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Farmers Behind Your Food: Mossback Farm, Oregon

How an Oregon family grows your food in a drought

by Mike Lavender, Ag Reform Coordinator

If you ask Rich Blaha, he’ll tell you that he would love for his six-year-old son Dalton to take over Mossback Farm someday.  Nestled on 33 acres near the small town of Yamhill, Oregon, and just 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Mossback Farm isn’t something you’d want to see in your rearview mirror.

But Blaha has been a parent long enough to know that kids don’t always take the path their parents want for them. 

“In my experience, whenever a parent pushes a track on a kid -- and I did the same thing to my parents -- the kid ends up doing something else,” Blaha says.

So instead of preaching to Dalton about why he should become a farmer -- only to have him leave for the big city some day -- he created a farm worthy of staying.

This didn’t mean buying the most expensive, pristine farmland imaginable.  Like so many young people just starting out, Rich Blaha and his wife Valerie couldn’t afford it.  Instead, they bought cheap land scarred from past use.  In 2002, they finalized the paperwork and set to work making it their own.

Almost immediately, Blaha noticed a problem.

“Really, it’s water,” he says.  “We’re in Oregon, so everybody thinks there’s tons of water, but our soils don’t hold it very well.  The gullies drain it off really fast.” 

With some help, he created a unique system that plugs gullies throughout his farm to help more rain water stay in his soil.  He saves on his water bill and conserves water for his fellow farmers.

“When we bought our farm, there were only two or three other small, direct to consumer farmers in our county,” he says.  “Today there are over 50.  This has put tremendous pressure on our water resources.”

Blaha’s preoccupation with water is shared by thousands of American farmers from Maine to California.  Agriculture accounts for between 80 and 90 percent of water consumed in the U.S.  During a drought – like the one that has beset California and Oregon this winter –water resources are pushed to the brink. 

Since buying the farm, Blaha has used tools and resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to plant 3,500 trees to shade his streams during the hot summer, preventing evaporation and saving water.

Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t always see the benefit of investing in programs that protect farmland and the food they produce.  In the most recent farm bill, Congress cut $4 billion from critical conservation programs, leaving future generations high and dry. When used properly, conservation programs are a long-term investment that help farmers like Blaha protect clean water and grow healthy food, real changes that benefit consumers and farmers.  

“One of the biggest benefits of my job is watching the seasonal and annual changes,” Blaha says.  “Those 3,500 trees I planted are almost all taller than me.  Now there’s a forest there.” 

In a little more than a decade, he has watched his farm slowly transform from scarred to green and healthy. His work hasn’t been a cure-all, and sometimes water still runs short, but he can only imagine how it would look without all he’s done.

Sixteen years from now Dalton Blaha will be a young man, and he’ll get to choose whether he wants to run Mossback Farm or go off on his own adventure.  By then, the farm will have been in the family 25 years.

“He’d benefit from the long term projects we’ve implemented; the trees, the soil building, the water cache,” Blaha says.  “Dalton would start out so much further ahead than Valerie and I ever had a chance to.”