Oregon cow gives birth to rare triplets

IMNAHA, Ore. — Northeast Oregon rancher Gary Marks figured his pregnant 4-year-old cow might be having twins, considering how big she was all winter.

But triplets? The thought never even crossed his mind.

By 8 p.m. on March 23, the Charolais-Angus cross had already given birth to one calf. Sure enough, three hours later there were two in the barn. When Marks and his wife, Vicky, returned at 3 a.m. to check on the babies, they were stunned to find a third.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Marks, 62, who runs a small family ranch up the Imnaha River in Wallowa County. “It’s never happened before to me.”

Indeed, triplets are a rare occurrence in cattle. The odds are about 1 in 105,000, according to the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University.

Marks said the calves weighed about 50 pounds at birth, but appear to be healthy and doing well. A typical calf weighs 85 pounds at birth.

Two of the calves had to be fed with stomach tubes right after they were born, Marks said, though they are now all nursing.

“They’re so little, I think they’re getting enough milk out of her now,” Marks said of the mother cow.

Marks said they plan to sell two of the calves after a week or so, since the mother likely cannot support more than one on her own.

“When they’re little like that right off the get-go, it’s hard to get them up to weight,” he said.

Bill to fund Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program passes committee

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers advanced a bill last week to fund a new program that would provide state grants for projects to protect and conserve farmland.

The House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use voted 5-0 to send House Bill 2729 to the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for determining the state’s budget.

HB 2729 calls for appropriating nearly $10 million from the general fund over the next biennium to subsidize the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, created in 2017 as a voluntary grant program to help farmers and ranchers with easements, succession planning and conservation strategies to ensure working land remains in production.

A 12-member commission met six times in 2018 to write the program rules, which were approved by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board in January. OWEB would administer the program, awarding grants to not only preserve farms, but the fish and wildlife habitat they support.

Ken Bailey, of Orchard View Cherries in The Dalles and a member of the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission, submitted testimony to the House Agriculture and Land Use Committee, saying that Oregon family-owned farms and ranches “face a critical turnover period in the coming years.”

“Continued pressure on our state’s productive agricultural land threatens to fragment working lands and leave us with a patchwork of low-density, unwise development,” Bailey said.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University, Portland State University and Rogue Farm Corps, more than 10 million acres, or 64%, of Oregon’s agricultural lands are bound to change ownership over the next two decades. This comes as the average age of farmers has increased to 60, up from 50 in 2002.

The study also suggests that fewer young people are getting into farming — 24% of all Oregon farmers were beginning farmers in 2012, down from 32% in 2002.

Lois Loop, a fourth-generation Willamette Valley farmer and member of the Agricultural Heritage Commission, also submitted testimony saying that she has seen non-agricultural uses pop up on exclusive farm use land in the region, regardless of state land use laws.

“This program would provide the encouragement needed for working farm families to get succession planning, and provide a way of financing the conservation needs and a method of protecting the heritage of the farm,” Loop said. “This includes the need to continue to produce the food and fiber needed for a growing population.

In addition to paying for grants, HB 2729 provides $738,652 for OWEB to hire three new positions and contract for services provided by the program. Positions include a full-time program coordinator, natural resources specialist and part-time office specialist.

State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, one of the bill’s chief co-sponsors, said farmland and ranches are a critical economic driver for the state.

“It’s important that we preserve our irreplaceable natural resources,” Hansell said. “Funding this program will help farmers and ranchers pass on their agricultural legacies to future generations.”

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, another of the bill’s co-sponsors, also advocated for the program, pointing to bipartisan support and backing from a coalition of farm and environmental groups.

“In this legislative session, we need to either commit to preserving our agricultural heritage and all of its co-benefits, or allow Oregon’s working lands to be further fragmented and sold off in a way that may irreparably harm agricultural and conservation purposes,” Witt said.

Ample February snowfall boosts Oregon stream forecasts

PORTLAND — What a difference a month makes.

Oregon snowpack was averaging just 73% of normal at the beginning of February, setting the stage for low spring and summer stream flows, particularly west of the Cascade Range.

The story is much different heading into March, after weeks of record-breaking snowfall and precipitation from Crater Lake to Baker City. Every basin in the state is now measuring above normal for snow, except for the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins, which were at 93% as of March 11.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has released its latest monthly Oregon Water Supply Report, which calls for vastly improved conditions based on the sudden surge of winter weather.

“A remarkable and unexpected recovery in snowpack occurred during the shortest month of the year, dramatically improving the water supply outlook across Oregon,” the report states. “February storm cycles more than doubled the amount of snow on the ground in most locations, breaking many records along the way.”

According to the NRCS, seven of Oregon’s long-term snow monitoring sites broke records for highest snowpack on March 1, with data going back 35 years. Between Feb. 20-26, almost every snow measurement site from Crater Lake to Mount Jefferson set records with 2 to 3 feet of fresh powder.

As a result, most basins went from a snowpack deficit to a surplus, including:

• Willamette Basin, 51% of normal to 109%.

• Rogue and Umpqua basins, 60% to 115%.

• Klamath Basin, 69% to 119%.

• Upper Deschutes and Crooked basins, 66% to 112%.

Eastern Oregon is also piling up the snow, with the Umatilla, Walla Walla, Willow, John Day, Malheur and Goose Lake basins all topping 150% of normal. Precipitation at lower elevations also set records in places like Heppner, Baker City and Malheur County.

“All of the state just dramatically improved for snowpack,” said Julie Koeberle, a hydrologist with the NRCS Oregon Snow Survey team.

More snow is, of course, good news for farms and fish. Koeberle said forecasts are looking especially promising in northeast Oregon, with stream flows predicted to be 140% of normal from April through September in the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins.

A few areas, including the Deschutes River basin and Mount Hood, are still lagging behind at 80 to 95% of normal stream flows. But based on the current trajectory, Koeberle said most of the state is going to have normal to above normal stream flows heading into spring.

The one caveat, Koeberle said, is avoiding sustained periods of warm weather that can melt snow too quickly — as it did last May, diminishing what was an already sparse snowpack and leading to water shortages and drought statewide.

The U.S. Drought Monitor still shows more than 60% of Oregon in moderate to severe drought.

“You can’t really get rid of drought with just one good wet month. It takes a little more than that,” Koeberle said.

The federal Climate Prediction Center, meanwhile, continues to call for a better chance of higher temperatures over the next three months, and a roughly equal chance of dry or wet weather. If warmer weather does melt away snow quickly again, Koeberle said the impacts could be mitigated if Mother Nature comes through with enough spring rain.

“It’s really just kind of a wait and see,” she said.

Reservoir levels are a bit more hit and miss across the state, storing anywhere from 65 to 97% of capacity, though most can expect significant inflows in the coming months as snow begins to melt.


Avoiding big risks on small farms

CORVALLIS, Ore. — While a prevailing school of thought among some business owners is to take big risks and embrace possible failure, Ellen Polishuk says farming is not like other businesses.

The difference, Polishuk said, is most farms survive and thrive based on execution, as opposed to innovation. Fail to grow healthy crops, or operate machinery safely, and the consequences can be severe.

“We’re risk-takers already because we chose agriculture, one of the riskiest realms to work in,” Polishuk said. “I don’t think we need to celebrate here this idea of, yeah, you just keep trying.”

Rather than celebrate failure, Polishuk, a farm consultant based in Washington, D.C., stressed the importance of working together and learning from past failures to avoid future setbacks in a presentation Feb. 23 at the Oregon Small Farms Conference, hosted by Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Prior to founding her consulting company, Plant to Profit, Polishuk spent 25 years farming herbs, vegetables and fresh cut flowers in northern Virginia. She identified several areas where farms can fail, including poor management practices, choice of markets, health, safety and planning.

Class participants shared mistakes they made in working their own farms — including Polishuk, who recalled an incident where one employee hit herself on the head using a metal post driver. The lesson, Polishuk said, is making sure farms offer workers compensation to avoid risking lawsuits and losing close relationships.

Polishuk remembered another story where her neighbor, while working alone, managed to run himself over with a tractor. The man was OK, but Polishuk said it emphasized the importance of paying close attention to safety features on machinery and making sure there is someone to help in an emergency.

“This is a dangerous game, when machinery is involved,” she said.

Farmers also need to pay attention to their own physical and mental well-being, Polishuk said. She recommended doing yoga stretches to keep the body from breaking down, and seeing a counselor to help deal with the day-to-day stresses of running a farm.

“It’s great to have one, 45-minute session a week that’s completely devoted to your (situation),” Polishuk said.

At the end of the day, Polishuk said farms need to turn a profit to stay in business, which is why it is so critical to choose crops that can make money and are well suited for the land.

Perhaps more than anything, Polishuk said new or beginning farmers should realize they do not need to go it alone.

“Figuring things out on your own doesn’t usually work, and if it does, it usually takes a lot of time,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to exercise this impulse (to farm), and not have to do every single thing yourself from square zero.”

Small farms conference offers classes, networking

CORVALLIS, Ore. — For Elliott and Rae VanZandt, getting into their first farmers’ market last year proved to be a learning experience.

The couple, from Klamath Falls, Ore., tends a small garden with squash, zucchini, garlic and other produce, as well as an assortment of wildflowers. While Elliott said they enjoy growing their own food, he never before considered selling at the local market.

He and Rae came Feb. 23 to the Oregon Small Farms Conference at Oregon State University in Corvallis, looking for ways to improve their farm stand heading into year two. One lesson in hindsight, Elliott said, was they probably focused too much on crop diversity, and not enough on quantity.

“We weren’t predictable for our customers,” he said. “We just want to refine, and get better.”

As the farm manager for Dragonfly Transitions — a therapeutic training and mentoring group for young adults in Southern Oregon — Rae is no stranger to running a successful farm, though she said she gained a lot at the conference by hearing from other farmers about their past experiences and mistakes.

“It was really experiential, which I think farming totally is,” she said.

More than 900 people from across the state gathered at OSU for the annual Small Farms Conference, featuring a full day of educational talks on topics ranging from growing techniques to markets to bills under consideration at the Oregon Legislature. A trade show was also split between two buildings, the LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Alumni Center, on campus.

Lauren Gwin, associate director for the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems, said small farms are a not only a key part of the state’s agricultural economy, but also environmental sustainability. Of approximately 35,000 total farms in Oregon, about 32,000 are classified as small farms under the USDA’s definition, meaning they make less than $350,000 in annual income.

“They are a huge part of our state,” Gwin said. “These farmers contribute to our dinner tables, they contribute to clean water and clean air, and they contribute to the vibrancy or our communities.

In many cases, Gwin said small farmers serve as the face of local agriculture at farmers’ markets in larger cities, creating a link across the urban-rural divide.

The Center for Small Farms, through OSU Extension Service, offers a variety of classes and networking opportunities for small farmers to find their niche and connect to markets. Gwin said the conference also gives farmers a sense of community, and a shot of excitement for the season to come.

“I just look around and people’s faces are lit up,” she said. “They’re going to take what they learn here, they’re going to take all this energy, and they’re going to go back to their own farms.”

Megan Corvus has been coming to the conference for five years, and said she enjoys seeing her friends and hearing what everyone has to say during the sessions. Corvus and her partner, Talina, started Blackbroom Farm in the Willamette Valley six years ago, raising chickens for eggs and a small herd of meat animals, including lambs and goats.

“After winter, coming to the conference is a great way to get ready for the season,” Corvus said.

It may be “mud season” now, but Corvus said small farmers should be thinking about what they are going to do next season, and how they are going to get it done. The conference, with its educational sessions and experiential mentality, is a great way to get those creative juices flowing, she said.

“It’s a good jolt (of energy),” she said. “Half of the value is just hearing what other people have to say at the sessions.”

Organic farmers seek support from Oregon legislators

SALEM — Organic farmers gathered Feb. 6 at the Oregon State Capitol to meet with legislators and push for support of an industry that annually generates $350 million in farm gate sales.

They are asking the Legislature to formalize a state Organic Advisory Council, and set aside money in the budget for four full-time positions dedicated to helping farmers transition to organic practices and certifying organic farms.

Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic farm cooperative, hosted the event, which included a reception featuring remarks from Gov. Kate Brown. Last August, Brown and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visited the Organic Valley creamery in McMinnville, Ore., which opened in 2017 with $350,000 in support from the state’s Strategic Reserve Fund.

Brown said she is committed to maintaining Oregon as a leader in organic agriculture. The state currently ranks ninth overall with 864 organic businesses.

“I am very excited about this sector in Oregon’s agricultural economy,” Brown said. “We know it is a very valuable component of the agricultural sector.”

Overall, Oregon farmers generate more than $4.5 billion in annual farm gate sales and services.

Other event sponsors included the Organic Trade Association, Oregon Organic Coalition, Organic Materials Review Institute, Oregon Tilth, Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences, OSU Extension, Friends of Family Farmers, Mountain Rose Herbs, Organically Grown Company and Hummingbird Wholesale.

Organic producers also spent time meeting with lawmakers, highlighting their businesses and advocating for a greater voice in policy decisions. The Organic Advisory Council would be made up of farmers, researchers, retailers and distributors, meeting quarterly and providing input on proposals affecting the industry.

Farmers must demonstrate they are using organic practices on their land and animals for at least three years before they can be certified organic. The four newly created positions would focus on assisting certified and transitioning organic operations, and may be associated with OSU, the Oregon Department of Agriculture or another nonprofit organization.

Melissa Collman, a fourth-generation dairy farmer who runs Cloud Cap Farms in Boring, Ore., said she spent the morning meeting with Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, and Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, and felt their message was well-received.

“We just want to remain relevant and competitive,” Collman said. “We’re doing the best we can to bring a healthy product to market.”

Cloud Cap Farms is one of 39 Oregon dairy farms that have joined Organic Valley. The co-op paid $56 million to the farms in 2018, and produced 7.6 million pounds of butter and 12 million pounds of milk powder at the McMinnville creamery.

Collman said the farm milks 200 cows, and grazes the animals on open pasture. While they do not have many inputs, Collman said additional research could help them with issues such as weed management, helping to produce a better and healthier product.

“Our cows already do so well in this area,” she said. “But the resources we need would go into managing our grass to keep it at that better quality.”

Steve Pierson, of Sar-Ben Farms in St. Paul, Ore., is on the Organic Valley board of directors. He said legislators who support organic agriculture are also helping to keep small family farms in business, which has a ripple effect in rural communities.

“If you look at what’s happening to the rural economy, there are fewer and fewer farms to support the local businesses,” Pierson said. “It’s just a downward economic spiral in those communities.”

Pierson said transitioning to organic in 2005 and joining Organic Valley has allowed the farm to remain profitable, and all three of his kids — Kevin, Ryan and Sara — have returned to the farm after graduating from OSU.

Sara Pierson, 23, said she could not imagine life any other way.

“I’m excited to raise my own family there, and hopefully see them become the sixth generation at our family dairy,” she said.

Southern Oregon Hemp Co-op holds first meeting

MEDFORD, Ore. — A newly established farmers’ cooperative aims to unite Southern Oregon hemp growers and processors as they enter the budding industry.

The Southern Oregon Hemp Co-op held its first meeting Feb. 1 at the Roxy Ann Grange in Medford, Ore. More than 80 people filled the grange hall to hear presentations about growing hemp, and benefits offered by the co-op for selling into markets including pharmaceuticals, beverages and cosmetics.

Mark Taylor, a longtime construction and development contractor in Medford, founded the co-op in December 2018 after trying his hand at growing 2.5 acres of hemp. Getting started proved more difficult than he thought, learning the right techniques and spotting issues in the crop.

The worst thing, Taylor said, was the bottleneck of product when he tried to sell in October after harvest.

“This is real critical,” Taylor said. “We shouldn’t have to go begging for buyers.”

Instead of small and mid-size farmers trying to go it alone, Taylor said the co-op can pool their resources to fight for fair trade and price. The co-op will also work to line up buyers in advance, so growers don’t panic late in the season and sell to the lowest bidder.

“We are going to be large enough to offer millions of pounds of hemp,” Taylor said. “We’re going to move product, and we’re going to make it easier for you to move product.”

So far, the co-op has 23 members signed up, representing about 400 acres. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, there are 75 registered hemp growers and 22 registered handlers in Jackson County, and 45 registered growers and 14 registered handlers in neighboring Josephine County in southwest Oregon.

The 2018 Farm Bill opened new opportunities for U.S. hemp farmers by defining the crop as an agricultural commodity, and removing it from the list of federally controlled substances. That means farmers can sell hemp products across state lines, while gaining access to crop insurance and banking.

While the crowd at Roxy Ann Grange speculated about hemp markets, Taylor said the vast majority of processors are still interested in extracting cannabidiol, or CBD, isolate to make products such as lotions, mints, drinks and oils. Taylor said the co-op is already identifying prominent potential buyers.

“We’ve got to get out in the forefront right now,” he said.

A self-styled marketer, Taylor is promoting hemp from Southern Oregon as coming from the finest farmland in the country, grown by farmers in predominantly pesticide-free soils — what he calls the “Golden Triangle.”

“I’ve taken that term, and yes, I’m proud of myself,” Taylor said. “We’re already nationally known.”

The co-op, Taylor said, can streamline the business aspect of locally grown hemp and give local growers a leg up in the marketplace.

Matt Cyrus, a sixth-generation farmer growing hemp near Bend, Ore., also spoke at the co-op meeting. Cyrus predicts there will be 30,000 to 40,000 acres of hemp grown across Oregon in 2019, and he cautioned against out-supplying the market and pushing down prices.

“This industry has progressed exponentially the past three years,” he said.

Cyrus said he sees opportunities with farmers banding together in a co-op, balancing supply and demand to keep farms healthy and profitable.

“The world is our market, literally,” Cyrus said.

Farmer Mac economist analyzes regional outlook

SALEM — With a diverse range of consumer-oriented products and relatively steady net farm income, Ryan Kuhns, an economist for the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corp., also known as Farmer Mac, sees strength in Northwest agriculture heading into 2019.

On the other hand, sticky input costs and lingering trade uncertainty continue to pose threats and weaknesses for farms, making it essential for producers to consider the whole picture when making business decisions about what they grow, and for which markets.

Kuhns conducted a S.W.O.T. analysis — that stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — for the region during a presentation Jan. 17 at the Northwest Ag Show in Salem, Ore., crunching the data to paint an overall picture of the economic landscape in Northwest farm country.

The Northwest Ag Show, which returned to Salem Jan. 16-18, featured a full lineup of guest speakers at the Oregon State Fair and Expo Center, discussing everything from estate planning to worker safety. More than 120 vendors were also on hand to showcase their equipment and services.

Kuhns, who considers himself an optimist, started his talk with strengths before ending with opportunities. He said the Northwest has a rich portfolio of crops for human consumption, versus the Midwest where farmers grow vast quantities of corn and soybeans for livestock consumption.

That diversity lessens the volatility of income, Kuhns said, and encourages more direct-to-consumer sales, a major benefit for beginning farmers and especially those that are small-scale.

“I think there’s a real strength to that,” Kuhns said.

The estimated value of Northwest farmland also increased between June 2017 and June 2018, by 2.6 percent in Oregon, 5 percent in Washington and 3.8 percent in Idaho, compared to the Upper Midwest where values actually decreased in some states over the same period.

Though land and asset values have increased locally, Kuhns said total farm debt increased in 2018 and is nearing peak levels from the 1980s. Working capital is shrinking due to higher input costs versus commodity prices, resulting in tighter margins.

At the same time, the U.S. remains embroiled in an escalating trade war with China, and continues to work toward a bilateral trade agreement with Japan after pulling out of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership — or, as Kuhns called it, “the thing that got away.”

Oregon, Washington and Idaho exported nearly $8 billion worth of goods in 2017. Japan is a key trading partner for Northwest wheat and beef, and until the countries can negotiate a trade agreement, Kuhns said the TPP will provide lower tariffs for Australia and New Zealand growers into the Japanese market.

“This has big implications here in the West,” Kuhns said. “We’re going to be at a disadvantage.”

The good news, Kuhns said, is that trade with emerging nations opens new opportunities as populations in those countries rapidly continue to grow. Domestically, Kuhns said younger consumers are increasingly interested in buying local food, giving an edge to Northwest farms.

The purpose of a S.W.O.T. analysis, Kuhns said, is to get farmers thinking about what opportunities match their strengths, or how they can leverage new opportunities to turn a weakness into a strength. Farmers can also plan and mitigate for new threats that exacerbate an existing weakness.

“You’re not just making this list because it’s fun,” Kuhns said. “I believe, in the end, things will work themselves out.”

State board passes rules for Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has approved new administrative rules for a voluntary state grant program to protect and preserve working farms and ranches.

Established by lawmakers in 2017, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program was conceived to address the increasing fragmentation and conversion of farmland — an issue that simultaneously threatens natural resources such as fish and wildlife habitat supported by agriculture, officials say.

A 12-person Agricultural Heritage Commission met six times in 2018 to write the program rules, with grants to help pay for conservation planning, easements, succession planning and technical assistance. OWEB approved the rules at a board meeting Jan. 16 in Cannon Beach, Ore.

Nellie McAdams, Farm Preservation Program director for the nonprofit Rogue Farm Corps, worked with the Agricultural Heritage Commission to coordinate membership and meetings. She said farm preservation is one of the biggest challenges facing rural Oregon economies.

“At this point, we are seeing a major transition of agricultural lands,” McAdams said. “This would provide the funding to help with that planning, and hand off viable farmland to the next generation.”

The average age of Oregon farmers is now 60, up from 55 in 2002, according to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University. As older farmers start to retire, more than 10 million acres, or 64 percent, of Oregon’s agricultural lands are poised to change ownership over the next two decades.

The Agricultural Heritage Program is Oregon’s first attempt at awarding grants to keep working lands in production, which in turn benefits the fish and wildlife habitat they support.

“(The commission) sees it as integrating agriculture and natural resource benefits,” McAdams said. “They don’t see them as competing. They see them as helping each other.”

The program is supported by a broad coalition of farm and natural resources advocacy groups, including the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Sustainable Northwest, The Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and Oregon Association of Conservation Districts.

The next step is for the Oregon Legislature to approve funding for the program. State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, will co-sponsor a bill seeking $10 million to fully implement the program.

“Oregon’s working lands are a critical economic driver for the state and it’s important that we preserve our irreplaceable natural resources,” Hansell said in a statement. “I am pleased that OWEB approved these rules so that we are ready to help farmers and ranchers preserve working landscapes and promote resilient rural communities.”

With broad bipartisan support from lawmakers, McAdams said she is optimistic about the bill passing, even as the state faces a budget crunch in 2019.

If the funding passes, OWEB will then decide when to release applications for the grants. McAdams said the program would also help farmers and ranchers secure matching federal dollars for agricultural easements and conservation through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We have a huge opportunity,” she said. “This would be a way to leverage a small amount of funds from a state program to bring in a large amount of federal funds.”

NRCS invites farmers to ‘soil your undies’

Talk about a strange harvest.

Earlier this year, six Eastern Oregon farmers and ranchers agreed to bury pairs of cotton underwear in their fields and dig them back up later in the season as part of the “Soil Your Undies” challenge, organized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Not much remained of the tattered, torn and threadbare britches — and that’s precisely the point. The “Soil Your Undies” challenge was devised to illustrate the presence of tiny microorganisms like mites, bacteria, fungi and protozoa that make up healthy soil, and which devour the organic cotton fibers in underpants.

NRCS Oregon is now ready to roll out the challenge statewide, inviting any and all growers to participate in 2019.

“This challenge is no substitute for lab testing,” said Cory Owens, NRCS Oregon state soil scientist. “But it’s a fun way to start thinking about what’s going on in the soil.”

According to the NRCS, one teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than the entire human population on Earth. Working in concert, the bitty organisms are a critically important feature in soil, cycling nutrients for plants, storing moisture and helping to resist erosion.

Robert Hathorne, a spokesman for NRCS Oregon, said the more microbes break down undies, the stronger the indication of healthy soil.

“It’s a way to start thinking about what’s happening that causes soil health,” Hathorne said.

Six Oregon producers took the challenge in 2018, including Joe McElligott and Corey Miller, of Morrow County, and Woody Wolfe, Joe Dawson, Alan Klages and Mark Butterfield, of Wallowa County.

“They thought it was all pretty funny,” Hathorne said. “All of them had really strong results from what we found.”

The only exception was Butterfield, who was unable to find his underwear after sneaky cows stole the marker flag he had used to mark the spot.

Even McElligott and Miller, who farm dryland wheat in an area that receives just 9-12 inches of rain every year, found their undies were eaten down to just the elastic. Both growers use a no-till or reduced tillage system, leaving crop residue in the field to replenish soil organic matter.

Hathorne said the NRCS is hoping the results lead to more interest in the “Soil Your Undies” challenge in 2019. To participate, farmers should “plant” a pair of 100 percent cotton underwear at the beginning of the normal growing season, and leave them for at least 60 days. Send “before” and “after” photos, along with information about the farm and growing practices, to orinfo@nrcs.usda.gov, or to any local NRCS office.