Tom Blakney’s ancestors came to the Pacific Northwest via the Oregon Trail in 1848. His roots in Washington stretch back to his great-great grandfather John Golden, who was founder of Goldendale. When his ancestors settled in the Horse Heaven Hills, it was said that the grass came up to a horse’s eye.
Today, the wheat farms of the past are less fruitful. Mr. Blakney and his cousins inherited his family land in Benton county in the 1980’s. He has seen how less rain over the years has further burdened the more marginal farmland in the region.
“Benton county isn’t the best for farming, it’s dry land farming,” said Blakney. “Our wheat crop is also lower at this time because of decreasing rain.”
The proven yield for wheat crops in Benton County is typically around 35 bushels per acre, according to Mr. Blakney. In comparison, he notes that much of Oregon’s wheat country has proven yields around 60 bushels an acre. This year, the final numbers for his farm, and he suspects for those around him, are closer to 15 -20 bushels per acre. “For people who farm this land, there needs to be a backup so that a bust year doesn’t ruin you,” added Mr. Blakney.
Mr. Blakney’s family has long since diversified their own professions, with many in the family entering engineering fields. He recalls how his brother-in-law was a chief engineer at Boeing in the late 70’s, working on two large wind turbines – some of the first to be built in the Northwest. Two cousins were involved in the first wind farm in Sherman county Oregon. “We have talked about wind power for a long time,” said Blakney. “We believe in it.”
Mr. Blakney is one of the many landowners in Benton County who are looking forward to the prospect of adding more renewable energy infrastructure in the region. As a land partner with Horse Heaven Clean Energy Center, he has enthusiastically agreed to lease portions of his land for new wind turbines that will help provide much needed renewable energy to the Washington power grid.
Mr. Blakney sees great value in adopting renewable energy now and little downside for the working landscapes of Benton County. Each turbine built on his land will take approximately an acre and will generate more income per acre than the existing wheat crop. He does not see harm to the remainder of the wheat crop, which will still take up the vast majority of his farmland.
This project is more than an economic agreement for Mr. Blakney. It’s part of a solution to the increasing challenges the community faces as rising temperatures continue to impact crop yields.
“We’d love to hope global climate change is not true, but if it is, most people can’t envision the problems we are about to have,” warns Mr. Blakney. “Tides rising, islands underwater, rainstorms in the East and South East. And then the droughts here in the West. If the wheat fields dry up and go away, it’s not just that we lose farms, we lose food production.”
It’s one thing, Mr. Blakney notes, to have a bad crop yield in a year. Farms are insured with crop insurance for this purpose. The challenge is long-term, over many years, where we may lose crops entirely. And the working landscape that has been such a powerful economic driver for the community over the millennia may one day cease to exist.
Mr. Blakney also notes that the only fossil fuel plant in Washington is in the process of closing down as the state places stricter controls on carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of a loss, Mr. Blakney sees this as the opportunity for the Tri-Cities region to be a leader in a cleaner energy future.
“One of the things that made Eastern Washington what it is was construction of the dams and the low-cost energy that became available,” Mr. Blakney said. “And then the BPA was created, and the energy infrastructure was put in place. This is part of what the region can continue to do.”
The Horse Heaven Clean Energy Center is the fourth proposed wind power project Mr. Blakney’s been involved with for his land in Benton County. He hopes to see this one succeed in his lifetime.
“I have four grandchildren who will one day inherit the property,” said Mr. Blakney. “I’d like them to have opportunities with this land.”