Basin farmers struggle to navigate unreliable
Rodney Cheyne, a fourth-generation farmer in the Klamath Basin,
leans on a hammer in his shop. In 1909, Cheyne’s relatives began
farming in the basin as part of the beginning of the Klamath
In 2001, the
Bureau of Reclamation cut off water to the Klamath Project
for the first time in 94 years. After 20 years of uncertain
irrigation deliveries, water has been cut off again —
damaging the basin’s agricultural industry, leaving domestic
wells dry and forcing farmers to question if there is a
future for them in the Basin.
These are the
stories of three farm families who navigated the last two
decades in different ways, and how they see the future of
Jason Hagerty thought farming in the Klamath Basin was
difficult but worthwhile. After 2018 he considered it
That spring he
was farming with his father, Claude, on their property north
of Malin in the Shasta View Irrigation District.
farmed since he was a teenager and bought his first
homestead with his wife in 1948. He has always relied on the
Klamath Irrigation Project to bring water from Upper Klamath
Lake to their farm each spring.
But to meet
Endangered Species Act requirements for C’waam and Koptu
(Lost River and shortnose suckers) during a severe drought,
the Bureau held water in the lake until late in the summer
of 2018 — too late for the Hagertys. And the family didn’t
have the permits needed to irrigate their hay fields with
years, the state will sometimes issue drought permits to
farmers so they can pump extra groundwater. In 2018, those
applications were constantly denied and the Hagertys were no
devastating news, but Jason and his father didn’t want to
take no for an answer. If they did, it meant a year without
any crops or income. So they drove to Salem to make a final
plea to the Oregon Department of Water Resources.
totally got the cold shoulder,” Jason said. “They basically
said ‘It sucks to be you.’ Boy, that was a hard day.”
During the four
hour car ride home, Jason Hagerty said he realized that no
relief would come for farmers. From his perspective, the
water situation was only going to get worse.
“I had to go do
something else,” he said. “I just knew it wasn’t going to
long and hard about the future, Jason told his father that
he didn’t want to farm anymore.
“It was a
depressing car ride home,” he said.
Jason left the family business. He found a job with a
trucking company in Klamath Falls that delivers fuel to
farmers, among other.
“I knew how to
drive a hay truck,” he said. “That made driving the gas rig
It turned out
to be a good career move, but Jason is still bothered by the
“It’s kind of a
bittersweet thing for me now, because at least my direct
family isn’t suffering,” Jason said. “But I’ve got lots of
extended family, friends and neighbors that are suffering
Jason had left
the Basin and farming before.
In 2000, he and
his wife and their two kids moved to Texas, where Jason
worked as a mechanical engineer. He remembers talking to his
father on the phone during the 2001 water shutoff.
“My ol’ man is
an eternal optimist,” Jason said. “He knew it was bad, but
he was hoping it would change.”
afar, Jason thought he could make it as a farmer in the
Klamath Basin. In 2005, he decided to move back home to work
in the family business.
generation and I wanted my two sons to experience the same
childhood I did,” he said.
His sons were
eight and 11 at the time. Water was already tight, and each
year farming got harder and harder. Still, he held on for 13
“It was like
standing on the railroad tracks while a freight train
barrels down towards you,” he said. “Either you can get run
over, or you can jump out of the way. I chose to jump out of
It wasn’t just
hard on Jason — the whole family struggled.
“It was really
hard watching him go through that and having to make that
choice. Here we are, middle aged (and) starting over,” said
his wife, Carrie.
Jason said his
only regret was “not seeing the writing on the wall sooner.”
understands why others can’t leave. As local Tribes know,
it’s hard to lose generational land and the culture you grew
up in. Local farmers know that, too, and that makes it hard
“That ground is
hallowed,” Jason said. “It’s what their father had, what
their grandfather had. It is who they are, they cannot let
go. It was really hard for me.”
Claude supported his son’s decision.
offended,” he said, “I was proud of Jason for doing what
needed to be done. He had to take care of his family.”
the Hagerty family gathered to tell old stories while
sitting on their front porch after church.
“Some of my
earliest memories are working with dad,” Jason said. “He was
my best friend growing up.”
before school, he woke early and drove with his dad to Malin
Country Diner, where farmers met to discuss crop rotations,
weather and whose truck had the coldest temperature reading
Claude, now 76,
has Parkinson’s disease. He is unable to farm himself and
hires someone to help him.
The amount of
land the Hagertys farm has always fluctuated. In a good
year, they sometimes leased land near their property and
grew crops that were in high demand and brought in a good
return. In bad years, they only farmed what they owned and
what they could water. And what they farmed in bad years
rarely brought top dollar.
Claude is farming 40 acres — the lowest amount since he
started. It is expensive to irrigate crops with well water,
and that is all they can afford.
“The thing that
bugs me is that you can’t make any long term plans without
water,” Claude said. “I’ve been in selling mode ever since
Claude’s wife, taught music at Henley and Lost River high
schools. She is retired now and worries about the bills
sitting on the dining room table at the end of every month.
Every year they
pay $63,000 to the irrigation district, whether or not they
“It’s hard to
stay positive, wondering how on earth I’m going to pay that
bill year after year,” she said
agriculture is a “dying industry.” Some farming might
survive in the Klamath Basin, but the aquifer will decide
It took a long
time for him to come to that realization — and it wasn’t
easy to give into it.
“I learned how
to drive a tractor with my ol’ man, and I wanted to be able
to come back and farm with him. But he and I both know that
life doesn’t always turn out the way you think,” Jason said.
‘Far too invested to quit’
can’t stop farming.
famous saying is ‘We’ve been doing it so long we’ve lost our
will to quit,’” Cheyne said.
In 1909, his
relatives responded to an invitation from the federal
government asking people to live in the Klamath Basin and
help build an irrigation system.
here since the start of the Project and I don’t know if
we’ll be here when the Project’s over and done with, but it
seems like that’s coming pretty fast,” Cheyne said.
always been a central part of Rodney’s life. One of his
first memories was of a sticker he slapped on the dashboard
of his father’s combine.
“He was in that
thing all the time,” Cheyne said. “I can just see it,
sitting there on his lap, my hand on his while he was moving
When he was 24,
Cheyne bought property on Matney Road in TKTK Irrigation
District, where he now lives. He was looking at real estate
listings in bed one night when “it just hit me all at once
... that’s going to work.”
The house was
on old family land that had been sold in the 1990s. It is
near his father and next to Scott Baylin, a longtime friend
After years of
farming with his father and working for others around the
Basin, Cheyne finally got his own fields. It felt fantastic
— but the feeling didn’t last long.
“I don’t know
if you’ve ever fulfilled a dream ... have ever experienced
that feeling that you’re finally there,” Cheyne said. “ You
have the place you want, everything going in your favor and
then … absolutely nothing.”
In 2015, the
Basin farming community split apart. Neighbors stopped
talking to one another because of differing opinions on the
Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Some wanted to
negotiate for a reliable but reduced supply of water; some
said giving up a drop now would just mean more losses down
The debate —
and the KBRA’s eventual failure in Congress — broke
friendships and the sense of community among farmers, which
Cheyne said was solid as a rock prior to 2001.
“Our spot used
to be a Mac (convenience) store, but no one goes there
anymore because there is too much tension,” he said.
might never heal.
“Us young guys
will sometimes talk to each other, even though we know our
fathers will never speak again,” he said.
remembers 2001 as being an “angry and boring year.” He was
in the seventh grade at the time and was working on his
“I was moving
irrigation lines and baling hay. I was basically a full time
employee,” he said. “I just remember being bored in 2001. No
water means there is less stuff to do on the farm.”
In the last two
decades there have been as many boring years as busy ones.
The weight of it has worn Rodney down. Looking back, he
questions how his father — a single parent — survived during
you’re going to get your ass beat before you even step out
the door,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
Nichelle has tried to keep Rodney’s spirits up while
navigating the financial dangers cropping up around the
we’ve been gearing up for this ever since we got together 14
years ago, because it’s always a possibility,” she said.
“There’s always talk of water.”
The Cheynes are
worried about their family’s finances — and the finances of
many small farmers in the Basin.
“We have no
safety net, no backup plan,” he said. “It’s not feasible for
any of us to be here if we aren’t farming. The place just
sits and you have to pay for it.”
recently went back to work as a nurse in the Sky Lakes
Medical Center, in the labor and delivery department. During
the pandemic she took a break to homeschool their four
line is my job isn’t going to cover any of his costs,” she
situation is not sustainable for anyone trying to raise
crops and pay their bills, Rodney said. He hopes his sons
can one day have their own farm, but he’s not confident they
will be free of the burdens currently weighing on their
“I’m in a tough
spot because I want to see my kids take it over, but what
the hell are they going to take over if this doesn’t get
better, if it doesn’t change?” he said.
lose money this year and he doesn’t know if the next one
will be any better. Still, he won’t stop farming as long as
he has a deed to the land.
“The only way
I’ll go out is kicking and screaming,” he said.
certain indescribable satisfaction that comes with planting
Mike McKoen sat
in Three M Mint distillery outside of Merrill with his wife,
six-year-old twins, and their dog Rip. McKoen looked
disapprovingly at the equipment, which will process 119
acres of his mint crop this year — a fraction of what he
hoped to push through.
“I’m going to
put less than 200 acres of mint into a facility that was
built to distill 2,000,” he said.
Mint grows back
after it’s cut, which allows for multiple harvests during
most Klamath growing seasons.
“On a normal
year, the first cut would have happened around the 10th of
July, and gotten at least two or three harvests,” McKoen
It’s late in
July now, and McKoen hasn’t harvested anything. He guesses
that he will only get one cut this year — and a reduced one
is south of Merrill in Van Brimmer Irrigation District.
That’s part of the Klamath Project, and normally operates
under a priority water right established at its beginning.
But this year, the district received no water from Upper
Bad years like
this one are more expensive than good ones. Idle equipment
is more likely to break down and McKoen has to pay bills
whether he uses it or not. They are problems he cannot
afford when he will only be making 10% of his normal income.
“I am choosing
to basically dig into our savings to subsidize this business
because this is the last mint distillery here,” McKoen said.
“And if it goes away we can’t grow mint here without a
multi-million dollar investment.”
have been in the Klamath Basin since the Project started.
Most everyone knows them for their mint farm — or their old
potato processing and packing business.
past dusty fields too far from water to be productive,
recalling times when his uncle’s potato processing shed, L&M
Produce, was running at full capacity.
“I started in
the packing house when I was 10,” McKoen said.
His goal was to
have a stock of boxes built before noon so he could go to
lunch with his father and uncle at Malin Country Diner.
Prior to 2001,
the McKoens filled their shed with potatoes grown right here
in the Basin.
“Then it just
flopped,” he said.
In a few years,
local producers dropped from 32 to just two. When their
packing shed caught fire in 2004, they relied on potatoes
being trucked in year round from different states.
destroyed the processing facility, so McKoen put his energy
toward helping his dad farm a variety of crops, including
those years as good for farming, and for spending quality
times with his father.
There used to
be more than 20 mint farmers in the area, McKoen said, and
at least four other distilleries in addition to Three M.
Those numbers have collapsed in recent years.
“There is so
much at risk with mint,” he said. “And with no promise of
water, it just became too much.”
McKoen is among
a group of farmers who believed in the KBRA. He thinks that
if everyone in the Basin was still following that agreement,
things would be better.
“But this would
have been a hard year regardless, because of how hot it is,”
inescapable heat and dryness, market prices for grain crops
are good, and farmers — if they could have grown crops — may
have been profitable.
Never easy for
This year has
been harder than most, but McKoen said there are always
tough choices when running a farm.
decision I had to make was whether I wanted to try and keep
this thing going after my dad passed away,” McKoen said.
McKoen’s wife gave birth to twins. At the time, he was
helping his father run Three M as well as their larger
farming business called McKoen and Sons.
They were in
the process of scaling back the farm so he could help raise
doesn’t mean working part time,” his wife Jennifer
back: “Yes, it meant planting less intensive crops, and
maybe leasing some land to guys wanting to grow potatoes.”
In the middle
of that process, his father Lee died. Lee was four days shy
of his 64th birthday, and he only got to enjoy being a
grandfather for three weeks.
“I think dad
was getting a little bit tired,” McKoen said. “You can’t
ever put your finger on it, but I know the day before he
passed away he had a meeting about water and the
consequences 2015 was going to bring.”
newborn twins Frank and Elizabeth, McKoen kept the operation
running. There was no scaling back that year.
“I think during
hard times like that you just have to buck up. We work
together and do the best we can to support each other. We
never even considered selling the farm,” Jennifer said.
later, life is different for McKoen. He grows less mint and
he doesn’t spend as much time in the field.
McKoen drives to and from meetings with buyers. He tries to
be an active farmer, and attends Drought Relief Agency
meetings where he serves as a board member.
there are “hardly enough hours in the day” for him to attend
meetings and farm like he used to prior, to 2001.
“I’ll say 21
years ago, before all of this, we worried about what we
should be worrying about,” he said. “And that is how to grow
the best crops we can as efficiently and effectively and as
safely as we can… Now we are just focused on surviving”
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