Wet spring hampers Malheur County planting campaign

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE – Every growing season is a gamble but this year the odds may be even worse for area farmers as wet weather and the lingering impact of winter storms collapsed the traditional planting window.

“There are still some onions that haven’t been planted yet,” said Stuart Reitz, the cropping systems agent at the OSU Extension Service.

Some sugar beets are yet to be planted as well.

The late planting season scenario stands in contrast to 2016, when weather conditions created ideal yields for onion producers.

Row crops are a major part of Malheur County’s economy.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, Malheur County contains 204,769 acres of cropland and the average farm is 967 acres. There were 1,113 farms in the county in 2012.

Reitz said spring rains are partly to blame for delayed planting.

Timing is everything regarding the county’s biggest crop – onions – and other agriculture products.

“For a crop like that (onions) it must mature to the right stage before end of the season in the fall,” Reitz said.

Several factors come into play every year for farmers, including temperature in the spring and autumn, the type of weather and the length of the growing season.

If the weather remains moderately cool throughout the growing season, an onion producer could see a smaller plant and an overall smaller harvest.

“You have smaller onions or plants that haven’t matured properly. So, they might not store as well. We’d like it to be warm but not excessively hot,” Reitz said.

Smaller plants ultimately mean lower prices, a major factor for Malheur County, home to 25 percent of the nation’s Spanish onion supply. Onion production produces more than $1 billion annually for the area.

So, when the planting campaign is hindered, it creates a cascading effect, Reitz said.

“People were delayed in planting onions and sugar beets that typically grow earlier in the season, which delays their ability to plant corn that goes in later in the season. It sorts of backs everything up,” he said.

Reitz said the planning season typically begins around March 1 and runs until mid-April. Harvest also traditionally starts in August and ends in late September.

Reitz said producers look for a “Goldilocks Syndrome” when they cast an eye toward the future.

“You don’t want it too hot and you don’t want it too cool so you are growing too slowly. That pertains to everything, you just need those ideal growing conditions,” he said.

While the planting season is running late, Reitz said the right type of summer weather could nullify negative impacts.

Farmer Dan Corn said he’s three weeks behind schedule for planting.

“Odds of having a really good crop are slim,” he said.

Corn operates his farm between Cairo Junction and Nyssa and has about 25 percent of his acreage in onions. He agreed with Reitz regarding how important the summer will be for the 2017 crop.

“If we had a perfect summer, maybe we could still have a good crop. If we have a hot summer, probably not,” said Corn.

Another challenge, Corn said, is soil conditions. The soil, he said, is saturated with water, in large part because of the heavy snowfall during the winter.

“All that snow had to go somewhere. The soil profile is full of moisture and then we had rains in March,” he said.

Two problems confront farmers like Corn when the soil is saturated. Tractors, Corn said, will sink into the mud and often mud will clog planting equipment.

Corn said this season reminds him of 2006, when crops were planted late and yields weren’t as good as farmers wanted.

“The ground isn’t drying out. We’ve worked a lot of part days, four to six hour days. It is just really difficult to make up time in the field,” said Corn.