can cover the cost and still make a profit.

Farmers without water may get one allotment that equals production of one-half to a ton of hay per acre. Full irrigation would be 3 to 3 1/2 of tons per acre, Ackley said.

“If you have no source of water on your field, well or surface, there is no profit, period,” Ackley said.

Besides the lack of water, skyrocketing input costs are also having a major impact on Klamath Basin growers. “Our fertilizer has tripled since last year. Our fuel has tripled from last year,” Ackley said.

Ackley pre-bought his fertilizer in December. “After reading the markets, talking to my fertilizer guy, it was either buy it now at this price or hope it goes down, or not get it at all in the spring.” Ackley said.

Boyd stocked up on fertilizer early, “anticipating supply-chain challenges.

“I saw the price rise. I didn’t see Russia going into Ukraine,” he said. “But I saw the price, so I fertilized the hay early to try to reduce the cost. I am worried about it from here on out, particularly if the conflict in Europe continues.”

He said drought and market conditions are spurring fears that water and fertilizer may become unaffordable.

Because less hay is being produced, it’s at a premium price, he said. But that doesn’t make up for the reduced yield and the water shortages.

“Hay prices are at all-time record highs, which sounds great,” Boyd said. “But if you had to cut your acreage by 35% or 40%, maybe you’re staying afloat.”

(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Bend, Oregon. She may be contacted at [email protected])

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.