Umatilla Agriculture: The "bread basket"
Sam Nobles, whose family owned a 360 acre dairy farm, recalled delivering melons to Spokane, picking potatoes by hand, and working with high school kids on a local pea farm in the 1940s. Expensive technology, rising transportation costs, and large corporate farms have made it nearly impossible for family farms like the Nobles' to be competitive.
When I first came here we had potatoes on our ground, we got 20 tons to the acre. It was all hand dug and my family never got into it because in those days you didn't have the Simplots and Lamb Westons - you didn't have the big plants. Nowadays everything is done so much with technology . . . melons, we used to go out there and throw the seeds on the ground, put 4 or 5 in. . . . the mice would get a couple of them and . . . you'd get enough melons. Now everything is done with machines. . . the technology is so advanced that some guy like me would probably go broke real fast if I went back to farming.
Sam Nobles, Umatilla resident since 1943
While John Day Dam reduced pump lift, giving irrigation a major boost, technology revolutionized farming in Umatilla and Morrow Counties in the early 1970s. Two men - Ray Dunn and Bill McClannahan - introduced the circle pivot irrigation system, dramatically increasing crop production. Among the major changes was potato production, growing from a $2.1 million crop in 1969 to an $11 million crop in 1974.
In 1972, Lamb Weston built the first big potato processing plant on Port of Umatilla land near Hermiston. A 200-day growing season, early harvests, and high yields made potatoes an ideal crop. Large potato and alfalfa crops complemented expansion of the cattle industry. Until 1950, approximately 80 to 90% of the county's cattle were range fattened. Within the next 25 years, an estimated 85% were fattened in feed lots. According to Gordon MacNab, editor of the East Oregonian, "This was big business, and corporations - not small farmers - ran it."