NYSSA, Ore. — Farmers in Eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho expect onion acres to be close to normal this year despite a critical water supply situation on the Oregon side of the border.
Many Oregon farmers who get their water from the Owyhee Irrigation District will have significantly less water this year.
But while those who have ground located on the upper part of the Owyhee system will get almost two-thirds less water this year, farmers on the lower parts will have access to supplemental water pumped from the Snake River.
“Most onion acres are flexible enough that they can be moved to where you do have water,” said Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa and marketing order chairman of the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee.
“I think planted acres will be about close to normal this year,” he added.
Oregon farmer Bruce Corn also expects onion acres to be about the same.
“A lot of guys are laying off lower value crops to grow the higher value crops, like onions,” he said. “I know some farmers who are fallowing some of their crops this year to make their water last.”
Growers in the Snake River Valley of southwestern Idaho and Malheur County, Ore., produce about 25 percent of the nation’s fresh bulb onion supply.
Idaho farmers planted 9,200 acres of onions in 2013 and Oregon growers planted 10,900, a total of 20,100. A total of 19,400 acres were planted on both sides of the border in 2012 and 20,700 were planted in 2011.
Paul Skeen, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said a lot of farmers are making major changes to ensure they have enough water to grow onions, the backbone of the region’s economy.
“There are a lot of people, especially on the upper Owyhee, who have fallowed out ground so they can keep that extra water for their onion crop,” he said.
Skeen cut way back on his dry bean and sugar beet acres this year and planted twice as many seed peas, which use less water and are done before the end of June.
“We’re trying to save our water for our onion crop,” he said.
Corn said he has done a lot of things to conserve water this year, including growing more wheat, which uses less water, and switching almost all of his onion acres to a drip irrigation system. He also installed new pivots and will pump back some of his wastewater.
The question now becomes how long the water will keep flowing and whether there will be enough of it to finish the crop, said OID Manager Jay Chamberlin.
Onion harvest in this area starts in August and continues through October. Water normally flows through the OID system until October but how long it will last this year is uncertain.
“They feel if they can get water through the first week of August, they can finish the crop,” Chamberlin said.