Ryan Hartman is driving
from field to field in the Klamath Basin, giving what
amounts to a masterclass on how to run logistics for
3,000 acres of farmland.
He troubleshoots equipment
at one spot, sets planting depth drills on another a
mile away, and farther on, shows a few of his 12
employees where to install an irrigation pipe.
“It’s pretty good job to
have. You get to drive around in this every day … it’s
pretty nice scenery,” he says of the big blue sky, the
low brown mountains, the marshes and wide open fields
outside his truck window.
Hartman has been farming
for about eight years on land he leases inside the Tule
Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges. He
grows grain, alfalfa and potatoes.
Hartman pulls off onto a
chocolate dirt road into a massive field. A low dike
keeps water from a nearby lake off this farmland.
“These are yellows,” he
says, pointing to one part of the potato field. “And
from that way up are chippers — a variety for Frito
A century ago, this land
was under a massive lake that supported migratory birds.
Now it supports potatoes and the people who grow them.
Hartman is one of them. But
he’s also part of a new generation of farmers who are
making agriculture more compatible with wildlife.
They’re adopting irrigation methods that provide habitat
for waterfowl, help keep chemicals out of the wildlife
refuges, and give growers a premium price for their
crops. And they’re helping push the entire Klamath Basin
toward a more sustainable agricultural system.
If you drink local organic
beer, there’s a decent chance that the barley used to
make it was grown on the Klamath National Wildlife
Grain production on refuges
is relatively common across the country, but the Klamath
refuges are the only ones that also allow for row crops
like potatoes, onions and horseradish.
These row crops are grown
on the Tule Lake refuge and no other because it is
enshrined in federal law — 1964 legislation called the
Kuchel Act (pronounced Key-cull). The Kuchel Act was a
compromise bill that stopped refuge land from being
stripped away for homesteading, something that had
slowly been happening since the land was set aside at
the beginning of the 20th century. In return, the
farming of grain and row crops was allowed to continue,
as long as it supported “proper waterfowl management.”
The interpretation of this
provision of the law has since been the subject of
debate and litigation in the Basin.
Currently about 40 percent,
or 37,000 acres, of land on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake
refuges are farmed. Around 10 percent of that land is in
The land is broken down
into two separate programs; one involves farming on what
are called co-op lands and the other affects growers on
so-called lease lands.
The co-op farming is
directly designed to provide food for waterfowl. No
money exchanges hands. These growers can farm the land
for free as long as they agree to leave at least a
quarter of that grain standing at the end of the season.
“The co-op fields we have
full control over,” says Greg Austin, manager of the
Klamath refuges. The refuges award co-op contracts based
on which farmer offers the best deal.
“Annually what that best
plan looks like changes based on what conditions are
like,” says refuge biologist John Vradenburg. “What’s
the refuge going to be most lacking in that year?”
Sometimes the refuge wants
offers that will leave more grain standing. Sometimes
it’s waterfowl habitat that gets prioritized. Sometimes
other factors play into the decision.
Lease-land farming, by
contrast, is more of an economic venture. It’s managed
by the Bureau of Reclamation. Farmers bid on specific
fields for five-year leases. Potatoes and onions grow
here, but most of the land is in grain production.
Farmers don’t have to leave any behind for birds.
All this has turned the
Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges
into giant laboratories. They test ideas — both for the
birds and for the farmers.
One of the most
consequential experiments has involved crop irrigation
on refuge land — a method that farmers call “flood
fallow” and that the refuges have officially labeled as
“walking wetlands.” It’s the program that Hartman is
taking part in.
The aim is to improve the
way agriculture supports habitat for waterfowl. The
wildlife refuges have high-priority water rights. But
their ability to channel water into wetlands is limited.
The refuges don’t have a
formal agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to
deliver that water. And Endangered Species Act
protections for imperiled fish in the Klamath Basin have
kept water in streams that might otherwise reach the
Even if those things
changed, the highest-priority water rights owned by the
refuges are earmarked for crop irrigation, not wildlife.
So wildlife managers
figured out that if they could convince farmers to use
their agricultural water to periodically flood their
fields for extended periods of time, they could provide
more habitat for waterfowl.
“We have all these
agricultural parcels spread throughout the refuge and
they’re helping us bring the wetland conditions that
have been lost,” Vradenburg says.
Basin farmer Mark Staunton is among those who now flood
their fields. When those fields are drained and put back
into production, a year’s worth of bird poop and
decomposing wetland plants cause crop fertility to
“We’re all the sudden back
to production that maybe my great-grandpa would have
seen when he first started farming on the lake,”
great-grandfather was one of the first homesteaders in
the area. His uncle was the first to work with the
wildlife refuges on field flooding about 15 years back.
Not only are farmers
finding that the standing water makes the land more
fertile, they’re also discovering that it kills off
Since this practice of
flooding fields was first put to use, the program has
taken off, triggering a transformation of farming on the
There’s another trend
that’s changing agricultural practices in the Klamath
Basin’s wildlife refuges: rising consumer demand for
organic produce and grains.
The market has seen
double-digit growth since the early 2000s and is
currently valued at nearly $40 billion in the United
In the Klamath Basin,
flood-fallow irrigation on the refuges has paved the
way. On fields that are flooded for three growing
seasons, farmers can immediately have their crops
certified as organic — netting them higher prices than
they’d get for conventionally grown crops.
In addition, when the
Bureau of Reclamation drains fields that had been
flooded, it can then offer them to farmers for organic
“We believe we’re getting
higher and increase bids on the lots that are available
for organic,” Green says.
Rob Wilson at the
University of California extension office in Tulelake
says as growers are seeing success using this system,
other farmers off-refuge are jumping on board.
“We’ve seen a substantial
increase in organic production. And we’re talking
thousands of acres of wheat and small grains, barley,
potatoes and many of the forages that are being grown,”
Wilson says. “It’s becoming a substantial part of
farming in the Klamath Basin.”
Staunton is part of that
“About five years ago our
farm was less than 15 percent organic to conventional,
and now we’re about 50-50 if not a little bit more,” he
About half of the farmland
on the Klamath refuges is now either organic or flooded
as a wetland. And overall there are fewer chemicals are
being put on ground, which is better for the birds.
Best Of An Awful Situation
Bob Hunter of the
environmental group WaterWatch is not convinced.
“Walking wetland system
certainly has provided the refuge manager with a tool to
make an awful situation a little better than it is,”
It will take far more than
a change in the way crops are irrigated to satisfy
Hunter and other critics of farming on wildlife refuges.
“Tule Lake Refuge is really
two polluted farm ponds and commercial farming,” Hunter
WaterWatch is suing the
refuge for not phasing out farming in its latest
conservation plan. The suit says in examining the
potential continued compatibility of agriculture on the
refuges, managers only considered its effect on a small
subset of waterfowl — the same waterfowl that are known
to use agriculture for forage and habitat.
Hunter recommends a
springtime drive through the refuge to dispel any notion
that it’s a park for wildlife.
“They have silhouettes of
painted bald eagles out there to act of scarecrows to
keep migrating geese off the fields,” he says. “So here
you have a national wildlife refuge that is excluding
birds so you won’t adversely impact farming.”
The refuge is attempting to
rein in this practice in its new conservation plan.
That’s drawn the ire of farmers. Some of them are suing
over the conservation plan, saying there are changes to
agriculture on the refuges that violate federal laws.
Again and again the
situation at the Klamath refuges comes back to water.
Ron Larson is a retired
biologist who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service in the Klamath Basin for 20 years.
“Personally, I think it’s
unfortunate that there’s farming on the refuge. But on
the other hand, the fact that there is farming on the
refuge does provide a guaranteed water supply, at least
for (the) Tule Lake” refuge, Larson says. “So it’s kind
of a Catch-22 situation, but it is unfortunate.”
Environmental groups say
the refuges’ managers could do far more than encourage
growers to irrigate crops in ways that benefit wildlife.
Instead, they should take steps to ensure the refuges’
water rights are enforced to put more water directly
into natural waterfowl habitat.
This is possible under
Oregon water law. But the Oregon Water Resources
Department says no changes can happen until after all
water rights in the Klamath Basin have been certified.
This adjudication process likely won’t be finalized for
at least 10 years.
Hunter sees promise in
changing the purpose of the refuges’ water rights to
benefit wildlife. If the refuges truly care about the
birds they’re supposed to be protecting, he says, the
next great experiment will be phasing out farming
altogether on the refuges.