Oregon High Desert Homestead

It took a bit of research, and the initial expenses and cultural adjustments weren't insignificant, but the Harrsch family was able to establishing a homestead on the Oregon high desert in 1978.

| January/February 1980

  • 061 oregon desert homestead 1 - natural view
    LEFT: Sagebrush growth indicates the better soil in Oregon's high desert. CENTER: Oregon's desert is a "hot bed" of geothermal activity. Here, steam billows from a hot spring near Crane. RIGHT: Towering lodge pole pines loom in Oregon's national forests.
  • 061 oregon desert homestead 2 - commerce
    TOP LEFT: A wheel line irrigation system carries precious water to a fresh-mown field. TOP RIGHT: Grain harvests offer seasonal work for homesteaders. BOTTOM LEFT: High country children attend tiny schools . . . such as this one with only five students. BOTTOM RIGHT: The "law of the range" requires homesteaders to coexist with ranchers' cattle.
  • 061 oregon desert homestead - landscape
    Rugged farmers have managed to carve out arable land amid the sage-encrusted desert plateaus.

  • 061 oregon desert homestead 1 - natural view
  • 061 oregon desert homestead 2 - commerce
  • 061 oregon desert homestead - landscape

When my husband and I sold our coastal Oregon house in 1978, we were afraid that we'd be unable to find an affordable farm without leaving our home state. Land promotions, calculated to entice wealthy retirees to the Northwest's seashores or fir-cloaked Cascades, had pushed land prices as high as $2,500 to $5,000 per acre throughout much of the Beaver State.

However, while scouring the Capital Press (a regional agricultural paper), we noticed an ad for eastern Oregon real estate . . . at only $85 to $200 per acre! It sounded too good to be true, but we packed up our two tots, hooked up a 16-year-old camp trailer, and headed for Burns . . . a small town on the Oregon high desert—a sage-encrusted high plateau of inland Oregon.

Upon our arrival in the community (Burns's population is only 3,680), we obtained a copy of the local paper that confirmed the low land prices. Then—since we knew nothing about the climate, soil, or availability of water in this apparently arid country—we headed for the county extension office.  

We were surprised to learn from the county agent that snow runoff creates a good water supply at no more than 100-200 feet below the ground. However, this same life-giving liquid also carries large amounts of surface salts that are deposited in lower, poorly drained flats, so we were cautioned to look for land with the high, silver-blue sagebrush that indicates better soil . . . while avoiding the bright green greasewood that thrives in alkaline soil. 

The agent also revealed that boron could be a problem, if the substance were found in the water table in excess of four parts per million. The dissolved mineral is harmless to animals but builds up a toxicity in the soil that is eventually lethal to plants.

Armed with that little knowledge (and with estimates of well-drilling and electrical hookup costs), we then hit every real estate office in town . . . and were soon bouncing over back roads (or no roads at all) in search of a piece of "terra firma" with the qualities outlined by the county agent.

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