Subtopic : Pre-Industrial Period: 1870-1910: Dry Farming
Themes: People and the Environment, Economics
The first Euro-American immigrants to central Oregon were livestock ranchers, but they practiced subsistence farming. They watered their garden plots with the domestic water supply. To grow larger amounts of fruits or vegetables, they needed to access additional water sources. In most of central Oregon, water for irrigation was available only by diverting surface water from higher elevations. This was an expensive job and well beyond the means of most individuals. The alternative to irrigation was “dry farming,” a term used throughout the West to refer to farming arid land without irrigation.
As Americans moved into the West in the 1880s and 1890s, they were learning about the special techniques required for dry farming, which were unknown in Europe or in other areas of the United States. Schools of agriculture at land grant colleges conducted research on dry farming, and farmers collected empirical data in their traditional way. Dry farming congresses and expositions were held to foster knowledge of the new practices. In general, dry farming was most successful with cereal crops and certain legumes like lentils, field peas, and alfalfa. Northern slopes were preferable, and most fields could be planted only on alternate years. The “fallow” years were necessary to re-charge the soil moisture and nutrients. Certain areas like the Agency Plains, Powell Buttes, the Crooked River Valley, and Tygh Valley were favorable for dry farming, while other areas were not.
J.M. Bird, the Sheriff of Wasco County, visited the upper Deschutes country in 1870, and his letter to The Dalles Mountaineer summarizes the first settlers’ farming experience:
I found a large quantity of hay put up, and in the vicinity of the forks [of Ochoco Creek] I found some very fine crops of grain had been raised, which seemed to yield as well as any portion of Eastern Oregon. I am of the opinion that vegetables are not a certain crop in the valley...as they have late and early frosts.
The settlers were soon to discover that fruit trees were also “not a certain crop” because of the brutal frosts in April and May.
© Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens, 2004.
Themes: People and the Environment,Economics
Regions: Central Oregon
Author: Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens
In order to make use of central Oregon land, dry-farming techiques were developed and promoted in schools of agriculture, regional congresses, and expositions.
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