PEOPLE

FIRE AND AGRICULTURE


How McKenzie River Valley farms were affected by the wildfires,
and what they are doing to prepare for next fire season.
By Gabi Raab


Farm manager, Adam Lee, is shaken up as he recalls the night that he and the other farmers had to evacuate, “It was probably the most intense thing that I have experienced in my entire life,” Lee said. It’s 10:30 am and he is wearing a straw hat while chopping broccoli.

On a Monday night, Adam Lee had received a text message alert that it was necessary for people in his area to evacuate. Lee went around to all the houses on the farm to make sure that everyone else was aware of the evacuation.

Pieces of ash hit their windshields as Lee and the other farmers headed east on the OR-126 at 1 am.

“It was very emotional. Most of us never lived through anything like that before,” Lee said. “It was a new experience and also just a lot of unknowns.”

What started out as a blueberry farm in 1952 has now become a farming community that provides a multitude of crops for the entire McKenzie River Valley. Organic Redneck Growers is a family owned farm located 30 minutes east of Eugene in Walterville, OR.

Large trees hug the highway, making it difficult to see the small entrance to the farm. There is a small parking lot next to a stucco farm stand where the farmers markets are held. Down the path, tables filled with seedlings stand next to large greenhouses.

Seven farmers live in this community, making farming for them more of a lifestyle than work, although it does pay the bills.

Organic Redneck Growers was lucky in the sense that the farm did not suffer any direct damage from the fires, however, they were set back with production.

Lee and two other farmers harvest purple broccoli while wearing orange gloves and blue shoulder bags that they use to toss the bunches of broccoli in. They slice off the bottoms of the bunches with knives that they have attached to their thighs. As Lee ties a rubber band around the broccoli, he explains that the farm was lucky to not suffer any direct damage by the fires.

The biggest impact was the lack of sun that some of the crops experienced due to the heavy amounts of smoke. The AQI was well above 400 for many days in a row, a record high for the McKenzie River Valley.

“They didn’t have the light or heat that they needed, so they were stunted,” said Lee. “Because we couldn’t work for two weeks while we were evacuated, we were behind and had to reprioritize our work based upon what things needed to happen first.”

Smoke blocked the sun for two weeks after the fire receded and the farmers began working again. They planted produce a month late. Plants and vegetables that normally harvested in November and December didn’t grow to full size. A lot froze.

Starting in mid-May, farm stands open again and visitors come to pick blueberries, a popular activity among Mackenzie River Valley locals. 

It is important for farms, such as Organic Redneck Growers, to be ready to cope with future unprecedented fires.

To prepare for next fire season, OSU Extension Services runs a ‘fire aware, fire prepared’ program– a set of webinar sessions to discuss and address fire preparedness. You can read more about that program here- Fire Aware. Fire Prepared. Wildfire Wednesdays | OSU Extension Service

A lot of production farms have irrigation rights. Many farmers are now thinking about how they can use irrigation systems to prepare for fires.

“If farmers intend to sell what they grow they need what’s called a water right,” according to Teagan Moran, a member of the Oregon State University Extension Small Farms Program.

These rights are limited and not available to livestock farms, so they are more vulnerable to fires.

Farms are also pre-planning evacuations. “I actually helped a seed production farm do an evacuation,” Moran said. “They had probably two years of inventory. So they had seeds from previous years, plus the seeds that they were processing for this year. Having those evacuation plans in place—who to call, what equipment to access so they can do it far more efficiently than the scramble that happened before.”

Farms are also preparing by gathering proper respirators and masks to combat future smoke seasons.

Moran stresses the importance of fire preparation because one set back can potentially wipe a farm out for an entire season. Since farm profit margins are so slim, a fire can be really detrimental economically. Because many farmers live on their properties, their homes are also at risk of being destroyed. A loss of income and a home all at once is a very real risk for farmers during fire seasons.

Wildfires are a new risk to farmers in the Mackenzie River Valley, but now a very real and serious risk. The Holiday Farm fire this past summer served as a real wakeup call for farms and farmers. 

“A lot of farms now have evacuation plans,” said Moran. “We’ve been urging people for years to put this as a priority. Farms in our area never had to think about this and it really took people by surprise.”