Learning To Love A Flood. The Rogue Farms Crop Report.
The December deluge. Record rain. A drought buster.
Any and all of those descriptions only begin to tell the story of what happened at Rogue Farms in December of 2015. A series of winter storms rocked Northwest Oregon for weeks, dumping record amounts of rain in the Willamette Valley and heavy snow in the Cascades. Mudslides closed roads and sent houses tumbling down slopes. Storm sewers were overwhelmed and city streets turned into lakes. Rivers rose quickly and flood warnings went up along virtually every major waterway in the region.
All that rain had to go somewhere. In the valley, somewhere is the Willamette River that runs alongside Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon. Eventually, not even the river could handle all the moisture Mother Nature sent its way. On December 14, the Willamette River burst out its banks and rushed into Rogue Farms. Except for a brief break, the floods cut us off from the rest of the world for two weeks.
We’ve learned to expect floods in winter. They’re part of the natural cycle of Rogue Farms. But the power of Mother Nature is awesome, unpredictable and sometimes unnerving. In the end, she gave us exactly what we needed.
The first Sunday in December was Mother Nature’s warning shot. A massive winter storm dropped two to three inches of rain in less than two days.
A few days later the National Weather Service warned us the Willamette River was within hours of flooding. We dusted off our flood plans and got to work. Anything that could be carried away by a flood was picked up and moved to higher ground.
Tractors and trailers came in from the fields, we moved picnic tables and umbrellas from the lawn into a barn. In case you’re wondering if a flood could really wash away a heavy duty picnic table, the answer is yes. That happened here a few years back.
The biggest challenge was our 7,140,289 Rogue Farms honeybees. Our Beekeeper Andrew came in on his day off to move the colonies out of the flood zone. The rest of us pitched in. One hive at time, all by hand, we moved the bees to a spot where they’d be high and dry.
We’ve been here before. Years of farming on alluvial bottomland has taught us that winter floods can happen at anytime and we better be ready. As we like to say at Rogue Farms, this was not our first rodeo.
The Floods In Photos
By the end of the week, the Willamette River could no longer contain itself. Floodwaters poured in over Wigrich Road and flowed straight into our hopyard.
Within days, the hopyard and fields surrounding Rogue Farms were covered in water up to 4 feet deep. A neighbor who has lived in the area for decades says he’s never before seen the river rise so quickly.
The floods cut off Rogue Farms from the rest of the world for two weeks. We left behind a small crew to watch over things, but they were never in any danger. The real threat was to anyone who tried to get in or out of the farm. Wigrich Road was impassable due to high water and strong currents.
After the water receded, we returned for our first look at the damage.
If you’ve never seen the power of a flood up close, it is jaw-dropping. The water rushed in with so much force that it flattened our corn and jalapeños, pulled marionberry plants out by the roots, and pushed piles of compost hundreds of yard across the field.
We Put On Our Boots And Got To Work
These weren’t the worst floods to hit Rogue Farms, but they caused the biggest mess we’ve ever seen. We sent out a call to our fellow Rogues for help with the clean up, and they answered in droves.
We found giant logs and dead trees scattered across the hopyard. We have no idea where they came from. All we know is that they weren’t here before the floods. The ones that were too big to carry away were cut into pieces with a chain saw. You could feel the buzz everywhere on the farm.
When it was over, we went to help our neighbors. The City of Independence asked if we’d shovel some gravel and repair sidewalks that were damaged in the floods.
It was a lot of hard work. But when Rogues come together to do a job, there’s not much that can stop us from getting it done.
How The Floods Saved Our Honeybees
There’s a rule of thumb in beekeeping that you don’t check your hives in winter unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Honeybees are vulnerable in cold weather. If you open the hives, even briefly, it exposes them to cold temperatures that may injure or even kill the bees.
Andrew, our beekeeper, goes to great lengths in the fall to prepare the bees for winter. He creates ventilation in the hives to remove moisture, while at the same time making sure heat doesn’t escape. He places frames so that their stores of honey are close by. Bees stay warm by huddling together in large clusters. The less they have to move away from the cluster, the better off they are. But as we carried hives out of the flood plains, Andrew sensed something was off. So he broke that rule and took a look.
It’s a good thing he did.
Andrew found a surprising number of dead and dying honeybees. A recent cold spell was harder on them than anyone realized.
It’s natural for honeybees to die off in winter. For years, beekeepers knew to expect to lose about 15% of their colonies in cold weather, no matter how good they were at tending to their bees. For a variety of reasons, winter losses have doubled during the past decade.
We work really hard to take care of our honeybees and are proud of it. So while these losses aren’t unusual, we were upset they happened at all. The first question we asked ourselves was, “How do we fix this?”
We send our bees south in winter to pollinate an almond orchard in Northern California. Normally we’re not in a rush, but this was not a normal year. A few days after the roads were clear, Andrew arrived before sunrise to load the hives on his truck and off they went. They were gone before the rest of us arrived for work.
Winter in the almond orchards is one of the best things we do for our honeybees. The sunnier and warmer weather does wonders for them. When the almond trees start to bloom, the honeybees will spend their days flitting among the flowers and filling up on that nutritious almond pollen and nectar.
When they return this spring, the honeybees will be greeted with a burst of blossoms in the next-door cherry and apple orchards. By summer, they’ll be busy pollinating our Dream Pumpkins and Prickless Marionberries.
You’ll taste the rewards of their hard work the next time you try one of our meads, kolsch and braggots.
So Why Do We Put Up With This #&@!?
At times like these, someone will eventually ask us, “Why do you put up with this?” Fair question.
The ground where we grow our seven hops, pumpkins, marionberries, jalapeños and garden botanicals is some of the best soil a farmer can wish for. It’s alluvial loam, a rich mixture of clay, sand and silt that was deposited here by floods.
Winter floods along the Willamette River have been a fact of life here for centuries. The Native Americans who lived on these river banks learned to adapt to its rhythms, as did the pioneer farmers who began growing hops here 150 years ago.
Before then, massive Ice Age Floods filled the Willamette Valley hundreds of feet deep with rich, volcanic soil they scraped away from Eastern Washington, Idaho and Canada. The soil we farm today is the legacy of flooding that goes back 15,000 years.
Farming comes with risks, and around here one of those risks is floods. We knew that when we planted our first crop of hops at Rogue Farms nearly a decade ago. It’s because of the floods that we’re able to grow the ingredients for our beers, spirits, ciders and sodas in the kind of rich bottomland that would make most farmers jealous.
A Changing Proprietary Palate
We’re not the types to rest on our laurels. We’re always looking for better ways to do things, and that includes the proprietary palate of flavors we grow for Rogue Ales and Spirits.
Last year we produced bumper crops of our McKercher Wheat, Wigrich Corn, Dream Rye and jalapeños. We have enough of these ingredients to keep our maltsters, distillers and Brewmaster John Maier busy for a long time to come. Growing more would only mean adding surplus on top of surplus.
This gives us a unique opportunity to try something new. Take oats for example. Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout is one of our oldest styles, and yet we’ve never grown our own oats. It might be time for a change.
We’re also reworking our Revolution Garden, where we grow a dozen botanicals to use in our spirits, ciders and sodas. It’s also where we experiment with new crops. Our jalapeños and marionberries began as small patches in the garden.
All of this is preliminary. Nothing is set in stone or dirt. We’ll let you know what we decided in the spring version of the Crop Report.
Hop growers in the Pacific Northwest came to the rescue of craft beer drinkers everywhere this fall, picking 78,846,000 pounds of hops. That’s an increase of 11% over 2014. It was the best year for acreage and production in Idaho since World War II, and the best year for acreage in Washington since 1915. But we think Oregon growers stole the spotlight by increasing production 30% in just one year.
The National Hop Report, issued in December, reported slightly smaller acreage, yields and production than the estimates we passed along in our previous Crop Report. Growers in Washington had the largest drops in yields because of drought and hot weather. But it was still a stellar performance. Record high prices drove the value of the hops to $345 million, a whopping increase of 33% from 2014.
National Hop Report, December 2015
Drought And Weather Report
The December storms were a true drought buster for Northwest Oregon and the Coast. The record breaking rains eliminated drought in 17% of the state and reduced drought conditions across large sections of Oregon. Here’s where things stood at the beginning of the month.
Looking ahead, the drought forecast says Southwest Oregon will be free of drought by April and conditions will improve across the rest of Southern Oregon.
As we mentioned in our previous Crop Report, what matters for Eastern Oregon is not how much rain we get, but how much snowpack we get in the mountains. It’s melting snow that fills rivers and reservoirs, and provides the irrigation water that farmers rely on in summer. That includes Rogue Farms in Tygh Valley where we grow our malting barley.
Here’s the map that has hydrologists and water managers hopeful about 2016. December’s rain turned into massive amounts of snow when it hit the mountains. Snowpack across most of the state is above average.
No one is saying the drought is over for Eastern Oregon. The winter forecast calls for average or below average precipitation. We’re also expecting a warmer than usual winter, which means that when the precipitation does arrive, it may produce more rain than snow.
There’s an old saying that climate is what you expect, but weather is what you get. December of 2015 is a good example. No one forecasted a month of record rain, wind and heavy snow, but that’s exactly what we got.
The Blessings Of Snow
The winter storms that ended the drought in Western Oregon may have also saved our barley at Rogue Farms in Tygh Valley. When we seeded our Risk™ winter malting barley in the fall, the situation was grim. No rain for months, no irrigation water, and a scorching summer left the soil dry and hard. We watched and waited for the new crop to sprout – but nothing happened.
Some rain in late November kicked things off and tiny sprouts began to appear. But the snow that fell in December was a blessing in every sense of the word.
Snow is Mother Nature’s perfect irrigation system. Like a blanket, it protects the young shoots from sub-freezing temperatures and frost. It releases water slowly so that it seeps into the ground, replenishing soil moisture and nurturing the barley roots. As we mentioned in the previous section, heavy snowfall in the Cascades will provide us with irrigation water next summer.
We know better than to make predictions. Lots of things could happen between now and when we harvest our two varieties of malting barley. But we could not have asked for a better start to the New Year.
Dungeness Crab Opens Five Weeks Late
It couldn’t start soon enough. After a five week delay, the winter Dungeness crab season opened on January 4th, 2016. Opening prices were set at $2.90 per pound at the docks, the second highest on record.
In our hometown of Newport, Oregon, the Dungeness Crab Capital of the World, you could hear the sigh of relief everywhere. The long delay meant crabbers missed out of the valuable Christmas and New Years sales. No fisherman wants to be out of work during the holidays.
The delay was not caused by the usual reasons. Crabs were in good shape. Price negotiations were settled quickly. Instead, it was Mother Nature who dealt crabbers a hard blow.
The crabbing season everywhere along the West Coast was held up when fishery officials found unsafe levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and Rock crabs. Domoic acid is a toxin produced by algae. It doesn’t hurt the crabs, but people and marine animals that eat crabs can become very sick or die.
What caused it? The water in the Pacific Ocean was abnormally warm this year, which encouraged algae growth. Eventually, it grew into the largest harmful algae bloom ever recorded on the West Coast.
The season is off to a good start. Crabbers landed 4.5 million pounds of Dungeness in the first two weeks, and the quality is exceptional. Prices are holding steady at the docks and retail prices at seafood markets are some of the lowest we’ve seen in years.
Rogue Seafood Landings
Three Centuries Of Rogue Farms
World War II was a difficult time for US agriculture. With millions of young men serving overseas, farmers faced severe labor shortages. The danger of food going to waste in farm fields became a national crisis and farmers turned to the government for help.
For Willamette Valley hop growers, an important source of labor was soldiers stationed at Camp Adair in Polk County, home of Rogue Farms in Independence. Some volunteered during their off hours, others worked while on leave to earn extra money. Many hop harvests were saved thanks to their help.
German POWs held at camps in the Willamette Valley were also sent to the hopyards, picking 3.8 million pounds of hops in 1945. The work was hard, but many of the prisoners were just happy to get out of the camps.
Tens of thousands of Oregon women volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, including special coed brigades made up of students from Oregon State University. Hop growers also relied heavily on Native Americans. Many of them had picked hops for decades and were some of the most experienced workers available.
An estimated 900,000 Oregonians served in the various organizations created by the federal and state governments to help out farmers.
But that number doesn’t include the Oregonians who volunteered on their days off or pitched in after hours. Entire towns would shut down for a day so that employees and families could work in the fields. Together, they saved their fellow Americans from hunger and their fellow beer drinkers from going thirsty.