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Organic crops find home on refuge land

Issue Date: September 8, 2010
Christine Souza

Even with a short water supply this year, many growers in the Klamath Basin are confident that the federal wetland-crop rotation system offered on Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge land is a "win-win" for farmers and wildlife.

The practice of turning fields into temporary wetlands for one to four years known as the "walking wetlands" program has had such positive results that growers are willing to pay more than twice the value for refuge lease land that has gone through the program. They are also converting private farmland to wetlands in exchange for being able to farm some of the federally-owned farmland on the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges.

Marshall Staunton checks the organic wheat that he grows on wetlands near Tulelake.

Flooding the lease lands has not only attracted wildlife, but growers have found that farming this ground suppresses weeds, pests and diseases, saving hundreds of dollars per acre. And if the wetlands remain free of synthetic crop protection materials for three years, they qualify for organic certification, which has become profitable for local growers.

"Competition for the refuge lease ground is very strong. While some growers were probably in organic to begin with, most of them probably shifted to organic after seeing the benefits on this ground," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. "They have experienced low-to-no input needs and expanding markets for organic products such as potatoes, onions and wheat.

"The program is speaking for itself. It's working for birds and for organic production."

Tulelake farmer Marshall Staunton, who grows both organic and conventional crops with his three brothers, was one of the first in the 1990s to attempt farming the drained wetland ground. He took a chance with a Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge field that is part of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

"As an experiment the Wildlife folks said, 'We'll take the field back, flood it for a couple of years, then put it up for bid and see what happens,'" Staunton said. "We came in and farmed grain conventionally afterwards. We got a good grain crop and indications that fertility was high. The next year nematodes were nonexistent, so we grew potatoes and had a grand slam; it was probably our highest yield ever."

This "walking wetlands" field in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge is a natural habitat for wildlife. It is used for organic farming once the water is drained off.

Staunton, a diversified farmer who grows organic wheat, potatoes, barley and onions as well as conventional commodities, this year farmed almost 6,000 acres of crops, about 30 percent of which was grown on the federal lease-lands with some of that planted in organic wheat, barley and a specialty potato variety known as the Klamath Pearl.

"Organics are being adopted here because the customer is asking for product to be grown in a certain way and is willing to pay extra for it," Staunton said. "We think we've got a great way to grow organics here and we think we can grow 80 to 90 percent of normal conventional yields here, if not higher, with equivalent quality. Little by little we've picked up organic sales volume for the specialty potato varieties. There are good quality local organic potatoes on private and public lands."

Marshall Staunton shows organic Klamath Pearl potatoes he grows on the wetlands near Tulelake.

Although the figures vary, an estimated 17,000 acres on Tule Lake Refuge and about 5,000 acres on the Lower Klamath Refuge are leased to farmers who take part in a bidding process through the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge. Of that amount, about 7,000 acres have been rotated into the walking wetland program. In the entire refuge complex of 150,000 acres, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Manager Ron Cole estimates 10,000 to 12,000 acres have been converted to organic.

"Markets are emerging for organic so farmers are responding to those markets. We have hit on a recipe that can help convert a lot of the land to qualify as organic if that is what they want to do," Cole said. "This has allowed all of us to see how wildlife and agriculture really do coexist and that one really does benefit the other."

Below-average precipitation and the implementation of regulatory restrictions left the majority of the Klamath Basin refuges high and dry this season. Water is first distributed to meet the needs of the threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River and endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers in Upper Klamath Lake. Water then goes to Native American tribes, Klamath Project irrigators and lastly, the wildlife refuges.

Klamath Water Project irrigators received about 30 percent of average annual water releases, which meant a lack of water for the walking wetland program this year, Cole said.

"In general, the lack of water has made it very difficult for the organic growers, probably more difficult than for a conventional grower because they may be losing organic status on some of their fields," Cole said. "These guys develop organic markets and then jump into a conventional market and then they lose because they are no longer a provider for a buyer. Some of the bigger organic guys can weather that; somebody who is just trying to get started might have lost some ground."

In other cases, farmers have elected to plant organic grain on the wetland ground because it contains sufficient soil moisture.

Organic grower Mike Noonan, owner of Noonan Farms, is one of the largest organic growers in the Klamath Basin and farms in California and Oregon. He jumped into organics at about the same time as Staunton, after growing grain on the federal wetlands.

"I honestly didn't know that much about organics. So back when organic was just taking off, I sold a load of grain to a guy and told him, 'Do you believe I grew that without any conventional fertilizer or pesticides and I did it with the wetlands?'" Noonan said. "He said, 'If that works that well, you ought to get ready for organics.' I came back and started transitioning to organic and have been doing it ever since."

Noonan grows organic grains, alfalfa and forages for organic dairies and grows organic potatoes on 9,000 acres of wetlands that he established on his private ground.

"We really believe in what we're doing. We believe that organics are the way to go because for us, it fits," Noonan said. "We've found our niche and I think people can enjoy the fact that a wetland has been in place for a couple of years and we are doing good things by growing an economically sound crop and doing great things for the environment."

Using a rotation process, Noonan Farms floods a 200-acre block of land. Canal water sits on the land for three years, which offers habitat for waterfowl. After this land's tenure as a wetland, it is drained and another 200 acres serves as farmland for Noonan's organic production.

"Conventional growers have seen the organic markets grow and they are testing the water, so to speak, and this is the tool to get them there. The organic markets, though they are a small percentage of the overall markets out there, are growing fast," Cole said. "If there is an organic market out there and you want to jump into it, have at it. We are just providing another tool in the grower's toolbox—they can either farm organically when the wetland duration is done, or conventionally."

The walking wetland program administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the only such program in the National Wildlife Refuge system that has lease lands for commercial agriculture, which is predicated by the Kuchel Act of 1964, Cole said.

"We've seen tremendous gains for species that we don't typically see here, such as shore birds and wading birds. It has been an amazing transition to see these other species come back to the basin," Cole said. "We've already seen some of the conservation groups recognize this marriage between wildlife and agriculture as being one of success."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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