SALEM — As Oregon lawmakers clash over a controversial bill to curb the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, Mimi Casteel says climate change is already posing a major identity crisis for winegrowers.
Casteel grew up on her family’s vineyard in the Willamette Valley, home of internationally recognized Pinot noir. She remembers harvest usually happened around October, with the area’s relatively mild weather allowing more time for grapes to ripen and add layers of distinctive berry-like flavors.
Over the years, Casteel said that climatic window has begun to shift. Summers are becoming hotter and drier, forcing growers to pick grapes earlier in the season when sugars — and thus alcohol content — are higher but flavors have not yet come into balance.
In short, Oregon Pinot noir might no longer taste like Oregon Pinot noir.
“We just established ourselves a world-class wine region,” Casteel said. “We’re looking at a hard reality where that is not what we have anymore.”
In 2008, Casteel started her own vineyard, Hope Well Wine, in the Eola-Amity Hills west of Salem. She is one of more than 270 small farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who signed on in support of Senate Bill 1530 — Oregon’s cap and trade proposal — through the Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network, or OrCAN.
The bill is now stalled in the Legislature as both House and Senate Republicans staged boycotts of the short session this week, demanding that cap and trade go to the voters.
OrCAN Director Megan Kemple rejected that notion, saying the bill is comprehensive with extensive input from all sides.
“No bill has had this much work and this much public process,” Kemple said. “The Legislature is where policy like this should be made.”
Opponents of the bill, including the Oregon Farm Bureau and Timber Unity, a grassroots group of farmers and loggers whose members have staged large rallies outside the Capitol, argue that SB 1530 will raise fuel and energy prices, crippling agricultural producers who cannot pass the increased costs along to consumers.
A statewide cap-and-trade system would also have a negligible impact on climate change, critics add. Oregon generated just 0.13% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.
But Casteel said the bill contains a number of compromises intended to protect rural communities and trade-exposed businesses, and is a necessary step toward protecting natural resources.
“This would facilitate the transition toward climate-smart farming,” she said. “The smartest, most responsible thing we can do right now is throw our full and honest support behind farmers who can protect this region.”
Under cap and trade, the state sets a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions and charges companies for allowances to exceed the limit. The cap gradually lowers over time, which is meant to encourage the companies to adopt more climate-friendly practices and technology.
Money collected would go into a state Climate Investment Fund with specific allocation levels for adaptation projects, including 25% for wildfire mitigation and 25% for natural and working lands to adopt measures such as tree planting, cover crops, no-till farming, riparian buffers and capturing dairy gas to create renewable energy.
Casteel, who built Hope Well Wine on 80 acres of reclaimed property, said these practices will ultimately determine whether Oregon is able to maintain its ecological resilience.
“It’s really farming where we make our greatest impact,” Casteel said. “We are on the front lines (of climate change).”
Other farmers who support cap and trade say the costs of doing nothing now are much higher than the cost of waiting until climate change creates irreparable harm.
In the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, Taylor Starr, executive director and farm manager at the nonprofit White Oak Farm and Education Center, said the last 10 years have seen increasing wildfires and lower snowpack in the Siskiyou Mountains, creating a lack of water flows later in the season.
Two years ago, Starr said the farm had its irrigation water shut off in early July, about a month earlier than usual. White Oak Farm grows and sells a variety of produce and contracts with several seed companies. The center also receives grants and contributions to support its programs.
“We’ve really had to adjust our scheduling,” Starr said. “When things are so uncertain, it makes that planning really challenging.”
Starr estimates the farm has invested about $10,000 to upgrade its irrigation systems, installing more efficient drip lines and resurrecting an old 1940s-era water storage pond. He said the farm is also shifted toward planting more deep-rooted perennial plants that can better withstand drought, versus shallow-rooted annuals.
Wildfire smoke is another serious issue, Starr said, choking skies and impacting customer turnout at local farmers’ markets. He said the farm has experienced a 10% drop in market revenue during smoky summers, which adds up to thousands of dollars of lost revenue.
“It is stressful,” he said. “It just feels like we’re in this ecosystem here that’s a little bit on edge.”
Sarah Deumling, forest manager for Zena Forest Products in Salem, said the company owns one of the largest intact remaining forests in the Willamette Valley, though climate change is beginning to change the makeup of species in the woods.
Deumling said drought has led to a 10-20% loss of Douglas fir trees that had to be removed and replanted with white oak and cedar.
“I’m not the only one who has firs dying,” Duemling said. “Some people have cedars dying that wouldn’t normally be dying. … If you put that out on a trajectory, the costs can be huge.”
Deumling admits she is is not certain whether cap and trade is the best solution for managing Oregon’s greenhouse gases, but she said producers can no longer afford to wait years for someone to do something about it.
“We’re trying to make a living. It’s not easy,” she said. “We better do all we can to prepare for and get a handle on climate change.”