TULELAKE, Calif. — Fourth-generation farmer Marc Staunton employs one of the most innovative crop rotations in the country.
On different segments of a 3,500-acre plot within the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Staunton makes rotations based on a four-year cycle. He plants grains, then potatoes and then returns to grains, and in the fourth year he fallows the field and floods it to create seasonal wetlands.
About 20 years ago, his family’s Staunton Farms helped spearhead a project called Walking Wetlands, in which growers with co-op contracts or leases to farm within the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges are bringing wetlands back to an area that was once a massive lake.
The approach has resulted in higher yields and overall quality of the crops while enhancing the habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, Staunton said. He and others argue the project also improves water quality as it drains into the Klamath River.
“The basic principle is that when you restore water ... it instantly revitalizes the soil,” Staunton, 32, told about 50 community members during a recent tour of area farms.
He said the farmers have been able to reduce nematode and disease pressure without using pesticides.
“Increasing your yield because the ground is healthy is a good thing,” Staunton said, adding that growers have also seen an increased population of waterfowl.
Staunton has had so much success with the practice that he’s initiated it on about 500 acres of private ground, rotating in seasonal wetlands under the guidance of the local water district and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Overall, the family farms about 7,000 acres in the Klamath Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California state line.
“I think we somewhat have a niche here because of our ecosystem,” Staunton said in an interview. “It’s not difficult to return to that natural ecosystem. We put water on a field and all of the sudden we’re back to seeing the native plants and species that were here 100 years ago.”
Founded in 1927
Staunton Farms was founded in 1927 by Marc’s great-grandfather, a World War I veteran who homesteaded the land and began raising sheep. The family later began growing potatoes, and now potatoes and onions are the main focus, Staunton said. The business is in its 13th year of growing organic crops on some of its acreage, he said.
Initiated in 1905, the Klamath Reclamation Project drained the historic lakes and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin to create dry land for farming. In the midst of the project’s development, the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake wildlife refuges were set aside by executive orders in 1908 and 1928, respectively, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Farms can enter leases or cooperatives with the federal government to grow row crops within the refuges as a result of the 1964 Kuchel Act, which allows them as long as they’re conducive to proper waterfowl management.
Amid growing pressure from environmental groups to convert the refuges back to natural habitat, farmers began to collaborate in seeking ways to improve waterfowl habitat while maintaining food production, Staunton said.
The result was the Walking Wetlands project, for which growers now flood about 1,100 acres in the Tule Lake refuge and another 1,100 acres in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge each year, he said.
“We started in 1998 blocking out farmland so it can be rotated to seasonal wetlands,” Staunton said. “It was a grass-roots effort. We said, ‘Why kick us off of there? Why not work together to develop that system that recognizes your need of increasing waterfowl habitat, of increasing their food sources and healthy marsh land, but then also still being able to farm it?’ In turn we’re using less pesticides and less inputs and creating a healthier net environment for both sides.”
The project enabled Staunton Farms to develop a “more sustainable” way to grow potatoes by increasing the fertility of the soil through natural nematode and disease suppression, he said. The standing water, decomposing plants and bird droppings all make the soil more fertile when it’s put back into production, Staunton and other project participants said.
“It kind of worked out better than we could have imagined,” he said. “It developed into something we use more widely than just with organic production. It can be used for organic and conventional.”
Environmental groups aren’t sold on the concept, however. WaterWatch, Oregon Wild and the Audubon Society of Portland filed suit earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Medford, Ore., to force the refuge managers to phase out farming in their 15-year conservation plan so more water could be reserved for wildlife.
Current management practices in the refuges have “reduced wetland habitat for important bird migrations on the Pacific Flyway, increased disease, and increased the distribution of noxious weeds instead of plants suitable for waterfowl,” the groups alleged in the suit.
Staunton counters that wetlands and farming together provide a valuable food source for birds while creating “a viable source of food and fiber for the greater West Coast region.
“I think it’s extremely important to have sustainable food that is locally grown,” he said. “I feel like farmers are much more environmentalist than they think themselves to be or are given credit for being.”
As for how well flood-fallow irrigation works outside the refuges, Staunton said it depends on the landscape of the area. He said the practice has been embraced by other farms that rely on a lease of federal land as part of their operation.
But doing so on private ground can be more difficult, he said.
“The infrastructure is not as developed, so when you’re flooding a field, there’s a fair amount of infrastructure that needs to occur there,” Staunton said. “Also, trying to create a wetland around neighbors poses a fair amount of challenges.
“If a neighbor is getting water shut off (because of drought), we’re not going to go flood our field,” he said.
Having naturally been a lake bottom with vibrant soil and a refuge for migratory waterfowl, the refuge land was ideal for the project, he said. Short of re-creating the massive lakes, the project is a good alternative for waterfowl, he argues.
“We can’t go backwards,” he said. “What we can do is improve on what we’ve been given.”
Residence: Tulelake, Calif.
Occupation: Part-owner, Staunton Farms
Family: Wife, Ami; children Parker, 8, Graham, 5, Marley, 3, and Elliott, 1