MIDLAND — In 2001, John Crawford watched as Congressman Greg Walden poured a bucket of water into the A Canal as part of the Bucket Brigade, a demonstration stemming from the water shutoff that year.
Crawford, who farms about 3,000 acres in Tulelake with his brother and son, was the first speaker at the “Shut Down and Fed Up” tractor rally in Midland on Friday afternoon. He addressed a crowd of more than 2,000 people from a semitrailer stage, with the bucket from the Bucket Brigade hoisted up for all to see.
On Friday, Crawford said that in 2001, he was hopeful that he would not experience the same situation and during a crisis much more serious than in 2001.
“Today my hope is that somehow my 4-year-old triplet grandsons will have the opportunity that was afforded my brother and myself by our grandfather and father. Without change, that hope will surely fade away,” he told the crowd, full of attendees from the all-day convoy.
The “Shut Down and Fed Up” convoy started Friday morning in Merrill and spanned more than 20 miles while traveling through downtown Klamath Falls and finally to Midland. The convoy could be seen all over the three Basin communities, and included participants from Southern and Central Oregon, and California. The convoy and rally served as a more far-reaching public demonstration with which organizers aimed to attract national attention from President Donald Trump to the pending end of the irrigation season in or around July.
Farmers were initially told in April by Bureau of Reclamation they would receive 140,000 acre feet of water. Project irrigators can now expect an estimated allocation of 55,000 acre feet that remains.
Walden, a Hood River Republican, wasn’t carrying a bucket on Friday, but he shared plans to carry the concerns of farmers to the White House regarding the pending early end to the Project irrigation season and an ongoing struggle with water issues in the Basin.
As vehicles continued to line up at a field in Merrill Friday morning, Walden told the H&N he’s been in communication with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows about the situation.
“They want to be helpful,” Walden said of the Trump administration. “I’m sending his Chief of Staff photos and videos. I served with him in the House … we know each other pretty well.”
He said there needs to be a “reset” for the Project moving forward, though it’s unclear right now what that could look like.
“It’s complicated or we would’ve solved it,” Walden said.
Later on in the rally, Walden promised to work toward that solution, even as his term comes to an end in November.
“We ought to have water flowing for farmers throughout the season,” Walden said from the main stage. “I’m committed to that.”
Water users may request aid
Klamath Project farmers could collectively request between $50 million and $75 million in aid from the U.S. Government to offset the losses that Project irrigators will face when the water is slated to run out for use by or before July 1.
Modoc and Siskiyou County officials are working in with some within the Oregon and California delegations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help those impacted in the Klamath Project by the impending end to their irrigation season.
Michael Kobseff, chair of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, signed a letter to Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Undersecretary of Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey, requesting aid for the Klamath Project.
Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Paul Simmons, who drove a tractor in the convoy, said the water relief programs are a “distant second” best option for water users. More water is preferred.
“There are some existing funds from the DRA (Drought Response Agency) to do its programs,” Simmons said. “... but that will be far too little if we don’t get a lot more water.”
Funding could come from different sources, including U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We’re just kind of working on all fronts for whatever we can do,” Simmons said.
Congressman Doug LaMalfa, (R-Richvale) said he and Congressman Walden will be fighting to provide more water for farmers to finish their irrigation season. LaMalfa, a rice grower south of Chico who represents the First Congressional District, also drove a tractor in the 20-plus mile convoy.
“This is your water,” LaMalfa told the crowd. “It doesn’t belong to BOR (Bureau of Reclamation), it doesn’t belong to NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service), it doesn’t belong to Fish and Wildlife. It doesn’t belong to anybody else.”
LaMalfa emphasized that the Klamath Project was created over 100 years ago for one purpose and that was for agriculture for those who came and settled in the Basin and were given the opportunity to farm.
“We’ve got about two and a half weeks to make something happen in this crop year,” he added. “It’s un-blanking-believable to me.
“We’re going to fight for getting the full allocation back right now so you guys can at least finish the season at this meager 40% of your true (water) allocation.”
“We’re going to take what is rightfully ours,” LaMalfa added.
LaMalfa said the situation isn’t farmers versus fish, but farmers versus “crappy” science used to determine allocation amounts.
Bob Gasser, an organizer of the event, shared similar sentiments with H&N.
“We need to fix the suckers and the salmon and the farms,” he said. “The whole community’s on board. Let’s get something done.”
Klamath County Commissioners Kelley Minty Morris, Derrick DeGroot and Donnie Boyd each shared their commitment to helping find solutions for water in the Basin.
“This is 20 years later, and we’re doing the same bull----” Boyd said. “I’m tired of it.
“We are here to help the Klamath Basin with water problems any way we can.”
Boyd was also candid about COVID-19 precautions such as social distancing while on stage.
Those entering the rally were met by a disclaimer advising those who entered to do so at their own risk and encouraging precautions associated with COVID-19. A list of rules issued to participants of the convoy and rally earlier in the day also encouraged wearing masks and social distancing.
“We’re one big happy family,” Boyd told the crowd.
“We don’t need to social distance.”
Looking out from the stage, DeGroot promised younger attendees that commissioners would try to give them a Basin without water conflicts.
“We need your help, Mr. President,” DeGroot said. “We need your help, Congress.”
Gasser said if no more water is available than the Project has, there will be no choice but to request multimillions of dollars in relief from the federal government so farmers can irrigate the crops they planted.
Ideally, Gasser said irrigators would prefer that the Upper Klamath Lake level requirements are lowered. Gasser said irrigators could meet with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the concept.
“We don’t want the money, we want the water,” Gasser said. “But if we can’t get the water, we’ve got to have the money so these guys can survive ‘cause they will not survive with all that investment out there and no way to pay off the investment.”
For Travis and Erin Buller, that investment was planting an alfalfa crop thinking they would get irrigation water.
Travis knelt down to plant one of the crosses in a field behind the rally stage on Friday afternoon, as his wife, Erin Buller, and their children, Hallie, Ellie, and Isaiah looked on.
The family didn’t receive any water to irrigate this spring, and the cross Travis Buller planted stands to represent the possibility of losing their farm. It is among 2,000 other white crosses planted in the same field as a demonstration to represent farms and businesses lost, and those likely to be lost as irrigators in the Klamath Project face an early end to the irrigation season by or before July.
The field of crosses served as a backdrop for the rally and will serve as a statement to the local impact on farmers this summer and a reminder of the loss and potential loss to agriculture and the community.
Various voices heard
Earlier in the day, rally attendees like the Bullers were behind the wheels of swathers, combines, and tractors, while others drove in passenger cars and pickups with signs and American flags. Spectators set up lawn chairs on the sidewalks in Merrill and Klamath Falls, waiting to show their support for the vehicles rolling by with waving American flags and signs cheering them on.
Don Russell, a former chairman of the Klamath Water Users Association, shared his thoughts on the current water scenario on Friday morning as spectators waited for trucks to roll through the downtown Merrill area.
“I hope the citizens of this Basin realize — we’ll be nice today,” Russell told an H&N reporter, “but there’s going to come a time when we’re not going to be nice. We’re going to be like the people at the Alamo. We’re going to make a decision.
“There comes a time when enough’s enough,” he added. “Oregon leadership should be forewarned that we’ve had enough.”
For the most part, the message of spectators was to cheer on farmers and ranchers drawing attention to the pending early end to the irrigation season by or before July.
Kendra Rupert traveled to downtown Klamath Falls from Tulelake Friday to support farmers, particularly her dad who grows potatoes and wheat. Rupert stood downtown with a sign that said, “Every farm matters” while she waited for her dad to pass by.“It’s an emotional thing because it’s so big,” Rupert said. “Just happy to show support in any way that we can.”
The more than 20-miles-long stretch of tractors continued downtown, as spectators who had waited in the heat for their arrival waved flags and cheered support.
“It’s so great,” Rupert said. “I’m speechless of how much support there is,” she added. “I was worried that there wouldn’t be people on the streets, and so it’s nice to see that it’s not just the farming community, that the whole Basin has each other’s backs.”
Heather Tramp, executive director of Klamath County Chamber of Commerce, also came out to the downtown convoy to reflect the Chamber’s support for farmers.
“Agriculture is one of our biggest industries and every business in Klamath relies on it,” Tramp said.
“Whether you’re a restaurant downtown or a retailer or tax preparer … your business relies on the ag community.
“We need that industry to be strong,” she added. “We need to protect those jobs.”
Joey Gentry, a Klamath Tribes member who has also farmed hemp, held up a sign that stated “Let’s unite in the fight to save our fish and farmers.”
Gentry said she doesn’t feel her voice and the voices of others in the tribal community are being heard on the matter.
“We would never be allowed to shut down the town,” Gentry said.
She took up farming to walk a mile in farmers’ shoes, adding that she wanted to learn about agricultural practices that used less water.
“I just want our ag community to be better stewards,” Gentry said. “I want peace in our communities. I want our fish to thrive and I want our farmers to thrive.
“I don’t think there’s a person in the world that doesn’t empathize with the plight of our farmers,” she added. “We hold farmers in a hero worship status. We all care. Every tribal member cares, but we can’t let our fish go extinct.”
Klamath Tribes member Jeff Mitchell also came out to the convoy, and set up signs supporting the fish outside the Klamath County Courthouse.
“You’ve got to protect all the communities in the Basin,” Mitchell said. “I think the communities need to work together better to be more inclusive.”
Mixed emotions for all
Gasser said the day was full of mixed emotions, knowing many farmers would prefer to be farming versus holding a rally.
“Days like today, you really appreciate the community that we live in because they came out strong, with the same message: Let’s do better. Let’s fix it,” Gasser said.
“It was a happy moment seeing everybody get together but it was sad that we had to get together.
“Everybody you saw smile today — They’re going to be worried about how to pay their bills,” he added.
But the support that swelled for farmers won’t be forgotten, according to Gasser.
“We will always remember how the community came out to support us today,” he said.
For more information on the event, go online at https://shutdownfedup.org/.
H&N Reporters Kurt Liedtke and Becca Robbins contributed to this report.