Ranchers in north-central Oregon are just beginning to recover from a devastating wildfire season that saw hundreds of thousands of acres of dry grass and rangeland go up in flames.
To assist livestock producers who lost vital grazing pastures, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue authorized emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, land through Sept. 30 in Wasco, Sherman and Wheeler counties. CRP is a federal conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency that pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production for 10-15 years.
Now, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are asking Perdue to extend the CRP deadline through Feb. 28, 2019, while also expanding emergency grazing and haying to neighboring Gilliam County, which recently sustained a 50,000-acre blaze.
Brown, Wyden and Merkley, all Democrats, sent a letter Wednesday to Perdue asking for additional relief, and to consider any other programs to address soil erosion that may affect both farmland and fish habitat.
“All told, it was a devastating year for rural agriculture communities in Oregon,” the letter reads. “Now, as these communities seek to recover, producers need support from the government to utilize appropriate resources.”
Perdue approved emergency CRP grazing for affected ranchers through Sept. 30 at the behest of Oregon officials, while at the same time directing the Risk Management Agency to allow wheat farmers who lost some or all of their crop to plant cover crops on burned acres, preventing soil erosion without causing any changes to their crop insurance.
The region was hit especially hard by fires over the summer, including the Boxcar, Substation, Long Hollow and South Valley blazes that scorched a combined 235,000 acres of cropland. In their letter, Brown, Wyden and Merkley thanked Perdue for the assistance ranchers have received so far, but urged more is needed to help them get back on their feet.
“The loss of grazing land in particular presents an ongoing concern for producers in the area, and the opening of CRP land in Wasco, Sherman and Wheeler counties has proven invaluable to producers in those counties,” they wrote, requesting an extension through February 2019. “We further ask that USDA extend the CRP haying and grazing authorization to Gilliam County for the same period.”
Gilliam County Judge Steve Shaffer said they are “forever grateful” to farmers and ranchers who helped to suppress fires over the summer, and authorizing CRP grazing will help relieve them of a huge concern caring for their animals through fall and into winter.
“When their grazing issues are solved, Gilliam County farmers and ranchers can begin to focus on soil erosion and bringing their land back to its natural state,” Shaffer said.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said the group is “excited about the potential opportunity to see these grazing opportunities for ranchers in that part of the state who have been devastated by the effects of the wildfires, and hopes that these grazing and haying opportunities will be extended.”