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Farmland lease bids hit new record
Lease prices for refuge plots are a barometer for coming farming season
by JOEL ASCHBRENNER, Herald and News 4/26/12
H&N photo by Joel Aschbrenner Farmland on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National
Wildlife refuges is managed both to benefit agriculture and wildlife.
Setting a record for the second consecutive year, Klamath Basin farmers will pay about $4.4 million this year to lease 21,000 acres of federally owned farmland around the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges.
 
The lease bids, up from a record $3.9 million last year, can be a barometer for the Basinís agriculture industry, said Mike Green, lease lands program manager with the Bureau of Reclamationís Klamath Basin area office. When commodity prices are strong and irrigation water is available, bids increase for the lease lands, he said.
 
Prices for the Basinís staple commodities, such as beef, alfalfa, grain and potatoes, have been up, some at record levels. Water availability was in question for much of the winter, but wet weather in March and April resulted in above average snowpack and a full Upper Klamath Lake.
 
The lease lands are reclaimed former lake beds, managed for the benefit of birds and agriculture.
 
Securing a lease
 
Each spring, farmers submit sealed bids to farm tracts of the federal land. For some, itís a chance to expand their farming operation. For others, young farmers especially, it provides a chance to secure hard-to-come-by plots.
 
This year, hundreds of farmers bid on 41 tracts of land totaling 6,450 acres. The largest plot, a 312-acre tract in Tule Lakeís Sump 2 area, went for nearly $104,000. Each tract comes up for bid every f ive years, unless a farmer does not renew the annual lease.
 
At the bid opening earlier this month, about a dozen farmers sat around a table of coffee and doughnuts at the local BOR office, listening to Green call out bid after bid. Some feverishly scribbled numbers, keeping track of bids on the land they sought, hoping none would outbid them.
 
The winning bids averaged $206 per acre, up 9.8 percent from the previous year, according to the BOR.
 
Sid Staunton, of Tulelake, has been farming potatoes and grain on the lease lands since the early 1980s. The lease lands around Tule Lake are the most valuable, he said, because they are high in organic material and are in the lowest spot in the Basin, where water naturally flows.
 
ďItís some of the richest ground in the Basin,Ē Staunton said.
 
Good for young farmers
 
Rodney Cheyne, a 24-year old farmer who bid unsuccessfully on several tracts this year, said he expected strong commodity prices to drive the bids up, but was surprised by how much some farmers offered.
 
The BORís lease land program, because itís public, gives producers a rare look at what their competitors are paying for land, Green said. Private landowners often use the bids as a price indicator for leasing their own farmland, he said.
 
While Cheyne didnít win any bids this year, he plans to farm grain on lease lands on which he bid in previous years. For young farmers like Cheyne who donít yet have their own land, the BORís lease lands are valuable because, unlike private lease lands, no one can buy the land out from under them.
 
ďNobody can take it away from you,Ē he said. ďNobody can offer more money and get it away from you.Ē

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