An onion field off of 76th Avenue Northeast outside of Salem (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When temperatures hit 117 degrees in Salem last June, the region’s farmers weren’t quite sure what to do.

The Willamette Valley’s top crops - berries, grass seed and Christmas trees - had adapted over generations to the area’s moderate climate and generous rainfall, leaving them sensitive to huge changes in either. Across Oregon’s agricultural industry, the results of the heat wave and subsequent drought were catastrophic.

“We ended up losing about 50% to the crop last year because of the heat dome,” said Darcy Kochis, spokesperson for the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission. “It’s never gotten that hot.” 

Across the Willamette Valley, crop producers are eyeing the upcoming spring and summer with a combination of white-knuckled trepidation and cautious optimism. They’re hopeful that last year will prove to be a one-time anomaly. But the devastating season also laid bare just how vulnerable their industries have become as the climate changes. 

Bob Schaefer, general manager of Salem’s Noble Mountain Tree Farm, said his farm lost 23 percent of their noble fir crop trees and a full 40 percent of their seedlings. In a typical year, they’d lose around 10 percent. 

“That kind of hurt,” Schaefer said. “To lose that kind of a percentage. I don’t want to say devastating, but it’s also a very costly loss.” 

For grass seed stock, last year’s heat wasn’t as harmful as the drought. Spring 2021 was the third-driest on record, clocking just 3.5 inches of rainfall compared to 9 inches in an average year.

Nicole Anderson, an associate professor studying crops and field sciences for Oregon State University Extension Service in Yamhill County, said the resulting yield for grass seed - the most prominent crop in the Willamette Valley, acreage-wise - was a mere fraction of what it would usually be.

“We haven’t finished the calculations because some of the 2021 crop is still being processed, but I would estimate we were down in the 30% stage for the state,” Anderson said. “That’s why grass seed prices are super high right now.” 

It’s too soon to know how hot or dry summer 2022 might get. A Seasonal Drought Outlook released last week by the National Weather Service, which forecasts drought conditions three months in advance, estimates that this year will be comparable, if slightly drier than 2021.

The two years are “actually very similar, drought wise,” said Brad Pugh, a meteorologist at National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. “The one difference from last year is the drought is more intense. You have greater coverage of the ‘extreme’ to ‘exceptional’ drought this year, compared to last year.”

Through June 30, most of Willamette Valley is expected to remain “abnormally dry” or in “moderate drought” conditions. South and central Oregon are likely to see the worst of it this spring, the NWS predicts, with large swaths forecasted to experience “extreme” and “exceptional” drought conditions.

With the exception of the Columbia Gorge region, Pugh added, Oregon’s snowpack is also lower than normal.

According to Anderson, many field crop farmers will watch precipitation levels in the coming weeks much more closely than at this time last year. April and May are really a turning point, she added.

“It’s pretty hard to predict where we are right now. We need to get a little closer to spring, but we’re certainly entering the period for when weather becomes critical,” Anderson said. “Any rain from here on out will be better than last year.” 

Heat is harder to predict. The delicate skin of blackberries and raspberries leave them extremely vulnerable to scorching temperatures, but Kochis said producers are anticipating a milder summer. A few farmers have relayed that their berry crops look good so far.

And at this point, they also don’t have a huge range of choices, other than to wait for the allocation of state and federal relief funds aimed at farmers impacted by the heat dome, Kochis added. It’s not realistic to make sweeping industry-wide changes to how berries are grown after a single heat wave.

“To shade-cover acres and acres and acres isn’t just something someone can turn on a dime and do,” Kochis said, citing a heat-shielding practice common among berry growers in California. “We’re not drastically changing anything in what people are doing and what people are preparing for.”

At his Christmas tree farm, Schaefer said they decided to leave some of the scorched trees in the ground with the hopes that they’ll bounce back by this winter. It’s a one-time shot.

“We can’t just leave extra trees in the ground each year, or else we just don’t have ground to plant,” Schaefer explained, adding that the company plants and harvests around 500,000 trees every year. “(But) we’re in new territory. This has never happened before. We don't know how quickly these trees will recover.”

Regardless, he’s hopeful the farm won’t end up facing the same choice next year.

“That heat dome experience - it hit 117 on our farm. I think that’s a one-off. I don’t think we’re going to see that again in our lifetime,” Schaefer said. “There’s nothing we can really do to prepare for it, anyhow.”

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