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Agricultural businesses nervous over possibilities of gridlock and limited field burning.

SUSAN MATHENY/MADRAS PIONEER - Three combines harvest grass seed for Deschutes Basin Farms on a field just above the grade going down into Gateway. The seed is processed at Central Oregon Seeds Inc., in Madras, which has taken in nearly 7.5 million pounds of grass seed this season. The yield is slightly higher than last year, however, more acres were harvested this year. In the past, COSI has brought in around 5-6 million pounds of grass seed.
August is a busy month for local growers, but with increased traffic from the eclipse crowds, it won't be business as usual, and several farm businesses are adopting a wait and see plan. A total eclipse of the sun happens Aug. 21, but many visitors are coming a day or two in advance.

Britt Spaulding, of Helena Chemical Co., said, "We don't know for sure, but I think we will be off the roads from Friday through Tuesday (Aug. 18-22). One of our guys met with the Oregon Department of Transportation and they said the real traffic problems would be on Tuesday and Wednesday. There's a lot of uncertainty if the roads are blocked."

Spaulding said Helena would probably be closed at least Monday and Tuesday of eclipse week, "which is a negative for workers because they're not getting paid those days."

"If it's as bad as they say, it could be gridlock. If not, then they overexaggerated," he said.

Jim Carroll at Pratum Co-op said they were still deciding. "We're trying to feel out where growers are going to be on harvest and don't know yet. We'll be closed down for at least one day."

"We'll be in more of a survival mode than anything else, and don't know what to expect with 100,000 people coming to the area. We're concerned about it and trying to work through it," Carroll said.

At Wilbur-Ellis' seed plant, Cindy Dubisar said the crops affected would include grains and alfalfa seed. "We're playing it by ear, because we don't know. It's kind of up to the growers. We will probably be closed Monday, unless we have growers who want to brave the traffic to get here."

Central Oregon Seeds Inc. Assistant Manager Ken Stout said, "We hope to be open Saturday and will play Monday by ear when we see what the situation looks like."

Stout said of eclipse week, "It's not a bad window between seed crops coming in." The grass seed harvest will be done, and carrot seed isn't harvested until later, he noted.

"The challenges will be for planting the seed-to-seed carrot fields. Most of the seed should be distributed to the growers by then, and (COSI field reps) need to see the crop gets planted properly," Stout said.

Field burning plans

Jefferson County Smoke Management Coordinator Kristy Fisher said the program will be holding off on field burning Aug. 18-21 for the eclipse, as well as the two following Fridays and weekends, due to the Airshow of the Cascades and Labor Day holiday.

"We have no interest in creating issues for the community, and we're edging on the side of trying to make the community happy," she said, referring to all the tourists the area will be hosting.

"But we also need to let the community know, on Aug. 14-16, there may be extra burning, and after the air show, on Aug. 28-31, we will probably be hitting it pretty hard," Fisher said.

The grass seed and wheat fields will be harvested and the remaining straw baled, but the stubble has to be burned to get a healthy, weed-free crop the following year, she explained.

"The growers are pulling back greatly for the eclipse and air show. They want it to go well, but they do need to burn their fields," she said.

Madras and Culver area farmers need to burn an average of 6,000-7,000 acres of grass and 1,000 acres of wheat stubble each year, and the main burning is usually done the last two weeks of August.

"The burn season ends Sept. 22, but the problem is it's very hard to burn grass in September because of humidity issues. So, we try to get it done before September," Fisher said.

While several local businesses will be making money by selling to the eclipse crowds, farmers are sacrificing by not burning. "It would be a major loss in income if the growers don't get to burn," Fisher said.

Fisher said smoke currently filling the skies is coming from the 4,800-acre Whitewater Fire, in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area, and from British Columbia, where some 135 wildfires are burning. People can check the source of smoke on the Northwest Coordination Center fire map at https://gacc.nifc.gov/nwcc.

Farmers to help firefighters

For protection from wildfires, that could be sparked by 100,000 extra people coming to the county's tinder-dry area, Jefferson County Fire District No. 1 has enlisted the help of local farmers.

Fire trucks won't be able to move freely on the traffic-clogged highways, so an appeal was sent out to farmers, who are located all over the county.

"Almost all growers have water trucks and know a lot about fires (because of field burning)," Fisher said, adding many are also volunteer firefighters. Farmers also often show up with their earth moving equipment to help build lines around wildfires.

"All growers got a packet asking for help, which is the first time to my knowledge that this has happened," she said.

The fire department asked farmers to extinguish any fire they may come across in their area.

"Here are some ways to help," the message said. "Fill up any fire-related equipment, tractors, water trucks with water and fuel. Have people in the area to staff the equipment. Call 911 if you see a fire before taking action, and call 911 if you extinguish the fire, so the fires can be reported," the message said.

NUID modifying operations

"This event and the mass of people that will follow, will without question be disruptive to our normal lives and daily routines. It will also undoubtedly have an effect on North Unit Irrigation District's operations," said NUID General Manager Mike Britton in a letter to growers.

"The district will be implementing various measures to secure and protect district facilities as well as modifying district operations in light of the anticipated convergence," he added.

Britton said NUID plans to place barricades on its service, ditch and canal roads, "To deter people from using them as viewing sites, campsites thoroughfares or shortcuts." Landowners may also place temporary barriers on NUID roads, but should inform the district first.

The irrigation district will also put up signs telling visitors not to swim in canals, park, trespass or litter on district property.

"Given the uncertainty of the ability to move around the region in the days before, during and after the (eclipse), a modified operations schedule for water users has been developed," Britton said.

Ditchriders will make normal irrigation water deliveries on Aug. 19, but there will be no deliveries or changes on eclipse day, Monday, Aug. 21. Normal operations will resume on Aug. 22. The NUID office will be open as usual on Aug. 19, 21 and 22.

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