Circles from the sky
I looked up Ontario on Google map when I am first announced that it is going to be my host community. That looks like a mountainous city but instead of green colour as in Vietnam, it’s brown. I wondered what is the relevant between this city and my community, the area currently suffering from salinity intrusion. I also saw some strange circles around the city which I could not figure what they are even with satellite view.
On my third day of the fellowship, Peter took me to the Ontario airport where people was going to give me a fly. Flying on the small air craft is not like any other commercial ones, there are 2 or 4 seats, and you just feel like being on your car – the flying car. I saw the whole Treasure Valley from the sky, and I finally had a closer look at those strange circles before. They are crop circles where people applying center pivot irrigation system, equipment rotates around a pivot and crops are watered with sprinkler. This method helps to reduce a great deal of water using in irrigation and labour compared to other methods as furrow irrigation. I asked my friend who is an agricultural consultant in Vietnam if she is familiar with this method. She said it was installed in a few places in Vietnam. The system is more compatible with flat terrain and large-scale farming – not the context of Vietnam, so it is not popular. Anyway, this is how circles from the sky was my first impression about how people here are practicing farming and their concerns about using water efficiently.
The Malheur experiment station
Dr. Shock has been leading a life I wish. He is the director of Malheur Experiment Station, which is a branch of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, a part of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. The station owns many experimental plots where they conduct research on onion, sugar beet, potatoes and other major crop in Malheur County to test different varieties, look for optimum irrigation system for particular crop and weed control method. Every year they organize field trips for farmers to visit their plots and publish their results in their website http://cropinfo.net .
More importantly, besides their research accomplishment, during the meeting with Dr. Shock and talking to farmers in the area, I can see that their experiments were actually adopted to the farmers, bringing both financial and environmental benefits. Dr. Clint Shock started working at the station since 1970s. “Smart” “knowledgeable” “get his hands dirty” are what I hear people here talking about him. He introduced the use of GMS sensors and precision irrigation. Using these sensors, he developed optimal soil water potential recommendations for local potato and onion crops under different types of irrigation. He convinced people to use less N fertilizer to reduce nutrient losses in surface water runoff and groundwater contamination. I always think there are distances between the scientists’ experiment and the actual field, but he narrowed it.
“How did you get growers adopt your technical suggestion?” – I asked
He gave me 5 important rules: (1) Innovation comes with financial profit for farmers; (2) It is compatible with what people already had; (3) It is not too complicated; (4) Advantages must be observable and (5) The idea / innovation comes from people whom they trust.
Those are simple but extremely valuable advice. Parts of these I learnt when I was in Brazil working with very poor people – he said. I really learn a lot from him. I also like the way he is telling about his trips mentioning his wife in the beginning of the sentence: “When my wife and I were in Brazil..” or “my wife and I has been to China..”. They are always together.
Using water efficiently
Rod Frahm, the owner of an onion shed who spends 71 years of his life in Ontario, was my tour guide to the Owyhee dam. Going with us that day was also Bob, his close friend. We departed kind of early in the morning when it was still very foggy, that’s why he decided to give me a tour at his onion shed and his amazing collection of old cars.
We arrived Owyhee dam area at around 10 am and visited the museum first where they exhibit pictures taken during the construction and its opening ceremony. Two weeks before I also visited the Ontario museum at the Four River Cultural Center and heard a brief introduction about the Owyhee Dam. It was completed in 1932 after 4 years of construction and has been playing an important role in agricultural activities in this area. Before the dam, there were not all the large onion and corn fields as we see today, they mostly did cattle farming. At the time of completion, it was used for irrigation purpose only and was the tallest dam of its type in the world. It’s had electricity-generating function since 1980s and could provide electricity for about 800-900 houses as a staff of the dam told. So there were three of us and the Owyhee dam’s staff that day went inside the dam again to see how people did it almost 90 years ago. A major parts of the dam were original since the beginning and keep well working without reinforcement.
Standing in front of a human accomplishment, I did not have much to say. Dam is considered as a clean way for irrigation and electricity generation, but people also argue about its environmental impact. Here, all the talent of people for building it was true and its benefits were also true. Water runs from the Owyhee reservoir through the hills, down and up by water pressure and gravity, continue miles one to another field. The farmers have systems of center pivot, wheel line or drip irrigation. In other part of Ontario, they also have wastewater treatment plant to reuse water for irrigation purpose. Yes, water is very important and I believe it is used efficiently here.
“I want you to feel privileged to visit the dam, there are not a lot of people having a chance to do it” – Frahm proudly said before we went inside the dam. Yes, I am feeling very privileged, not only about visiting this dam, but also other places and people I am introduced here. I’ve been having a great time so far, I met wonderful people and learnt a lot.