WORDEN — Jason and Victoria Flowers walk through the fields on their family’s property on a mild November afternoon, pointing toward acreage that’s been part of the Walking Wetlands program through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 10 years.

The couple once had their engagement photos taken in the fields, and Jason grew up exploring them as a boy. He wouldn’t live anywhere else.

In exchange for flooding his fields and leaving grains for the birds, Jason farms on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, as well.

He has a year-to-year contract due to water accessibility, which this year was uncertain.

So uncertain that he is one of the few if not the only participant who took part in the Walking Wetlands program, facilitated by the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Following a year of increased participation in the Walking Wetlands program, 2018 yielded no traditional participants in the program due to significant drought in the Klamath Basin, but wetlands still found a way to provide habitat and sustenance for waterfowl passing through.

“We didn’t have any wetlands this summer through our walking wetlands program — at least permanent wetlands,” said Greg Austin, manager of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which covers six refuges in Oregon and California.

Using grain to feed waterfowl

The program operates cooperative farming programs for both Lower Klamath Wildlife National Refuge and in Tulelake, Calif., on the Oregon-California border, as well as private landowners such as the Flowers who can opt in the refuges program that offers up farm fields to farmers to come farm for free. In exchange, farmers have to agree to leave standing grain for the birds.

Depending on the agreement with the farmer, the birds get 25 to 33 percent of the crop, according to Austin.

Austin noted the program still had what he calls “seasonal wetlands” this year, despite the dry climate, just not enough water for a traditional wetlands.

“If it’s a drought year, we just go to plan B,” Austin said.

“Instead of a wetland, we will ask for more standing grain, so we’ll still get those energy benefits, energy requirements for the birds met, but through a grain … Either they’re going to leave more standing grain on the refuge or standing grain on their private land.

Austin said even in a drought year the refuge has population objectives to meet so that birds coming through the Pacific Flyway have enough to eat.

“We try to grow the foods to meet those imaging requirements of those large number of birds that come through,” Austin added.

The Flowers are among the private land owners who participated in the program this year by recycling water and recirculating it until the water allocation was announced in June. They also left standing barley for the ducks and geese that frequent the family’s property, located about 10 miles outside Klamath Falls.

In exchange for flooding his fields and leaving grains for the birds, Jason farmed on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge this year, as well.

Water uncertainty

“The water situation, a lot of people couldn’t keep the ground flooded because of the lack of water,” Jason said. “We recycled water in order to flood this until water was available.

“We were still able to provide a wetland habitat,” he added.

Jason said he had to scale back normal participation in the program.

“We usually flood the whole 260 (acres),” he said.

Instead, he drained 100 acres nearby and used that water to recirculate the remaining 160 flooded.

“They knew that this was going to be a tight water year and so what they let some people do to stay in the program, instead of flooding their ground, you could farm it up, plant a grain crop, and just leave it all standing for the birds,” Jason said.

“In this ground, the barley seems to grow a little bit better,” he added.

Seeing the wildlife thrive is part of the reason Jason decided to stay on the family farm, he said, where he grows oats, barley, alfalfa and peas.

The wildlife is also part of why he did what was necessary to make a wetlands work on his property in a dry year.

“We’ve got about 260 acres in the program right now,” Jason said.

“I know we weren’t the first ones in the area but we were one of the earlier ones to get involved with it. They (Fish and Wildlife Service) had funding available to help develop your property so it floods easier.”

Incentives built in

As part of the incentive for the program, Fish & Wildlife installed control structures to help the Flowers maintain the water levels, Jason said.

At the direction of the government agency, Jason said he floods the field in the spring and then slowly drains it off as summer approaches.

“That encourages certain aquatic weeds to grow that they’re looking for,” Jason said.

“You leave it dry pretty much most of the summer and early, mid-fall you start kind of flooding it back up,” he added. “They only want you to flood it to a certain depth so that way the ducks can tip over and eat the weeds off the ground.”

Austin said recycling water to make it work on the property makes the Flowers even more competitive in the program.

“They know the competition out there,” Austin said.

The intent of the cooperative farming program started to improve the soils and help eliminate soil-borne pests such as nematodes, which can be parasitic to potatoes.

“They flooded it for an extended period of time and they saw both a reduction in nematodes and noxious weeds,” Austin said. “When they came out of that wetland status, then they saw increased yields as well.

“This is one of the best tools farmer have to get to organic status,” Austin added, noting the method of flooding alleviates the use of chemicals to eradicate pests.

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