Hassinger uses something old, something new -- and common sense


For the Capital Press

COVE, Ore. -- Catherine Creek meanders and twists for 4 miles through Phil Hassinger's farm near Cove in Eastern Oregon's Grande Ronde Valley.

Hassinger figures that with the creek, three oxbow lakes and associated riparian areas, 57 of his 1,000 acres consist of water. Flooding and puddles put another 30 or so acres out of production each year.

"Catherine Creek limits us in some ways, and gives us opportunities in others. It's a mixed blessing," Hassinger said.

The biggest opportunity is high-value irrigated crops. Hassinger and his son Seth raise irrigated wheat, alfalfa, mint and grass seed.

Aesthetics is an additional opportunity, one close to Hassinger's heart.

The farm's oxbow lakes are home to bass, crappie, perch and catfish. River otters, deer, quail, pheasant, herons, ducks and ospreys are drawn to the water and riparian areas. Hassinger has set up a blind -- complete with air conditioning and a small telescope -- overlooking one of the oxbows.

"It's really fun for me to go to 'work' and be in this environment. I waste a lot of time looking at wildlife and birds," Hassinger said.

While delivering plenty of water, the meandering creek also sets limits. The channel creates irregular-shaped fields that can be a challenge to water, with sprinklers up to two miles from the pump site. Only one field is suitable for center-pivot irrigation.

Flood-prone fields next to the creek can be farmed only in the fall.

"That makes it easier for us to put this riparian zone into a buffer situation, so those flooded areas are an enhancement now to the aesthetic part of the farm," Hassinger said.

The Hassingers have two pumping stations in the creek and an additional right to floodwater. They store floodwater in the farm's three oxbows and plant the adjacent areas with deep-rooted crops like alfalfa and wheat.

"The water subs out and we don't need a pump. It's the cheapest irrigation you can get," Hassinger said, referring to how the water infiltrates the area.

"Phil and his son are always looking for way to make things simpler," said Don Hollis, a renewable energy coordinator for the USDA.

A few years ago the USDA and Oregon Trail Electric Co-op helped fund a variable-drive pump that now supplies water for over half the farm.

The new pump reduces both water and power use by about a third. The pump has also simplified irrigation system maintenance.

In 2007 the Hassingers received the Union County Conservation Farm of the Year award for efforts that include riparian buffers and irrigation system fish passages.

The Hassingers' newest project is right in line with their desire to keep things simple. Last year a small army of mice and voles moved into the fields. When Hassinger learned about the mouse-eating American kestrel, he arranged for Boy Scout Clancy Strand to build 22 kestrel nest boxes as an Eagle Scout project.

"Several pairs have nested this spring, and now they have fledges. I've seen kestrels eating mice throughout the day, and fewer new holes in the peppermint field near the blind," Hassinger said.

Oregon Farm Bureau Women's Advisory Council Chair Mary Grimes recently visited the Hassinger farm.

"Phil Hassinger is living with the wildlife of his area while giving back to their habitat and enjoying their presence. He is utilizing modern technology to help him manage the water he uses so he is not wasteful. Farming is a little like a wedding ceremony-- something old, something new, and a whole lot of common sense to make it work," Grimes said.

Freelance writer Lee Farren is based in Ukiah, Ore. E-mail: leewfarren@centurytel.net.

Phil Hassinger

Hometown: Philadelphia, Pa.

Occupation: Farmer

Age: 63

Family: Wife, Trudy, two grown sons and one grown daughter, seven grandchildren

Education: Bachelor's degree in plant science from the University of California-Davis

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