Grain and potato farmer Ross Fleming won't say no to his share of $20 million in federal aid for Klamath Basin farmers denied water to protect fish, but he figures it won't do much more than put a few groceries on his family's table.
"You can't turn any of it down, but it's a long ways from a crop," said Fleming. "I'd just as soon have the water so I could grow a crop and take care of my financial obligations that way."
The first round of farmers eligible for the aid can begin signing up Monday at the Klamath County Farm Service Agency in Klamath Falls, Ore., and the Tule Lake Irrigation District in Tulelake, Calif.
Sign-ups will go by irrigation districts, and continue through Oct. 5, said agency executive director Denise Martin. Once the number of people qualifying for aid is totaled up, the money will be divided and sent out, probably by the end of October.
The money was authorized by Congress after drought left no water for about 200,000 acres of farmland on the Klamath Project federal irrigation system after new Endangered Species Act demands were met for endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River.
The irrigation shut-off marked the first time since the Klamath Project began delivering water in 1907 that the interests of Indian tribes that hold the fish sacred and commercial fishermen on the coast won out over farmers. Without heavy rains this winter or some program to reduce demand for water and increase supplies, farmers could face the same problems next year.
"The crisis is nowhere near to being solved, especially in regard to how to start planning for next year," said Joe Sheffo, spokesman for Sen. Gordon Smith, D-Ore., who shepherded the aid package through Congress.
Members of the Oregon and California congressional delegations have been considering a mix of short- and long-term solutions that range from putting stricter scientific standards on the Endangered Species Act to buying out farmers to reduce irrigation demand.
Farmers who got their water this year are not eligible for the aid, Martin said. Neither are people who use the project to water their yards.
To sign up, people must show a deed proving ownership or a lease. In cases where people have less formal leasing arrangements, both partners must sign up and work out shares.
The money is far from what farmers could make if they had received water, Martin said. Mint, for example, would gross about $720 an acre, potatoes $675, alfalfa $650, and grains $350.
The money carries more symbolic value than economic value, when stacked up against the estimated $220 million in annual gross agriculture revenues for the basin, said Greg Williams, regional vice president for Farm Credit Services.
"This is a bit of fresh air coming into the basin," Williams said. "It's an indication by the federal government that something had been done to these people. This should help to make up for some of their losses."
But for most full-time farmers tilling between 150 and 500 acres, it will not cover the annual operating expenses they face, whether they grow a crop of not, Williams added.
"It doesn't help the laborer who is off, the pesticide dealer," he said. "There are a lot of people this will not help."
Fleming figured the aid would provide him about $30,000 at a rate of about $100 for each of the 300 acres of farmland he owns. But after taking out property taxes, income taxes, and irrigation district fees, he figured to have about $10,000 left -- enough to make the payment on one of his three tractors.
"If I don't turn a wheel, I need close to $100,000 to pay my expenses," said Fleming. "Hopefully the banks will leave everybody alone and let people put some groceries on the table."
At the behest of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the acting director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has encouraged banks to "work constructively" with Klamath Basin farmers hurt by the drought.
"The FDIC recognizes that the effects of natural disasters on local businesses and individuals are often transitory, and that prudent efforts to adjust or alter terms on existing loans in areas affected by the drought should not be subject to examiner criticism," acting director Michael J. Zamorski wrote bank CEOs.
Other sources of aid have been available to farmers, such as money for planting cover crops to reduce erosion, though they don't amount to as much as the $100 an acre in federal aid, Williams said.
The big crunch will come this winter, when farmers' loans come due.
"Them bills are coming," he said. "This $100 an acre is a joke to that."