Ore. gov. aims to do right for farmers

Capital Press Staff Writer


Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski carries a gift box of potatoes from the Malin cooperative as farmer Ed Bair, at rear, hoists another box.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – At the tidy 140-acre farm just south of the airport, Ed Bair had beds for the 2003 potato crop tilled and ready for planting. His wife Virginia and a trainer took one of the ranch horses out to the arena.

Then the procession of reporters, followed by a caravan of cars, arrived. Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Democrat, said a few days before an April 17 Klamath Basin meeting with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., that he would like to visit a farm.

Kulongoski, who took office three months ago, is getting up to speed on Klamath Basin issues that have been in the national spotlight since spring 2001. That’s when federal officials declared there would be no Klamath Project water for about 1,100 out of the 1,400 farms in a very dry year. What water was stored was reserved as habitat for fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“I think it is wonderful he is taking time to visit a farm,” Bair said as he and Virginia waited for the cars. “I can think of a couple of others he could have visited” instead of ours.

Kulongoski, a lawyer by training, talked crops and marketing as he and Walden moved about the Bair homeplace. Bair heads a family group that farms about 1,000 acres of alfalfa, grain and potatoes. In 2001 the water cutoff meant no spuds anywhere on Bair ground, and the expense of drilling a new well to sustain some hay.

“It was devastating,” he said in answer to a Kulongoski question. At the Malin Potato Cooperative, where Bair markets spuds, “2001 was very, very difficult. ... We did lose some producers.”

But with pride, Bair loaded Kulongoski and Walden up with 50-pound boxes of the 2002 Malin pack: “You will realize we do produce the best potatoes in the country.”

Bair said the family applied for, then rejected, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water bank contracts for 2003 that require idling land as part of the deal.

“I turned them down. We are farmers,” Bair said.

Kulongoski said he “wants to do the right thing” for farmers – and that is to keep them in production. Agriculture and farmers, he said, are “a primary tool” for helping the state’s moribund economy.

“Another reason they are important to all Oregon is the cultural issue,” the governor later told local reporters. “The people here are very important to this state. I would not want Oregon to all look like Portland.”

Oregon’s new agriculture director, Katy Coba, was at Kulongoski’s side for the Klamath trip. So was Paul Cleary, the veteran director of water resources, who is trying to speed along adjudication of Klamath water rights, a process begun in 1975.

Said Bair, if the governor and Walden had chosen another farm to visit, he “probably would be on a tractor. I’ve got dad on one this morning, and two nephews.”

Also at the homeplace was the Bairs’ 19-year-old son Colt, who got his own words in with the visitors and later said he too had a date with the tractor. Persistent wet conditions in late March and much of April have delayed much of pre-planting work for Klamath farmers, creating a crunch for many operations.

It has also kept irrigation demand very low, stretching a water supply for what remains an uncertain farming season for the Bairs and their neighbors.


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