Green shoots covered a 280-acre field boxed in by levees near Worden.
“Can you imagine a field looking better than that?” said Mike Noonan, a Klamath Basin farmer.
The field was under water for three years, but now is part of the planting rotation that could grow wheat, potatoes or alfalfa in the next two or three years.
Noonan is one of a handful of Klamath Basin growers who voluntarily flood fields, taking them out of production for a couple of years, returning the area to wetlands and inviting thousands of birds onto their farmland. In return, they’re allowed to farm some of the federally owned farmland on the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges.
This part of Noonan Farms’ crop management rotation is 10 years old and grew out of the wider Walking Wetlands Program, which involves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, local growers and extension services. The effort began about 25 years ago.
Fields in flood
The program is run with the refuges’ lease land program, which puts federally owned acreage out to competitive bid for growers to farm.
About 16,000 acres of the refuges are part of the lease-land program. Of those lands, 1,600 acres on the Tulelake refuge are currently under water and about 3,400 have gone through the Walking Wetlands Program.
A combination of factors lead to the development of the crop-wetland rotation system, said Harry Carlson, director of the University of California Intermountain Research and Extension Center. Refuges were silting in and losing water storage, marsh plants were taking over, and people wanted to keep land in use for farming and birds, he said.
The idea is to flood a field for a number of years. The practice drowns pests and kills weeds like quackgrass. It also offers have to be built to hold the water, so the project is still growing.
A project was recently completed that included 4 miles of levee on a 700-acre parcel. It cost $200,000, Mauser said. Green said levee building costs about $200 per acre.
“When the lands here were drained they were legendary because they were so productive, just about anything could be grown,” Mauser said. “Those ecological process that made it so productive for farming, we’re just putting those back in place.” wetland habitat for birds and raises the soil nutrient level.
Depending on the field, water is drained one to four years later and farmers till the ground, getting rid of aquatic weeds like bull rush and cattail.
“The ecological process is going from a terrestrial to a wetland system, which keeps the weeds and pests confused,” said Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges wildlife biologist Dave Mauser.
The Walking Wetlands Program represents 21 percent of the total lease lands, but generates about 37 percent of the revenue for all the lease lands, Mauser said.
The wetland program rotation almost doubles production capacity for lands in the program, Mauser said.
Total lease land revenues for 2008 are expected to be about $2.6 million, said Mike Green, Bureau of Reclamation natural resource specialist.
Much of the value for farmers comes from a decrease in inputs, such as spray for pests and weeds, or added fertilizer. Noonan says he sees input costs go down about $200 to $300 per acre, depending on the crop.
As an added bonus, once a piece of ground has been under water for several years, it can go straight into organic production, which about a quarter or a third of the growers do, including Noonan.
Noonan, Mauser and Carlson said growing interest in the program is overwhelming the available acreage.
Mauser said the goal was to put a majority of the lease lands into the wetlands program, but levees