In the Pacific Northwest, this is the season of “BPA hay.” The BPA is the Bonneville Power Administration, which buys power from Northwestern hydroelectric dams owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Responding to Western states' power shortages and drought conditions last winter, the BPA offered to pay growers $330/acre to forego irrigation this season. Altogether, 91,000 acres with water rights belonging to 670 farmers ended up in the buy-out. Most enrolled acreage is in the Columbia Basin.

A lot of that acreage got farmed as dryland spring wheat that many growers preferred to cut as hay hence the BPA hay moniker. Some alfalfa growers enrolled fields of mostly older stands, and got a cutting or two without irrigation water.

Many farmers were leery when they first heard about the BPA offer, but most had changed their minds by sign-up time.

“On March 19, about 150 growers were in line outside our district office,” says Dick Erickson of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, Othello, WA. “Some had camped out there for the night to be sure they got in on the buy-out.”

A major concern is how the buy-out is perceived by the public, says Dale Wentworth, an Ephrata, WA, alfalfa grower.

“Ten years down the line this could lead to other things,” says Wentworth. “The future of the Columbia Basin could be for sale once farming is taking a back seat so people elsewhere can run their air conditioners and computers.”

Erickson says he's “getting calls every day” from farmers asking if the buy-out program will be offered again next year.

But Ron Rodewald, a BPA manager in Portland, OR, doesn't anticipate another buy-out. His advice to Northwestern growers: “Make plans that focus on the agribusiness next year, but think a little bit about other options in case there is another buy-out.”