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Persistence & innovation; Liskey family found ways to profit from geothermal water
Mateusz Perkowski Capital Press 3/16/07

With technological innovations and public service, Klamath Basin farmer Tracey Liskey has devoted himself to keeping agriculture viable by fighting for the rights of farmers throughout Oregon. On March 22, Liskey and other growers and organizations will be honored for their contributions to farming at the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Ag Progress Awards Dinner in Salem.
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - The day hot water was discovered gushing from a spring on their farm seven decades ago, the Liskey family was presented with a seemingly limitless source of innovation.

Subsequent generations have repeatedly found new ways to put the geothermal opportunity to use, but their efforts have met with varying degrees of success.

Flooding corn fields for frost protection proved futile, since even Nostradamus would have been unable to predict every sudden temperature drop in the Klamath Basin's fickle climate.

"You had to outguess Mother Nature," said Tracey Liskey, grandson of the farm's founder. "We can have a freeze at any time. It's a tough area to grow in."

Cooking potatoes in the 195-degree F water to keep cattle from choking on frozen spuds was effective, but declining numbers of both potato farmers and feedlots in the region prompted an end to the practice.

In the late 1970s, the family launched its geothermal greenhouse operation, in which water pumps through fin pipes that radiate heat into the air. Initially, the idea was to raise tree seedlings in test tubes for forestry purposes, but the process was prohibitively complicated. Several partners who offered to help never made good on their promises, and after five years the operation was shut down.

"It's like learning to farm again in a half-inch tube," Liskey said. "They didn't come through like they said they were going to."

The family refused to call it quits, though, and persistence paid off. After Liskey's sister, Vickie, obtained a degree in horticulture, they restarted the greenhouse business in 1990 with a focus on spring bedding plants.

Liskey Farms is now one of the few major nursery retailers in the region; developing the niche helped the company survive when irrigation water was cut off to Klamath growers in 2001, Liskey said.

However, he said, he knows not every farmer in the Klamath Basin is lucky enough to be sitting on a vast store of water heated by faults in the Earth's crust. For this reason, Liskey has devoted himself to keeping agriculture viable by fighting for the rights of farmers in the Klamath basin and throughout Oregon.

On March 22, Liskey and other growers and organizations will be honored for their contributions to farming at the Oregon Department of Agriculture's 2007 Ag Progress Awards Dinner in Salem. Rick Jacobson, retired CEO of NORPAC Foods, and Clint Smith, former chairman of the State Board of Agriculture, will be recognized alongside Liskey as individual contributors.

Liskey is known for his tireless public service at the regional and state level, said Bruce Pokarney, director of communications for the ODA. "He's a very highly respected leader in the industry."

After 18 years with the Oregon Farm Bureau, Liskey has risen to the rank of first vice president. He has also served on the Oregon Water Resource Congress board, the Oregon Sustainability Board and the Klamath County Economic Development Association board, and he is involved with numerous other organizations. Liskey has also joined the ODA on trade missions to Europe in 2003 and Asia in 2006. Although his involvement varies season to season, Liskey serves on up to 20 committees at a time.

One of Liskey's proudest achievements is helping the ODA set rules for non-point pollution in its agricultural water quality management program, which was mandated by Senate Bill 1010 in 1993. Where he talks the talk, Liskey also walks the walk. With assistance from the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), he has implemented about $400,000 worth of water-quality improvements on his cattle and hay acreage.

Since 2001, Liskey has installed four new center pivots, which use much less water than flood irrigation and reduce erosion and pollution. Increased fencing on the family's 1,500-acre cattle operation allows rotation of pastures, which prevents overgrazing and erosion.

To shrink the amount of water needed for flood irrigation, Liskey leveled about 200 acres of farm ground. In one field, eliminating the slope cut yearly water usage by more than 90 percent, from 337,000 cubic yards to 22,000 cubic yards.

"One of the things I'm really proud of is that it's not polluting the water and it's more efficient at the same time," Liskey said.

Looking to the future, Liskey also hopes to expand his geothermal operation to include about 40 to 50 acres of marginal farm ground. The heated water already serves multiple purposes. A biodiesel plant, launched on the farm earlier this year by farmer Rick Walsh, will use it for processing canola seeds. Spent water from the greenhouse operation also warms about 28 small ponds to 85 degrees F, where aquaculture expert Ron Barnes raises freshwater tropical fish.

In addition to leasing more ground to entrepreneurs like Walsh and Barnes, Liskey plans to turn the geothermal resource into an energy supply. The water can heat a refrigerant such as Freon, causing it to expand into a gas. This will force turbines to rotate and generate electricity.

As the Liskey family further explores the potential beneath its soil, the goal is to bring more jobs to the Klamath Basin. By advancing on-farm technology and representing agriculture in the public sphere, Liskey aims to maintain agriculture's vitality for years to come.

"There are a lot of people who are trying to keep the Klamath Basin floating, and I'm just one part of it," he said. "It takes us all to get it done."

Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem. His e-mail address is mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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