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How the heatwave is impacting Oregon farmers

Hay dyring in the field after being cut. Ranchers are preparing for a shortage of hay to feed their cattle in winter. PHOTO BY ANNA KING.
Anna King
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Hay drying in the field after being cut. Ranchers are preparing for a shortage of hay to feed their cattle in winter.

The extended heatwave in the Northwest is forcing farmers to adapt, and pray their water supply doesn’t get cut off.

While many of us are finding refuge from the heat indoors, farmers aren’t so lucky.

John Moxley owns a farm in Bonanza, just outside of Klamath Falls. He says it’s not the heatwave that causes problems for his cattle operation, but the ongoing drought conditions.

“We know how to deal with a heatwave," says Moxley. "It’s very difficult to operate without water.”

Moxley says the lack of access to water means the cow’s feed is drying up faster than normal. Many farmers in the region need to get their water delivered to ensure their crops survive this heatwave.

Moxley says they’ll also have to rely on feed deliveries in the future if they aren’t able to grow enough this summer.

This heatwave is also one of the first chances to test the implementation of new state rules to protect workers from heat-related illness.

These protections were adopted by Oregon OSHA earlier this year.

For winemaker Brian Gruber at Irvine and Roberts vineyard in Ashland, a lot of the new changes just cemented informal practices.

“If you care about the people that work for you, you’re gonna have done most of these things, if not all of them already," says Gruber. "In our case we’ve got a full time crew of five people that have worked for us for a long time and we care a lot about their safety.”

Gruber says employees are now required to get training on heat-related illness. And, he says OSHA has an app to check if the heat levels are too dangerous for outside work.

“If you care about the people that work for you, you’re gonna have done most of these things, if not all of them already."

In addition to required training for workers, employers need to also provide access to drinking water, shaded areas and a plan to acclimatize workers to the heat.

Shifting the work hours earlier in the morning to avoid the midday heat is another way farmers are staying cool.

Gruber echoes Moxley on the water issue. He says grapes actually thrive in hot climates.

"As long as you're in the low 100's like this, the grapes — as long as they have water — like it," he says. "And they're moving towards ripeness and doing good things."

Gruber says the real issue is, again, the water. If the grapes aren't getting the water they need, the crop could be lost in the heat.

There are some direct impacts as well, which require some adjustments to the plant care schedule.

"Like people, grapes can get sunburned," he says. "It doesn't ruin them, but it leads to some bitterness and off flavors in the wine."

Gruber says in anticipation of the heatwave, he held off on stripping leaves from the vines; that means the grapes will stay under some shade for now. Winemakers strip off the leaves to allow the grapes to develop stronger flavors.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.