Small farmers in Oregon face consequences as state enforces water use requirements

Christina del Campo surveys her field, gesturing towards the garlic that she anticipates will thrive without much intervention, and the blueberries that she will sadly no longer be able to sell.

“I’m not sure if I’ll even plant this section of the field,” she expressed. “Perhaps I’ll opt for a cover crop instead, allowing the soil to regenerate while I navigate this uncertain period and assess the situation regarding water rights.”

Christina del Campo is a co-owner of Oak Song Farm located near Eugene. In the autumn of last year, she discovered that she cannot provide irrigation for her commercial crops unless she possesses a valid water right.

Oak Song Farm is a charming property nestled along Lorane Highway near Eugene. It boasts a sprawling landscape of just over half an acre, solely devoted to agriculture.

For the past seven years, del Campo has relied on well water to cultivate her vegetables. She has been selling her produce at farmers markets and to her neighbors, making it her main source of income.

Del Campo describes the store as a convenience store where people can conveniently stop by. On Sunday mornings, he often sees many customers coming in to pick up breakfast items.

Last September brought about a significant change for Oak Song Farm. The farm received a letter from the regional office of the Oregon Water Resources Department, notifying them that they could no longer irrigate their commercial crops without a water right.

Del Campo was taken aback by this unexpected turn of events. She expressed her deep disappointment and shared that her business has been devastated as a result.

“I can’t understand why it’s illegal to grow your own food,” she exclaimed. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

In Oregon, water is considered a resource that is owned by the public. This means that individuals who own property must obtain approval from the government for various purposes involving water.

Mike McCord, the Northwest Region Manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department, emphasized the finite nature of water resources. He explained that Oregon has had a system of appropriation in place since 1909, which allows for better management of this precious resource through a permitting system.

Those who do not have a water right can use up to 5,000 gallons per day for commercial or industrial purposes. However, it’s important to note that this allowance does not cover irrigation, according to McCord.

Christina del Campo is currently surveying a field at the Oak Song Farm near Eugene.

Del Campo finds it incredibly frustrating that there seems to be a double standard in place. According to her estimates, she was using less than 1,000 gallons per day for agricultural purposes.

“I’m not excessively using water or land,” del Campo stated. “My intention is simply to run a small business and supply my community with food.”

The Department sent a batch of 24 letters last fall to various farms in District 2, which encompasses the Southern Willamette Valley. Among the recipients was Oak Song Farm, who received a letter. It should be noted that some recipients later confirmed that they were abiding by the law.

Officials use various methods to identify potential violations, including aerial photography, neighbor complaints, and on-site observation, according to McCord. Thanks to increased funding in 2021, the state has been able to hire additional staff to enhance enforcement efforts.

According to him, the regulations regarding water rights have remained largely unchanged since the establishment of Oak Song Farm.

According to McCord, it is important for individuals to thoroughly research and understand the capabilities and requirements before investing in something like this. He emphasizes the need for diligence in order to determine what one can and cannot do, as well as what may or may not be necessary to successfully pursue it.

Small farm advocates argue that the exemptions can often cause confusion, leading to a lack of knowledge within the real estate community. This lack of understanding can mislead new property owners.

Del Campo expressed his lack of knowledge about the business side of farming when working for others. He assumed that when he obtained his business license, someone would inform him about important details such as water rights.

Oak Song Farm generates extra income by selling fresh chicken eggs and goat milk.

Del Campo has applied to pull and store water from a nearby creek following the letter. However, she expressed concerns about the affordability of the required infrastructure.

According to state officials, if approved, a typical application is expected to take more than a year. Alice Morrison from Friends of Family Farmers noted that it is becoming less common for a water right to be granted.

According to Morrison, after investing a significant amount of money and waiting for a year and a half, individuals are informed that their business will be closed regardless.

Del Campo has the ability to irrigate up to a half-acre for a non-commercial garden. Additionally, she is allowed to collect rainwater for commercial purposes without needing a permit.

Del Campo doubts that she has enough space to effectively adopt dry farming practices, which involve utilizing the moisture stored in the soil from the rainy season.

Morrison emphasized that farmers in this predicament will need to make significant changes to their operations in order to stay in business. However, he also acknowledged that many of the available solutions would require more than one season to implement and come with a hefty price tag.

Morrison emphasized the importance of creating an equitable system for small farmers in the state.

According to Morrison, the current situation calls for addressing the reality of water scarcity. He emphasizes the need for changes in the system, but also acknowledges that these changes can have significant repercussions, particularly for the smaller players in the food system.

According to Del Campo, the current approach of the state poses a threat to not just her business, but also to many others.

“It has the potential to devastate numerous small farms,” del Campo expressed concern. “I would hate to see a situation where people have to inquire about water rights at the farmers market.”

The Oregon Water Resources Department has recently introduced new regulations aimed at safeguarding groundwater, a move that may pose challenges in acquiring fresh water rights, according to McCord. Interested parties are encouraged to provide their feedback during the ongoing public comment period.

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