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 a 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 giant 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 Lay.”
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 organic Northwest beer, there’s a decent chance you've tasted barley from the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges.
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 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 row crops.
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 refuges.
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.
Fourth-generation Klamath 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 skyrocket.
“We’re all the sudden back to production that maybe my great-grandpa would have seen when he first started farming on the lake,” Staunton says.
Staunton’s 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 weeds.
Since this practice of flooding fields was first put to use, the program has taken off, triggering a transformation of farming on the refuge.
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 States alone.
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 production.
“We believe we're getting higher and increase bids on the lots that are available for organic,” says Mike Green, manager of the lease land program for the Bureau of Reclamation.
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 trend.
“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 says.
About half of the farmland on the Klamath refuges is now either organic or flooded as a wetland. And overall fewer chemicals are being put on ground, which is better for the birds.
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,” Hunter says.
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 says.
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 as 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 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.