USDA approves emergency grazing, cover crops in north-central Oregon

A fast-moving fire raged across Wasco County southeast of The Dalles on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has announced relief for farmers and ranchers affected by wildfires that burned earlier this summer in Wasco and Sherman counties.

Help is on the way for farmers and ranchers in north-central Oregon who lost tens of thousands of acres of cropland in a series of large wildfires that swept through the region earlier this summer.

The USDA on Wednesday approved emergency grazing for affected ranchers on Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, land through Sept. 30. Officials with the Risk Management Agency will also allow summer fallow wheat growers to plant cover crops in burned areas to prevent soil erosion, without affecting their crop insurance.

The relief comes at the behest of Oregon congressional leaders, including Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Republican Rep. Greg Walden, whose district covers Wasco and Sherman counties where the fires raged in July and August.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the measures in a letter sent to Walden on Sept. 5. Perdue said the agency is compiling reported losses to determine if they will declare a federal disaster statewide.

According to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Oregon has experienced 1,680 fires burning 762,959 acres in 2018. The 10-year average from 2006 to 2017 is 2,400 fires burning 733,019 acres, meaning this year’s fires are fewer, but larger on average, than they were over the past decade.

In a statement, Walden said fires have not only impact forests and choked communities with smoke, but also devastated farmers and ranchers — especially in Wasco and Sherman counties, where some producers lost some or nearly all of their crops.

“I applaud Secretary Perdue’s prompt approval of my request to get our farmers and ranchers the assistance they need to get back on their feet after these fires,” Walden said.

Large fires in the region include the Substation fire, which started July 17 and torched 78,425 acres. The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates the fire impacted 31,000 acres of cropland and standing wheat over 86 farms in both Wasco and Sherman counties. One farmer, 64-year-old John Ruby of Wasco County, also died while fighting the fire, digging a firebreak to protect his neighbor’s property.

The Long Hollow fire started just nine days later, consuming another 33,451 acres south of Dufur. Finally, the South Valley fire started Aug. 1, adding another 20,026 acres. All three fires were either confirmed or likely human-caused.

A major concern now is preventing soil erosion on the blackened landscape. Farmers were encouraged to plant cover crops, but since wheat is normally grown in a summer fallow rotation, producers worried it would put them under “continuous production” under their crop insurance.

Perdue said the Risk Management Agency, which regulates crop insurance, will make changes to accommodate growing cover crops on affected acres for the 2020 crop year.

Additionally, ranchers who lost rangeland for their livestock will have the ability to graze animals on land enrolled in CRP, a program where the federal government pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production for 10-15 years.

Both Sens. Wyden and Merkley released statements saying they will continue to work toward helping farmers and ranchers recover from fires. The Oregon Farm Bureau thanked the senators in its statement, adding, “The ability to plant cover crop and still be compliant with farm bill programs is critical.”

Wes Jennings, farm program chief for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Oregon, encouraged any farmer or rancher affected by the wildfires to contact their local county FSA office to learn about what resources may be available.

“Everybody is so diverse and unique in their operation, a program might fit one person and not fit another person,” Jennings said.

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