Malheur County agriculture has developed since pioneer days. Today it uses up to date practices producing diversified products. Family owned farms use crop rotation practices that keep soil healthy and reduce disease and weed pressures. County agriculture is dependent on irrigation, since on average only 10 inches of precipitation falls each year, mostly during the time of the year when freezing temperatures prohibit crop growth. Water from snow melt and spring rains is saved in reservoirs and distributed to fertile farmland during the droughty summer growing season. The amount of water available in the reservoirs and the rate of water flows in the streams are carefully monitored.
Malheur County agriculture not only has a farm gate value of about 250 million dollars per year, but is fundamental to the county economy generating about 1 billion dollars due to sales, processing, packing, and services. Growers associations cooperate to improve the yield and quality of the products and foster sustainable agricultural practices. Many by-products of agricultural processing are recycled into the local agricultural sector.
Malheur County agriculture is fascinating because of diversity: vegetable crops, cereals, meat, milk, forages, mushrooms, seed crops and mint are all grown. Malheur County grows more acres of onions, sugar beets, and alfalfa hay than any other county in Oregon. Onion production generated $26,7 million in 2007 and was the leading row crop. Income in 2007 was down due to high yields and low prices. Total agricultural sales in 2007 were $261 million. Other crops included wheat, potatoes, dry field beans, sweet corn, field corn, and seed crops (red clover, alfalfa, cereals, vegetables and flowers).
Three major water projects (Owyhee, Warmsprings, and Vale) provide essential water for much of the 256,000 cultivated acres in the north end of the county, known as the Western Treasure Valley. This area has little annual precipitation, much of which is in the form of winter snow. One of the first irrigation canals, the Nevada Ditch, was completed in 1881. Other dams, canals, and ditch systems were developed to deliver water to different parts of this semi-arid region. View pictures and information about the Owyhee Dam.
Most of the irrigation in the county is by gravity flow from surface ditches or gated pipe. Siphons are the aluminum pipes you see moving water from the gravity flow ditches into the fields. A skilled irrigator can start the siphon tubes almost as fast as he can drop them into the water. When water reaches the end of each row, it is collected in a receiving ditch and moved to another field where it is reused, conserving this valuable and scarce resource. The white PVC pipe laid at the head of the rows is called gated pipe. Covers over the holes on the pipe (gates) slide open to allow precise amounts of water to flow down the rows of the field. Part of the county's irrigation is done with sprinklers, and more recently with buried drip irrigation.
Malheur County has a tradition of adopting good practices and positive cooperation working to improve water use efficiency and water quality. Key groups participating in these efforts include the Malheur Watershed Council, Owyhee Watershed Council, Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District, Lower Willow Creek Working Group, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), Oregon Department of Agriculture, the OSU Malheur Experiment Station, OSU Malheur County Extension, BOR, US Forest Service, BLM, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and others.
Land in the county is used for cropping sequences rather than planting the same crop year after year. Growers produce 4 to 5 different crops in 4 to 5 years on the same piece of ground. The rotations reduce the pressure from weeds, insects and diseases. Crop rotation reduces chemical fertilizer needs and helps to maintain soil tilth. Typical crop rotations in the county include wheat, potatoes, onions, sugar beets, sweet corn or dry beans.
Onions are grown from true seed planted in March and April and harvested from late July through the beginning of October. The onion crop is very demanding in terms of irrigation and weed control. Weed competition or dry soil severely reduce onion growth. The onions are cured by drying their outer skins in the field then stored in bulk or in 1500 lb crates for marketing through March. Refrigerated storages have recently extended the marketing season. The varieties grown here are known as Spanish Sweets (reds, yellows, and whites), and are typically longer storing onions than other well-known types of sweet onions grown in other parts of the country. Since the onions are mostly produced for the open market, their price can be volatile. Most growers either own or rent storages to help manage marketing.
Onions from Malheur County are marketed nationally and internationally to restaurants, supermarkets, and processors. Local Spanish Sweets are famous for their size. Onions over 4 inches in diameter are know as colossal and those over 4½ inches are super colossal.
Sugar beets were grown on 9,000 acres in 2007 with average yield of 33.3 tons per acre. The beets typically contain 17 percent sugar. Nitrogen management for sugar beet production is difficult because a good supply of nitrogen is indispensable early during plant development, yet abundant supplies of nitrogen in the fall cause the plants to grow large tops and contain less sugar in the beets at harvest. The beets are processed by Amalgamated Sugar, a grower owned co-op, with processing facilities in Nyssa, the only sugar beet processing plant in Oregon. The sugar is marketed under the "White Satin" and several other labels. Sugar beet manufacturing produces beet pulp as a by-product which is recovered and used for cattle food.
Potatoes are produced mostly under contract for processors: Ore-Ida Foods and Simplot. Potatoes are processed at Ontario into frozen French fries and many other products for nation-wide marketing. Many potato fields are sprinkler irrigated. Potatoes are difficult to raise as they are sensitive to heat stress. Potatoes need careful irrigation, whether furrow irrigation or sprinklers are used.
Alfalfa Hay is produced on more Malheur County acres than any other crop. Alfalfa hay sustains the dairy and beef industries and is sold to other states and Oregon counties.
Malheur County dairy production ranks fifth in Oregon. Cattle are fed alfalfa, silage, and corn that is largely produced in the county. Milk is processed and bottled in Idaho. Because of dry weather, corn silage can be stored in pits for future use as dairy feed. Manure and other residues from dairy production are recycled to help maintain the fertility and productivity of the land.
Most of the surface area of the county is rangeland managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Department of the Interior. The expansive rangelands support cow-calf operations. Lease holders pay the federal government for grazing rights for their cattle. Cattle herds, in the county, average five hundred head. Beef cattle are finished at feed lots near Nyssa and Jamieson. Beef cattle are fed balanced rations for rapid, efficient gains that include alfalfa, corn, and other grains. Beef cattle also are fed potato and sugar beet by products. There is a livestock auction yard in Vale.
Buffalo are raised commercially by the Brown Buffalo Ranch. It is located off Hwy. 201 between Nyssa and Adrian. The ranch can be located west of the Snake River Oregon Trail kiosk on Hwy. 201 from Nyssa to Adrian. Buffalo can often be seen grazing along the hillside at the Brown Buffalo Ranch.
Beans, Vegetables and Alfalfa are grown as seed crops. Alfalfa seed needs very special insect control to simultaneously control pest insects, yet protect the leafcutter bees used for pollination. Leaf cutter bees are solitary bees that lay individual eggs in small tubes. Boards with hundreds of holes are stacked in small brightly painted sheds in the alfalfa fields to house the leaf cutter bees. Alfalfa seed processing wastes are part of the ingredients used to make compost to grow mushrooms.
On the east edge of Vale is Oregon Trail Mushrooms where over 8 million pounds of mushrooms are grown annually. Vale is underlain by hot geothermal water. The water is used to help provide energy for cooling the mushroom chambers in the summer and heating the chambers in the winter. Wheat straw, chicken manure, peat moss, water, gypsum, alfalfa seed processing waste, and other ingredients are stirred, composted, and sterilized for use as compost in trays to grow mushrooms. After many weeks of mushroom harvest, the spent compost is recycled as organic material for landscaping applications.
In 2007, wheat and barley were produced on 26,600 acres and average yields of 130 bu/acre for barley and 112 bu/acre for wheat. Corn was planted on 25,700 acres with average yield of 188 bu/acre for grain or 30 tons/acre for silage.
Poplar trees are a new plantation crop for Malheur County. Poplar trees planted with fourteen foot spacing have markets as veneer and other lumber products. Native wildflowers seed production has begun to provide seed for rangeland restoration efforts following fire.
Nyssa Chamber of Commerce: (541) 372-3091
Ontario Chamber of Commerce: (541) 889-8012
Vale Chamber of Commerce: (541) 473-3800
Malheur County Economic Development Department: (541)881-0327
©2000, 2008 Clinton C. Shock
Malheur Experiment Station
Oregon State University
595 Onion Ave.
Ontario, Oregon, 97914