Time to Take Action
Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.


Basin farmers struggle to navigate unreliable water

< 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 Project.

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 local farming.

Before 2018, Jason Hagerty thought farming in the Klamath Basin was difficult but worthwhile. After 2018 he considered it impossible.

That spring he was farming with his father, Claude, on their property north of Malin in the Shasta View Irrigation District.

Claude has 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 their well.

During dry 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 exception.

It was 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.

“We just 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 get better.”

After thinking 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.

That summer, 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 pretty easy.”

It turned out to be a good career move, but Jason is still bothered by the decision.

“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 big time.”

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.”

Watching from 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.

“I’m third 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 years.

“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 the way.”

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.”

Still, he 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 to sell.

“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.”

His father Claude supported his son’s decision.

“I wasn’t offended,” he said, “I was proud of Jason for doing what needed to be done. He had to take care of his family.”

Looking back

Last Sunday, 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.”

Most mornings, 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 that morning.

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.

This year, 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 Jason quit.”

Marilyn, 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 get water.

“It’s hard to stay positive, wondering how on earth I’m going to pay that bill year after year,” she said

Jason thinks agriculture is a “dying industry.” Some farming might survive in the Klamath Basin, but the aquifer will decide how much.

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.

Rodney Cheyne, 33

‘Far too invested to quit’

Rodney Cheyne can’t stop farming.

“My dad’s 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.

“We’ve been 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.

Farming has 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 the levers.”

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 and neighbor.

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 line.

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.

Some wounds might never heal.

“Us young guys will sometimes talk to each other, even though we know our fathers will never speak again,” he said.

Dark, dry times

Cheyne remembers 2001 as being an “angry and boring year.” He was in the seventh grade at the time and was working on his father’s farm.

“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 drought years.

“You know 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.”

His wife Nichelle has tried to keep Rodney’s spirits up while navigating the financial dangers cropping up around the farm.

“Honestly, 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.”

Nichelle 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 children.

“The bottom line is my job isn’t going to cover any of his costs,” she said.

The current 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 father.

“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.

Cheyne will 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.

Mike McKoen, 46

‘A certain indescribable satisfaction that comes with planting a seed’

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 said.

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 at that.

McKoen’s farm 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 Klamath Lake.

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.”

The McKoens 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.

Mike drives 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.

The fire destroyed the processing facility, so McKoen put his energy toward helping his dad farm a variety of crops, including mint.

He remembers 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,” he said.

Despite an 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 a farmer

This year has been harder than most, but McKoen said there are always tough choices when running a farm.

“The hardest decision I had to make was whether I wanted to try and keep this thing going after my dad passed away,” McKoen said.

In 2015, 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 his kids.

“And that doesn’t mean working part time,” his wife Jennifer clarified.

McKoen chimed 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.”

With two 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.

Six years later, life is different for McKoen. He grows less mint and he doesn’t spend as much time in the field.

Most days, 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.

McKoen said 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”




In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, any copyrighted material herein is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

Home Contact


              Page Updated: Sunday August 01, 2021 02:59 AM  Pacific

             Copyright © klamathbasincrisis.org, 2001 - 2021, All Rights Reserved