Growing pains to gains in Willamette Valley

Author: Nathan Kirkpatrick, Ewing Irrigation

Publish Date: Spring 2014

The Willamette Valley has been an agricultural paradise for hundreds of years. It is made up of several distinct ecosystems and is home to 61 species of fish, 250 species of wildlife and thousands of species of plant life. It is the nation’s largest producer of hazelnuts and cranberries and one of the largest producers of Christmas trees, nursery stock and grass seed.

As successful as farming has been in the region, it has also contributed to environmental problems and faces serious challenges. But with more farmers become focused on sustainability, new innovations are making the future look bright for farming in Willamette Valley.

Native Farming

Long before Lewis and Clark’s journey began, there were an estimated 100 Native American tribes living throughout the Willamette Valley. The Calapooya—a large group of several tribes that lived independently of each other—managed the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years by digging, tilling, planting a variety of crops and changing the landscape to favor a diverse plant and animal population. By burning large portions of land they promoted new growth and vegetation for large game, and even collected the burnt and blackened insects for food.

Tarweed (a native sunflower), acorns, hazelnuts, strawberry, blackberry, elderberry, salmonberry, salal berry, huckleberry, wild plums and cherries, wild onions, parsnips, wapato (a potato-like root), and camas—a once common starchy bulb that is said to taste like a warm baked pear—made up the majority of what the native people harvested.

As native people grew and harvested local food to sell to the early pioneers, they paved the road for what would become modern agriculture in the state of Oregon. Most of the best wapato fields were located in what is now Portland, and natives harvested and sold the roots during the winters at Fort Clatsop, the encampment of the Lewis and Clark expedition. When the Lewis and Clark expedition ended in 1806, news of their success traveled quickly and more people began to make the treacherous journey west.

A Changing Landscape

 In 1824, the Hudson Bay Company established Fort Vancouver. This was the first attempt at a self-sustaining commercial farming operation in the region, and they immediately began planting grain and orchards and raising sheep and cattle. They also established dairies on Sauvie Island to supply milk, butter and cheese to the community. As a reward for their service, retirees of Hudson Bay were given land to farm in the area known as French Prairie in the Willamette Valley. This news had people literally “jumping on the wagon” to head west, and in the 1830s the Oregon Trail movement began.

During the California Gold Rush, the Willamette Valley was in a unique position to market and supply food to the miners in California, and Willamette Valley farmers became more wealthy selling food to the 49ers than the 49ers made from finding gold!

Technology Triumphs

At the turn of the 19th century, mechanized farming, horses and other animals began to take the place of manpower. Steam and gasoline powered equipment replaced laborious jobs that were once difficult and time consuming. The introduction of mechanical equipment to harvest grasses more efficiently prompted an increase of wheat production and the ability to grow and harvest more feed for livestock. 

Marquis De Lafayette Remington of Woodburn, Ore. patented the first steam-powered tractor in 1888. He developed a tractor that was able to work in the soft wet ground of the Willamette Valley nicknamed the “Rough and Ready,” and it changed the way modern farming was done in Oregon and beyond.

In 1938, the Bonneville Dam, a power station on the Columbia River, began producing power for the area, leading to the introduction of pumps and electrical equipment. Irrigation pumps were used to move water and irrigate lands that could not be reached up to that point. Soon, areas east of the Willamette Valley and Cascades that were otherwise considered too dry to farm became prime wheat lands. In the following years, wheat became Oregon's top exported crop and remains one of the highest today. Areas within the Willamette Valley also began producing a larger variety of crops due to irrigation.

The Price of Progress

As the evolution of agriculture in Oregon continued into the 20th century, so did the advancements in petroleum based pesticides and herbicides. At the time, there were little or no restrictions for dumping raw waste directly into the Willamette River. Industrial wastes and agricultural runoff, including excessive pesticides, contributed to high levels of pollution in the river. Some sections of the river became so polluted that they could no longer support aquatic life. By the 1930s, it became obvious to people the effects of dumping waste into the river could not be ignored.

In 1938, the people of Oregon passed the Purification and Prevention of Pollution Bill. Newly constructed dams on the tributaries of the Willamette were used to dilute (rather than purify) the water to safer levels, and agreements with local farmers were created to avoid water shortages in the summer months. In the 1960s a renewed effort reduced industrial river pollution, but runoff from agricultural and urban areas still impacts the river.

Today, the levels of toxins found in parts of the river make it unsafe to eat the resident fish, or swim during times of high pollution. The Department of Environmental Quality estimates it will take 20 years to return the river to safe bacterial levels and 50-100 years to return the level of mercury to a level that is safe to consume fish.

Growing Towards Sustainability

People have become increasingly concerned about not only what they eat, but where their food comes from. In 1984, Oregon Tilth was established in Willamette Valley and is currently one of the largest organic certifiers in the country.

Since the early 90s, small farms and local farmers’ markets that provide fresh, locally grown, organic food to consumers have been increasing in number and popularity every year. Many farmers have a desire to practice sustainable farming techniques today because they realize, as stewards of the land, the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems for the next generation of farmers. 

Alternatives to petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides are becoming more popular. Companies like BioOregon are developing natural organic fish based fertilizers that work to build up soil, rather than deplete them of nutrients year after year. And in Portland, Clean Water Services and Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies have constructed the world’s largest municipal facility to extract useable nutrients from wastewater for use as fertilizer.

Growing food today has become an applied science. Farms are equipped with weather stations that monitor and automatically adjust watering schedules based on the irrigation needs of a specific crop. These stations help detect moisture loss due to wind and evaporation, air temperature, real-time soil moisture levels, and can prevent irrigation if it starts raining. High efficiency irrigation spray heads and drip emitters are also replacing large impact guns and field flooding, which helps reduce wasted water, fertilizer needs and runoff into the river system. Another advancement, pH meters, are being used to test soil conditions so farmers can adjust the soil pH to control disease and increase the vitality of crops without the use of excessive chemicals.

Each year brings advances in technology and education. With these advances, farmers and residents have the opportunity to lead the country in sustainable practices and keep the Willamette Valley an agricultural paradise for generations to come.

Author Nathan Kirkpatrick is a manager for Ewing Irrigation in Hillsboro, Ore., which provides irrigation, landscape and agricultural products. He can be reached at or 503.533.5656.