Rep. Greg Walden is the latest among several high-ranking Oregon politicians to request federal aid for farmers and ranchers suffering through a particularly intense wildfire season across the state.
Walden’s district includes Wasco and Sherman counties, where yet another large blaze ignited Wednesday, torching 20,000 acres and counting of prime wheat and cattle country near the Deschutes River.
The South Valley fire started near Dufur and was likely human-caused. It is the region’s third large grass fire in as many weeks, coming on the heels of the Substation and Long Hollow fires, which burned a combined 111,875 acres, or 175 square miles.
On Thursday, Walden — Oregon’s only Republican congressman — wrote to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, asking for assistance to help producers who lost some or all of their crops and rangeland. The Substation fire alone has affected an estimated 31,000 acres of cropland over 86 farms in Wasco and Sherman counties, including 18,500 acres of standing wheat.
“Oregon’s farmers, ranchers and foresters are facing significant challenges during this fire season,” Walden wrote. “I appreciate your prompt attention to these important issues so that Oregon’s rural communities can better navigate through the disasters they have faced.”
Perdue is no stranger to the area, having previously joined Walden at Martin Farms in Rufus on July 3 as part of a four-day, four-state tour visiting with local farmers.
“Sadly, the very wheat farm we visited in Sherman County, and many of their neighbors, recently lost some or all of their crops to fire,” Walden wrote. “Many of the wheat farms in the area affected by fire are also livestock producers and have lost pasture to the fire.”
In his letter, Walden urged Perdue to approve Oregon’s request for a USDA disaster designation, and also requested additional flexibility from the Risk Management Agency allowing farmers hurt by fires to prevent soil erosion by planting cover crops.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has already offered assistance to plant cover crops through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. But since dryland wheat farmers in Eastern Oregon plant in a summer fallow rotation, Walden said they are worried that adding cover crops will put them in a “continuous production” category under their crop insurance.
Clinton Whitten, the acting district conservationist for the NRCS in Wasco County, recently acknowledged that concern, and said they are working on a waiver for growers affected by fires.
In addition, Walden said ranchers who lost rangeland should have access to emergency grazing on grasslands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. The 100,000-acre Boxcar fire near Maupin and 15,000-acre Jack Knife fire near Grass Valley took an especially heavy toll on rangeland in June.
Walden is not the only political figure to request federal fire aid in Oregon. Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, all Democrats, wrote Perdue on July 27 asking for a cut of the $12 billion in emergency aid for farmers hit by tariffs in the Trump administration’s trade war with China and other countries.
Regardless of the president’s trade strategy, they said the USDA must act to assist farmers enduring disaster now.