California drought sends business to Oregon

Melissa Babbitt and Jim Searey plant lettuce near Corvallis. Drought conditions is California mean more opportunities for agricultural business in the Pacific Northwest. Crops such as lettuce, other greens and annuals are expected to do well this year to fill the need. (Andy Cripe | Corvallis Gazette-Times, FILE)

With nearly 1.6 million agricultural acres across California, Nevada and Mexico being taken out of production due to drought, opportunities for new growers are popping up everywhere.

Right now is a great opportunity for mid-valley farmers to plant extra crops.

“Anybody with vegetables in the ground will do well this year,” said Pete Postlewait of Postlewait Farms.

Postlewait, who sits on the board of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said area growers began getting calls late last summer from vendors looking for garden seconds. Seconds are produce that would typically go to places that wouldn’t be concerned about visual quality. For example, the fruit might be blemished or an odd shape.

“It’s like the apocalypse is coming,” Postlewait said. “Retailers can’t depend on California. The Pacific Northwest is more stable, more predictable. People are coming to look at our crops.”

Karla Chambers at Stahlbush Island Farms in Linn County said she planned ahead. More greens and annuals were planted to fill orders from the south.

“We are selling more down there to folks who know they are going to be short,” Chambers said. “The shelves already are coming up short and consumers are going to be seeing price increases.”

A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that this is the driest year on record, and it follows several years of drought. Despite some recent rains, California remains dry. The upshot, the report said, is that the drought “is likely to have a major impact on the state’s agricultural production in 2014.”

And that has implications for other agricultural producers.

“Because California is a major producer in the fruit, vegetable, tree nut and dairy sectors,” the USDA said, “the drought has potential implications for U.S. supplies and prices of affected products in 2014 and beyond.”

The predicament puts Benton and Linn counties in a unique position, said Ross Penhallegon, Oregon State Extensions, Lane County horticulture agent.

“Lake Shasta already is nonexistent,” he said, referring to the California reservoir, which provides irrigation water to Central Valley agricultural lands. By contrast, he said, “we are in a unique place in Linn County with our reservoirs full.”

That means there is a great opportunity to supply a need to grocery markets.

“Growers can take advantage of the crops that can be grown here that they won’t grow there,” Penhallegon said. “This would be the year to increase production. (Farmers) just need to find out what is lacking. Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers; there is an open door there.”

Chambers said California has to protect its walnut and almond trees and wine grapes.

“This is where they will focus their water,” she said.

Greens, including spinach and lettuce, are something mid-valley farmers can plant and harvest more of to quickly meet California shortages.

“Stores will be sweating starting right now,” Penhallegon said.

Meanwhile, mid-valley grocery stores shouldn’t see an immediate increase in produce prices.

“We are doing our best not to add on additional cost,” said Amanda Ip, spokeswoman for Fred Meyer. “We work as often as we can to stock local produce. That will help avoid price increases.”

Ip said if there is a local source that can fulfill Fred Meyer orders, the store probably already works with them. However, she said, other potential local providers can contact the company’s buyers office in Portland.

However, price changes likely are inevitable. Postlewait pointed to a couple of possible ripple effects from the drought: Seed companies are hurting due to sales cancellations, he said, and with less produce coming out of California, trucking companies might need to raise prices to help cover expenses incurred when trucks make return trips without cargo.

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