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Phil Fine pays close attention to the weather as he walks across a field of dirt on his farm near Madras in this January 2020 photo.

With extreme drought affecting much of Central Oregon, farms and ranches are tightening the screws on their water systems, trying to save every drop. The High Desert Food & Farm Alliance wants to help in that effort and this week announced grants to improve water efficiency.

The alliance is offering Central Oregon farmers and ranchers up to $4,000 that they can put toward infrastructure upgrades, equipment purchases, professional development and technical assistance to make their farms more water efficient.

The assistance comes at a crucial time for Central Oregon as multiple years of drought have drained reservoirs, forcing irrigation districts to cut water allotments to farmers. Water that is conserved through on-farm improvements results in more water available for farmers, and it allows more water to be left in-stream streams to benefit aquatic wildlife.

Annie Nichols, agricultural support manager for the alliance, said the grants are designed to keep farms in business during a period of upheaval, as farmers navigate supply shortages, inflation, COVID, drought and cuts to their irrigation supply.

“By providing these on-farm grant funds, we are simultaneously investing in food for our communities and business sustainability for farmers and ranchers,” said Nichols.

The alliance will redistribute $40,000 in funding from grants supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some funding comes via an extension of the grants to the American Rescue Plan Act, passed earlier this year.

Nichols said after the distribution of the funds, the alliance will try to secure additional funding from private or public donors to continue the on-farm grants.

Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, a nonprofit that seeks to restore water to the Deschutes River, said the investment in Central Oregon farmers will help the region conserve resources, and similar funding opportunities are anticipated in the future.

“Additional investment in this work will need to be sustained to achieve a water-secure future,” said Fitzpatrick. “We look forward to opportunities to partner with the HDFFA on investments that help farmers and our rivers in an increasingly water-scarce environment.”

Program applicants must be located in Crook, Deschutes or Jefferson counties, or the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. To qualify for the grants, the farm or ranch must be operational in 2021 and primarily sell its products in Central Oregon.

Grants require a 50% match in funds, which can be provided through cash, in-kind donations or labor. Applications must be submitted by Dec. 20. Applicants can apply at hdffa.org/ofeg.

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Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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