This West Is OUR West

Drought 2018: Estimated losses no small potatoes for Malin packing shed


 By Holly Dillemuth, Herald and News, April 8, 2018

Workers at Circle C Marketing, a potato packing shed in Malin, sort spuds on Thursday morning at the facility. Manager Scotty Fenters, a fourth-generation potato grower, said he is hoping to minimize any impact from the drought year on his employees.

MALIN — Every day that passes without an irrigation start date for potato packing shed Circle C Marketing manager Scotty Fenters is one more lost opportunity.

The fourth-generation Klamath Basin potato grower, who also manages the Cheyne Brothers’ potato seed farm in Malin, is estimating that the worst-case scenario caused by water unavailability [sic] could mean significant losses for he and his family: 70 percent of both his fresh market seed potato operation and at least losing roughly the same percentage of volume in the packing shed at the Malin facility.

In the last couple days, Fenters said he’s had to turn down potential customers looking to buy seed potatoes.

“I had a guy call about buying seed potatoes from me … and my answer was, it’s complicated,” he said. “If this doesn’t go right, and there’s no water in the Basin, that was my opportunity to move them. Those opportunities aren’t going to happen every day.”

Doing his best to be an optimist, Fenters said, “We’re going to bank on good things coming.”

An estimated 70 percent loss in his potato volume at the packing shed is conservative, though, he said, adding that it could also mean having to find ground to rent outside of Klamath County in which to plant his 2019 seed potato crop.

He said it costs a minimum of $3,000 to $3,500 an acre to grow conventional potatoes, and upwards of $5,000 or more an acre to grow seed potatoes, with a good portion of that money staying local.

“How am I’m supposed to pick up a contract … when I’m supposed to be planting in 15 days, and I don’t know if there’s water,” Fenters said.

Early May is a good time to be planting seed potatoes, but without water certainty due to ongoing litigation and the drought, he and many others have to wait, weigh the impact of their decisions, and switch gears if needed.

“You can’t be planting potatoes and expect to have a commercial product if you plant it in June. Everyday [sic] that you delay planting,” Fenters added, “you’re pretty much ensuring you’re going to get a smaller crop. So it starts costing you dollars every day, and it’s pretty substantial.”

Being in the seed potato business, Fenters said he has to be one year ahead, and has to plant potatoes this year for next year’s crop.

“If I don’t plant those, people have to buy their seed (potatoes) elsewhere,” Fenters said.

Fenters said operations in Washington can start planting seed potato as early as February.

“Everybody starts planting earlier than us because we are obviously higher in elevation and colder in climate,” Fenter said. “Because of that, I don’t have anywhere else to sell seed potatoes after a certain point, because most other areas have planted. We’re one of the last to plant.”

In the face of a difficult drought, Fenters said he doesn’t want his employees — with numbers averaging 30 workers — at the Circle C Marketing packing shed and three to 15 farm employees to worry about losing their jobs. He also emphasized the widespread impact the drought and uncertain water availability could have on the Basin as a whole.

“The less potatoes we have, the less work we have because it’s production,” Fenters said. “We’re going to do our best to adapt to the current situation ê do whatever we can to try to minimize the impact on the people that we feel responsible for.”

While Fenters waits to find out when and where he can start planning his crops, he’s considering his options.

“I have to be planting for the next year regardless, so even with the water situation, I have to do my best to find somewhere in Oregon or California to plant, just so we can continue the supply,” Fenters said. “I’m going to try to plant somewhere else … we’re going to have to scale back, and we can’t guarantee we’re going to be able to cover our current demand.”

But Fenters said he likely cannot rent ground knowing there’s a possibility of having water this year, pending a court hearing in San Francisco, which he and many other irrigators in the Basin will be attending.

“I’ve got the ground worked up, I’ve got a lot of money into it,” Fenters said. “I’m there. If there’s water, I’ve got to stay there, and I can’t go rent ground elsewhere as a back-up, knowing that I very well might stay there.”

Court hearing Wednesday

The 2 p.m. court hearing on Wednesday at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco will be overseen by William Orrick. Orrick’s ruling will potentially decide factors leading to a start date — or not — for Basin irrigators, in a lawsuit between Bureau of Reclamation vs. Yurok and Hoopa Tribes.

The Yurok Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Klamath Riverkeeper and the Hoopa Valley Tribe sued the Bureau of Reclamation in 2016 to manage Klamath River flows in order to protect threatened Coho salmon from an outbreak of the parasite C. shasta, according to a previous H&N story.

A court order issued on Feb. 8, 2017, by U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick order the Bureau to implement annual winter-spring flows to flush out polychaete worms that host C. shasta, according to a previous story.

Farmers at risk

“This decision — it could help set precedents for future decisions on years like this,” Fenters said. “If this one doesn’t go well, I’m not going to expect the scenario next time it happens to go well, either. It puts a lot more risk in this game.”

Bureau of Reclamation has suggested that April 19 be used as a potential start date for Project irrigators, pending a ruling by the court, though that date is not set in stone.

One thing is certain: The hearing will impact his 2019 seed potato crop, from harvesting in the fall onward, and could affect irrigation seasons for many more Klamath Project irrigators.

“All our plans will be changing even if we don’t get a decision, the plans are going to change,” Fenters said. “We’ve got to start forcing our hand pretty quick.”

Fenters expressed an understanding that all parties in the Basin could experience hard times this summer, but that he hopes the best for all.

“I don’t want to see the salmon go extinct, I don’t want to see the suckers go extinct, and I don’t want to see the small farmers go extinct in this Basin,” Fenters said. “I want to come up with a middle ground that works for everyone.”

Looking for middle ground

Although the estimated losses Fenters’ and his family’s operations faces are worst-case scenario — in the event there is no surface water to irrigate crops this year — Fenters said it’s harder to estimate the impact if the scenario plays out somewhere in between some irrigation water and none for Project irrigators.

“If you can’t grow crops, you can’t make it work,” Fenters said. “If you plant stuff later, you harvest stuff later. We can’t be harvesting in December. It doesn’t work that way.

“We don’t even know what wells are going to be operating,” Fenters added in an interview on Saturday.

“Whatever that ground is in the middle, it changes everything, and there’s no way to predict it till everything is in the ground.”

No matter the decisions he will make this week, according to a court ruling or lack thereof, no decision will be a small one for Fenters when it comes to planting and planning crops.

“It’s the gamble we take,” Fenters said. “There are no positive decisions I can make. It’s just how can I make it through the next year.”