KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — While fights over water have come to define the region over the years, at least one idea unites growers and others throughout the Klamath Basin: a desire to pass on local agriculture to future generations.
That desire is front and center at Klamath Community College, whose agricultural sciences program offers classes that can go toward a bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University. The 21-year-old campus also offers support for students who are finishing their degrees at OSU online.
“Studies have shown there’s a probability of kids staying in the community if they graduate (from college) in that community,” said Keith Duren, who leads KCC’s ag program. “We’re going to die if we don’t have that next generation.”
To entice high school graduates to stay in town, Duren has amassed high-tech equipment one might find in a university’s master’s degree program. His chemistry and biology labs have such equipment as a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) device for identifying different substances within a test sample.
He has an atomic absorption monitor and obtained a DNA synthesizer two years before Washington State University did, he said.
“This is how we make the next generation of agriculturalists,” Duren said. “It’s pretty amazing to have this stuff at a two-year school. I’ve got sophomores doing gene transformation in chemistry lab.”
A tour of KCC’s facilities kicked off an all-day field trip on Sept. 28 highlighting Klamath Basin agriculture. Hosted by the Klamath Water Users Association, the Fall Harvest Tour of area farms and processing facilities is aimed at teaching local businesspeople and political leaders about the industry that contributes nearly $300 million to the region’s economy.
Stops on the tour included Holland’s Dairy in Klamath Falls, a potato farm, the Gold Dust Potato Processors and Walker Farms potato shed in Malin, Ore., and a farming and wetlands restoration project on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in far Northern California.
This year’s theme centered around making ag attractive to the area’s young people, and keeping the industry viable and sustainable for future farmers.
“There’s been a concern for years about kids who go off to college not coming home,” said Scott White, the KWUA’s executive director. “But there’s been a change. Some of the kids are wanting to stay ... It’s a pretty exciting thing.”
Among the attendees this year were FFA students from Henley High School in Klamath Falls, who said they found the tour valuable.
“I think these stops are helping us see the opportunities in the basin and see new things that we haven’t seen in the basin,” said Wyatt Quinowski, a senior. “If I had the opportunity to just go in and farm ... I’d like to stay in the basin.”
Bob Hamlin earned a degree from OSU and returned to the area to help his uncle at Holland’s Dairy, where he manages about 700 cows.
“Hopefully we can continue this lifestyle in the basin,” he said, noting the frequent water shortages that have been the source of controversy and settlement talks for decades.
Growing potatoes — a key crop in the basin — has its challenges, farmer Luke Robison warned. One has to put lots of capital into potato farming, which most young people can’t afford to do, he said. And proper water management in the height of summer is critical, as water stress can alter a potato’s sugar levels, he said.
But the industry is in need of workers, Robison said.
“On the production side, there’s lots of opportunities out here on the farm,” he told the FFA students. “It’s the experience (that’s important) ... It’d be very difficult to get into this business, but there’s a lot of opportunity to get your feet wet. And this isn’t something you can learn from a book.”