They are land rich and resource poor. Most have hundreds of acres of fertile soil, some thousands, but little money in the bank and – most importantly – no water.
Now the young farmers of the Klamath Basin, an agricultural community on the border of Oregon and California, fear they might be the last generation of their kind.
“It sounds like a sad country song, but that’s the current situation we’re in,” said Bryce Balin, 28, who manages his family’s 2,200-acre farm. An all-organic enterprise, Balin raises grass-fed cattle, livestock feed, winter hay and potatoes, all set against a panorama of dry, alpine hills.
The area has struggled with water scarcity for years – but this year has been unlike any other. Amid a historic drought, in May the federal government cut off all irrigation to farmers for the first time in more than a century, in an effort to conserve water for the endangered fish that also share this landscape. The move sparked fear and concern among farmers, some of whom have protested the decision, and put an already challenging way of life in doubt.
The Klamath Basin has come to symbolize the precarious question of who gets water in a region without enough to go around – a question that could soon haunt farming communities across the American west. The fields and ranches here depend on a system of canals and dams that rearranged the natural ecosystem long ago, with disastrous consequences for fish and in turn the Native peoples whose cultures are tied to them.
Water is getting harder to come by as the region becomes not only drier, but hotter. Snowpack has been low in winter, rainfall sparse in spring, and forest fires more threatening. Most days this summer, the temperature has been 15 or 20 degrees above normal. Keeping crops alive requires more water than ever.
Balin and his brother Trent, 25, along with their father, made most of this season’s plans before knowing that water wouldn’t come. They bought seed, prepared soil and signed on to the usual loans. Now they are in triage mode – pumping water from wells uncertain to last the season, while expenses have ballooned 30 to 50% due to the cost of electricity for pumps. Supply prices are up, too. And unless he can find supplemental feed for the cows, Balin expects the ranch will reduce its herd by 20%.
Most farmers are borrowing and buying what little water is available from nearby wells or, like the Balin family, spending enormous sums to pump water from their own – a solution that’s not only expensive but unsustainable for the ecosystem.
“Everybody is facing loss and financial destruction,” he said on a recent July afternoon as firefighting planes zipped overhead toward a billowing plume on the horizon, signs of the Bootleg fire, now the worst wildfire in the US, beginning to burn nearby. “If the climate and weather events continue like this, where will we be?”
The Klamath Basin was once a string of pristine wetlands that some have called “the Everglades of the west”. The basin has long been home to Native American tribes and a bounty of sucker fish and salmon. But in the middle of the 19th century settlers began diverting the three big rivers feeding the system for their own needs, according to Hannah Gosnell, a professor at Oregon State University who has long studied the area.
In 1910, the US Bureau of Reclamation rerouted the waterways to create farmland. The Upper Klamath Lake, home to unique species of sucker fish, became a reservoir. Dams were later added downstream to generate electricity.
“All that leads up to a pretty transformed system. All the wetlands were drained, the streams were straightened, the trees were cut down and cows were put on the land,” Gosnell said. Seen from above today, the basin is a patchwork of rectangles, criss-crossed by lonely roads, with two man-made refuges set aside for birds.
Many of today’s farmers are descended from the basin’s original agrarians, a number of whom were veterans of both world wars, lured by enticements and a promise of free water. They run mostly small operations, growing potatoes and hay for dairy cows, raising cattle and grains, or growing specialty crops like horseradish, onions and garlic. Because the land was formerly wetland, crop selection is limited but big brands like McDonald’s, Lay’s and Reser’s come calling for the moisture content of the potatoes.
But amid dwindling water to divert to the basin and growing concerns about sustainability, the power dynamics that made these farms have shifted. In 1988, the sucker fish were listed as endangered, followed by Coho salmon in 1997. Since then, the courts have awarded senior water rights to the Klamath River and its tributaries to the Klamath Tribes, who are working to restore two culturally revered and endangered sucker fish for harvest, the C’waam and Koptu, and improve habitat and water quality for all sucker fish and also salmon downstream. Both species remain in perilous condition.
For now, the only water not being held in Klamath Lake is being sent for endangered salmon, rather than to farms for irrigation, and appeals continue that could award the Klamath Tribes more water when there’s more to be had. The result is “a situation of incredible tension and competition,” said Gosnell.
The legal win has been hard fought for the Tribes, but Don Gentry, who is chairman of the Klamath Tribes, observed its dissonance with a tribal instinct to look out for one’s neighbors.
“I’m just so sensitive to being marginalized and our fish being marginalized like we’re not important,” he told the Guardian in an interview. “I don’t want to do that same thing to folks on the other side of the issue. They’re people too and they’re caught up in these unintended consequences.”
Some young farmers trying to find a path forward said it does feel like it’s not just the weather that’s against them – but the government and the courts too. With the only water left to them in the ground, and only for those with wells to pump it from, frustration has hit a peak.
“It’s costing us an absolute fortune,” said Rodney Cheyne, 33, gesturing toward a field of alfalfa, hay bales towering behind him. His Scottish family was lured here in 1909 on the promise of bountiful water. Now he’s pumping what water he can get from a neighbor’s well.
He said he does not expect to make a profit this year, even though the work has been considerably harder – but doing nothing would cost him this year’s crop and also harm the next. “We’re just trying to mitigate our disaster,” he said, eyeing a small crop of healthy alfalfa greening the space between yellowed patches of fallow fields.
The cost of pumping water compounds the already challenging cost of farming. There are mortgages, land leases, labor. And farmers are also required to pay fees to maintain the irrigation systems, even those that turn into dusty roadside ditches, like the ones nearby. Those costs all favor scale, forcing smaller operations to shutter first and paving the way for large farms to move in and buy up land.
Other solutions, such as growing dry crops without irrigation, or crops like wheat and corn that can thrive in the dry summers, are also untenable ventures for smaller farmers. “There’s no hope. There will not be a fifth generation,” Cheyne said. He is among a small set of farmers willing to protest the government for failing to deliver what it promised them, but he knows he is outnumbered by those who are less inclined to agitate.
“You don’t want to think about what’s coming. You want to just keep going and hope it gets better,” said Chance Thompson, 23, who labors on Cheyne’s farm and whose wife is expecting their first child. The dog that trails him is named Deets for a character in a Western, one who has nothing but heart.
Thompson is the eleventh child born in a family with twelve, farming long in his blood. Everyone and everything he knows is in this basin. He never planned on leaving, and doesn’t like to think about it. Now he fears the day that Cheyne can no longer afford him. He worries that his child will grow up to see nothing but bad in this way of life, then become another person who does not want to save it.
“I’ve thought about if I could ever go do anything else,” he said. “But I could never sit down at a desk. I couldn’t pump anyone’s gas. I couldn’t work at McDonald’s. I got to be outside doing this.”
The bind facing the Klamath farmers is one that’s becoming more typical in the American west. Water is increasingly scarce and irrigated agriculture often competes with wildlife and nature for what resources remain.
“One hundred years ago when we gave out water rights, we didn’t care about ecosystems or know we ought to,” said Peter Gleick, president emeritus at the Pacific Institute, which creates and advances solutions to water challenges. “Now we realize natural ecosystems, fisheries, wetlands, salmon also deserve a piece of the pie.”
That means that, on paper, much more water has been committed than rain and snow can actually provide. Without a rethinking of western water rights, Gleick said, conflict, dispute, chaos and economic uncertainties will only worsen.
As they grappled to save the season, the Klamath farmers said they encountered few sympathies from the outside world. They are often blamed for water conflicts, and for the resulting impacts to fish. They are befuddled by a lack of consumer support for what they do. And they carry the stigma of a similar episode in 2001, when rowdy protests over water curtailment prompted the government to send water to farms, a decision that killed tens of thousands of salmon the next year.
Today’s young farmers were small children at the time of that earlier conflict, but it sticks to them in ways they said undermines their chief ambition – to grow food.
Spencer Seus, 14, is the fourth generation on his family’s farm. Spencer started driving a tractor at age eight, and he said farming is not just the life of his forebears – it is his. Trays of horseradish beneath a swing set tell the story of his summer, which is lately spent on the tractor cutting mint.
“This is where food is coming from. It’s not just in the grocery store,” he said, gesturing to a field.
Farmers say there is a disconnect between this daily toil and the people it feeds. Cheyne, the alfalfa farmer, described the tension as “a civil war without gunfire”.
Cliff Bentz, a local congressman, is pursuing federal disaster aid for the farmers for 2021 and is lobbying the state of Oregon to allow for more wells to be drilled for groundwater. In the long term, he said, the federal government should provide not just money but the expertise to help the community find a way forward.
“We should keep the faith with those we’ve enticed into these kinds of lives,” he said, referring to the century-old promotions that lured farmers to the Klamath Basin when agrarian pursuits were a national priority.
A lawyer with a history litigating water rights, Bentz argued that the Endangered Species Act is too stringent and should be rethought to balance species survival with agricultural needs in places like this. Experts countered that reasoning, saying there is often talk of reexamining the law when water disputes are won by fish.
In the meantime, farmers said they just want to know how much water to expect, even if the answer is none. They don’t want to till fields that will end up fallow, or seed crops that can never grow.
“It’s pretty spooky to operate a business when you have an essential resource that is unknown on the supply side,” said Balin, who added that he hoped the Klamath could solve its problems, and maybe become a model for elsewhere.
Until then, it remains a warning.
“I guarantee if we have another year of drought,” he said, “this Klamath Basin scenario is going to be in every irrigation district across the west.”