for Farmers: Brent Cheyne advocates as NAWG president amid
Klamath water crisis
Press by George Plaven 6/2/23
Brent Cheyne, President of National Association of Wheat Growers
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Brent Cheyne
doesn’t mince words when talking about the decades-long
struggle over water for farms in the Klamath Basin.
“Unless somebody gets their act
together and starts making a few of the right moves, it’s
over,” Cheyne said. “I am very pessimistic about this having
a successful or happy outcome.”
Cheyne is referring to the federal
government’s management — or mismanagement, as he sees it —
of the Klamath Project, which provides water for about
230,000 acres of irrigated farmland straddling Southern
Oregon and Northern California.
A fourth-generation family farmer,
Cheyne, 68, produces small grains, alfalfa and Angus cattle
south of Klamath Falls, Ore. His son, Rodney, also farms in
the area, and his four grandchildren, ages 6 to 12, raise
pigs for their 4-H Club.
But Cheyne worries about what the
future holds. As more water is set aside for endangered fish
in the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake, less is
available for farms and wildlife refuges that bring in up to
1 million migratory birds each year along the Pacific
Three consecutive years of extreme
drought certainly haven’t helped matters, he added.
short of water’
“The adage was, this was the one place
you’ll never run short of water,” Cheyne said. “Oops.
Something happened. We no longer seem to have plenty of
That isn’t the only thing occupying
Cheyne’s time. He took over as president of the National
Association of Wheat Growers, or NAWG, in March. The
organization lobbies in Washington, D.C., on behalf of wheat
farmers across the country.
Cheyne testified before the House
Agriculture Committee on April 26, urging lawmakers to
maintain and enhance crop insurance in the 2023 Farm Bill.
Advocating on two fronts, Cheyne
insists he doesn’t feel any added pressure. Having survived
a stage 4 cancer diagnosis in 2017, he keeps things in
“The cancer put pressure on my
shoulders,” he said. “These other two (issues) are just a
Mallards swam lazily in a nearby canal
as Cheyne drove his pickup truck along a bumpy dirt road
past fields of alfalfa where Rodney and his family live and
Water is flowing in the Klamath
Project this year thanks to a much-improved supply around
the basin. Mountain snowpack has been 200% of normal, and
Upper Klamath Lake was 92% full as of May 1, according to
the Oregon Climate Service.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which
controls the flow of water, has allocated 260,000 acre-feet
from Upper Klamath Lake for irrigators. That still only
satisfies about two-thirds of full demand, but a big
improvement over the last two years.
Last year, Reclamation initially
approved 50,000 acre-feet before increasing the allotment to
82,253 acre-feet later in the summer. In 2021, water was
shut off entirely.
The effects, Cheyne said, have been
devastating. As if to underscore his point, he drove past a
190-acre field that Rodney had previously farmed. After
three years without water, it has been reduced to dry dirt
“You’re starting to not even see the
ground squirrels out there anymore,” Cheyne said. “They’re
starving out and leaving.”
Cheyne has lived and farmed here his
whole life. His grandfather settled on the home farm south
of Klamath Falls, Ore., in 1909, just three years after
construction of the Klamath Project began in 1906.
For 100 years, the system worked “like
a Swiss watch,” Cheyne said. Problems today stem from what
he described as the “weaponization” of the Endangered
Two species of sucker fish endemic to
Upper Klamath Lake, known as C’waam and Koptu, were listed
as endangered in 1988, and coho salmon in the lower Klamath
River were listed as threatened under the ESA in 1997.
That has left Reclamation to negotiate
agreements with two other federal agencies — the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service —
ensuring the Klamath Project does not jeopardize the
survival of fish.
These deals, called Biological
Opinions or BiOps, establish minimum water requirements in
both the lake and river. Based on what’s left, Reclamation
then calculates how much water will be available for farms
Reclamation must meet certain water
elevations in Upper Klamath Lake for C’waam and Koptu to
access shoreline spawning and rearing habitat, according to
the BiOps. Sucker populations are plummeting in Upper
Klamath Lake, with 30,000 C’waam and fewer than 4,000 Koptu
remaining, according to the Klamath Tribes.
Simultaneously, more water is also
being sent down the Klamath River meant to protect coho from
disease and lethally high temperatures.
Particularly during drought years,
that has resulted in painful water cuts to the basin’s
It isn’t just the farmers who are
hurting, Cheyne said. The Klamath Project also feeds water
to both the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife
refuges, key stops along the Pacific Flyway for migratory
birds and waterfowl.
Cheyne drove into the Lower Klamath
refuge just across the state line in California, pointing
out swaths of dry land that normally would be under several
feet of water.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. When
ag is whole, the refuge is whole. When the refuge is whole,
agriculture is whole,” he said. “This should be an insult
and a slap in the face to every birder-slash-waterfowl
enthusiast. This is the heart of the Pacific Flyway, and
that’s what you’ve got.”
Meanwhile, Cheyne said irrigators are
bearing the brunt of costs to fix leaking ditches and canals
that have run dry.
Gene Souza, executive director of the
Klamath Irrigation District, estimated the district’s
operations and maintenance costs have tripled since 2021. He
said KID has invested a quarter-million dollars alone in
repairing just one 300-foot stretch of the main A Canal.
“It’s a struggle to keep water where
it belongs,” he said.
Souza, who joined KID in 2019, said he
has come to lean on Cheyne as a source of historical
knowledge about the project.
“Brent is an advocate for agriculture,
he’s an advocate for families, he’s an advocate for the
American way of life,” Souza said. “We don’t always agree on
everything, but we definitely have mutual respect for each
other and I’ve come to appreciate his experiences and points
Five years ago, Cheyne was diagnosed
with stage 4 prostate cancer. Though the cancer is now in
remission, he said it led him to believe it was time to get
out of farming on a full-time basis and make way for the
“I realize that I am mortal, and I’m
not going to be here forever,” he said.
As he eases into retirement, Cheyne
said he “didn’t want to be the father that started to slow
down and retire right in Rodney’s way.”
To keep himself busy, Cheyne joined
NAWG leadership in 2019 after finishing a one-year stint as
president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League.
NAWG is the legislative branch of the
U.S. wheat industry, Cheyne explained. Whereas the U.S.
Wheat Associates focuses on marketing the crop, NAWG focuses
on critical legislation coming out of Capitol Hill.
A month into his NAWG presidency,
Cheyne has already testified before both House and Senate
agriculture subcommittees about farmers’ priorities for the
2023 Farm Bill.
Chandler Goule, the organization’s
CEO, praised Cheyne’s extensive background in farming and
passion for agriculture.
”His understanding of the challenges
wheat growers face has paved the way for impactful policy
reforms that benefit not only our members but also the
entire agricultural sector,” Goule said. “I am confident
that his continued efforts will drive positive change and
shape a brighter future for farmers across the nation.”
Cheyne said he is tempering his
expectations for the upcoming farm bill. Given the recent
standoff over the federal debt ceiling, he said it would be
naive to think that cuts to farm programs wouldn’t be on the
However, in his testimony to
lawmakers, Cheyne has been urging the government to protect
crop insurance and maintain the farm safety net.
“I think our crop insurance is of
paramount importance. We cannot let it go away,” he said.
Cheyne said he would also like to see
more investment in the USDA Market Access Program and
Foreign Market Development Program to ensure American
agriculture can stay competitive and relevant on the world
“We’ve got to keep pace with our
competitors, and we’re slowly starting to get left behind,”
Finally, Cheyne said he would like to
see a small-scale “Manhattan-type Project” building
infrastructure to produce fertilizer domestically. Russia’s
invasion of Ukraine has led to a global shortage of
fertilizer, reducing supply and driving up the price.
“We have the technology to do it in an
environmentally friendly way, to get these fertilizers
manufactured here in America,” Cheyne said. “We shouldn’t be
allowing ourselves to be wholly reliant on imported
Back at home, Cheyne said his wheat
crop this year is benefiting from more water, though he has
observed areas of winter damage in his fields.
Reclamation insists the Klamath
Project is on track to meet its ESA obligations in 2023. A
federal judge in San Francisco recently indicated he would
not grant an injunction limiting water to the Klamath
Project, which the Yurok Tribe had sought after minimum
streamflows for salmon in the Klamath River were reduced in
Cheyne doesn’t hide his frustrations
over the ongoing legal battles. The way the project is being
managed now, he said farms are going dry while fish
populations continue to suffer.
“The fun of living here is a thing of
the past — for me, anyway,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Cheyne said
farmers must find ways to speak up and be their own
advocate. If farming is to survive in the basin, growers
need to communicate why they are essential, and how they
feed the world.
“Make your voice heard,” he said. “We
need to be working to educate everybody on just what
agriculture is, who we are, what we do, why we are needed
and necessary and why we are part of the solution and not
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