Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview,  Washington State

Alex McGregor: An Advocate for Irrigated Ag Informed by 140 Years of Family History

Alex McGregor’s family has been involved in agriculture in the inland Northwest for 140 years. That means that the McGregors have seen central Washington transformed from a dusty wasteland to one of the nation’s most productive farmlands. Meanwhile, they founded the McGregor Land and Livestock Company and the McGregor Company, which provides agronomic supplies and experience to 2,000 farm families in the Northwest. Mr. McGregor has also worked intensively with the Columbia Basin Development League (CBDL) and other stakeholders to support the full development of the Columbia Basin Project (CBP) through the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project (OGWRP) and to promote Washington’s irrigated agriculture and the many livelihoods it supports. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your family company and its services. 

Alex McGregor: We serve the inland Northwest, from the Cascades to the Rockies. We raise wheat, irrigated alfalfa, and livestock in the rugged Channeled Scablands and adjacent rolling hills and along the Palouse River, near its confluence with the Snake. Begun as McGregor Brothers, a partnership between my grandpa and three great uncles, the ranch was incorporated in 1905 as McGregor Land and Livestock and is now one of the oldest incorporated businesses in Washington. There is agricultural history all around us at our ranch headquarters in the village of Hooper, Washington. 

The McGregors have always been an innovative lot. In 1948, Harley Jacquot, the head of the Washington State College Dryland Experiment Station in Lind, did research trials on our ranch that showed that yields could be doubled or trebled by adding nutrients to the fields, which needed replenishing after a half-century of producing crops. The second-generation McGregors—my father Sherman and my cousin Maurice—saw great potential. When Harley’s funding at the college ran out (his bosses thought moisture was the one and only limiting factor in the arid lowlands), he became our full-time ranch agronomist. He pioneered soil testing in a lab in the basement of the ranch store, and Sherman McGregor and fellow store clerk Cliff Rollins pioneered the fertilizer business, beginning by serving neighbors with bagged ammonium nitrate. The first applicators streaked every acre, which at least showed skeptics that fertilizer made a difference. 

Today, the McGregor Company has offices in more than three dozen inland Northwest towns and 350 dedicated people committed to being leaders at what they do We have also added related services designed to help growers succeed: an agricultural software business, AgWorks; a farm insurance enterprise, McGregor Risk Management; a company that provides precision micronutrients for crops and seed, HydroGro; and a trucking company, Great Northwest. 

Irrigation Leader: Please discuss the history of your family’s business and the broader history of agriculture in central Washington. 

Alex McGregor: My two great-uncles, Archie and Peter McGregor, arrived in eastern Washington from Ontario at ages 20 and 21 on October 26, 1882, having traveled on an immigrant railroad train to San Francisco, on a steamer to Portland, and on foot to Walla Walla. They took a horse-drawn wagon through the basin; a sign saying “Watch Pasco Grow” was the only sign of civilization they encountered amidst howling wind and blowing sand. Archie wrote home the next spring: “I decided to go see the Big Bend country. I went on foot with my blankets on my back. Sometimes it was a hard matter to find anything to eat. The longest walk I had without anything to eat was 60 miles. I always felt happy on the way, though, for I could see the country or hunt. So I did and I took up 160 acres of land. Of course, I have not a deed yet, but I am a Yankee all the same.” As pioneer Columbia basin farmer Karl Weber put it, “It was pretty tough. Hot, dry, and windy— three bushels an acre. Our family of 12 shared bathwater. The one who was cleanest took the first bath. After all 12 of us took our turns, the water was spread on the garden.” 

Failing as farmers as the land near Grand Coulee dried out in the long, hot summer, the McGregors became what were called tramp sheepmen, starting as herders paid for their labor with a share of the lambs born each year. They got their first bank loan in 1885: $5,000 at 18 percent interest to buy two bands of their own. They attributed their success to industry, work, character, honesty, and fair dealing, traits they felt would always be crucial in agriculture. Grazing on unfenced land, with none of their own, they were sued for trespass by the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR), owner of a 60‑mile spread of grant lands that rail officials thought were worthless and were eager to get off the tax rolls. The McGregor brothers fought the charges to the courthouse steps before signing NPRR Grazing Lease #1: $200 for 23,000 acres of land. They later bought that land and more for $0.75–$1.25 an acre. Many, if not most, eastern Washington ranches across the basin started that way—those of the Mercers, Priors, Coffins, Drumhellers, and hundreds more. 

Something was in short supply—water. An early promoter of “the miracle of irrigation,” William Smythe, predicted in 1899 that “the land which the casual traveler, speaking from the splendid depths of ignorance and bias, proclaims as ‘worthless and fit only to hold the earth together’ is in reality rich and more productive than the humid districts.” He was right, but making it a reality was daunting, despite many an effort. Though the stream seems today to be an unlikely candidate to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of the Columbia basin, eastern capitalists and local boosters chose the Palouse River to meet the need. In 1904, the McGregor brothers planted thousands of apple trees, irrigating with flumes from the Palouse and artesian wells. Trainloads of 40 or 50 cars of apples bearing the McGregors’ Glen Ian label departed regularly, destined for buyers in Kansas and Nebraska. When the Palouse Irrigation stockholders went broke for the third time, the McGregors bought the land and the flumes, hoping to hit artesian water all the way to Pasco, as they’d done on their home place. Many a dry well followed. 

My Great-Uncle Pete, a former state senator, and other dignitaries on the first Columbia Basin Commission proposed another idea, ambitious in scale, to bring irrigation water to the basin via a canal from Lake Pend Oreille in Northern Idaho, more than 150 miles away. Despite detailed engineering reports and blueprints for each mile, the idea never caught on, nor did others, including a siphon under the Columbia to bring water from lakes near Wenatchee. 

Real progress first began on a remarkable day, January 28, 1931, when 2,160 growers came in their Model Ts and beat-up farm trucks to meet at Steamboat Rock, where they heard James O’Sullivan share the dream of a dam at Grand Coulee. He kept at it with what he called the Columbia Basin Development League, whose name the current CBDL adopted when it got its start in 1964. Four years after O’Sullivan’s meeting, 7,000 people lived near Grand Coulee and were working on the dam. Franklin D. Roosevelt came for a visit and proclaimed, “We are building something that is going to do a great deal of good for the nation for all the years to come.” 

He was right, but the farmers who came after water began running down the ditches in 1952 had many obstacles to face. Pioneer irrigator Dean Bair said he came west after hearing that in the basin “the spuds grew bigger, the hens laid more eggs, and the women had more babies. It was a land of milk and honey.” His wife remembered that when they arrived, “all he saw was sagebrush and cheatgrass and wondered, ‘what kind of fool am I?’” But they, like so many modern-day irrigators, put down roots in the 1950s and 1960s. We got our start in the basin in the late 1960s and have grown since. Farmers have achieved outstanding yields over the years—the 20‑Ton Club, honoring farmers for the tonnage of potatoes grown, later became the 30‑Ton Club, and in time, 40‑ton yields were achieved. 

The CBP has become a cornerstone of the Washington economy. Reclamation Commissioner Mike Strauss put it well when the water first made its way to the fields: “We celebrate the equivalent of a new state in our union. Our country is about to reap harvest from the desert.” Former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield put it well many years ago: “It was not the six-gun that won the West. It was impounded water.” 

Irrigation Leader: How do you help advocate for Washington agriculture? 

Alex McGregor: It’s been 37 years since I first testified before Congress about dams, trade, farm families, and people with a passion for what they do. I’ve always believed that all of us who serve agriculture have a duty to get involved, to speak out, and to make a difference for the people we’re honored to serve. It has been a privilege to have been able to work together with so many fine friends across the Columbia basin and beyond with whatever projects come our way. I currently spend much of my time helping show that we can have healthy rivers and a healthy economy without actions like breaching the lower Snake River dams and potentially others after that. We have a lot of clout and get things done when we all pitch in and pull together. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your relationship with CBDL today? 

Alex McGregor: Our relationship is strong. I’ve worked with CBDL for a long time. We’re delighted to have been not only financial contributors, but more importantly, contributors of our time and energy. Alice Parker, who served as CBDL’s director for many years, came to the area with her husband Ike when water first flowed and started farming the new land. Dust was everywhere. She remembered that the only places in their trailer where dust didn’t accumulate overnight were the white spots on the pillows where they lay their heads. As Alice will often put it, “We’ve got to start speaking out really loud. We must work together as growers, agricultural businesses, agencies, communities, and political leaders through collaboration whenever possible, in addressing the complex environmental and economic concerns. Teamwork with applicable and practical experience and advice from farm families brings dramatic results.” 

This picture of Hooper, Washington, taken circa 1912, depicts the Palouse Irrigation and Power Canal
(foreground); the Hotel Glenmore, today the Hooper Hotel, built to provide lodging for irrigation crews
(the white building farthest to the left); the McGregors’ apple orchards (background, left); the home of
Archie and Jennie McGregor, where Alex McGregor was raised (the two-toned house in the center);
and warehouses for the McGregors’ Glen Ian apples (background, right).

Vicky Scharlau, who currently serves as executive director, shares that same sense: “Wells are going dry; we’ve got to push harder and be louder. Water for thousands is at risk. We’re losing what we assumed to be safe and sustainable: our water.” I am determined that we not let that happen. My cousin and former long-time ranch manager, Bill McGregor, once told me that pioneer farmers brought three traits that helped them persevere when they came west—unquenchable optimism; a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that helped them through the tough times; and a tenacity verging on stubbornness. These traits, he went on to say, were useful then, are useful now, and will be useful in the future. Those values plus a strong sense of teamwork and shared purpose have helped the agricultural community win the day, whatever challenges lie ahead. CBDL is a powerful voice for its members, and it’s been a pleasure to reach out and help carry its message and other shared concerns to state legislators, members of Congress, farm families, and urban audiences year after year. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about OGWRP. 

Alex McGregor: In 1935, Congress authorized the provision of Columbia River water to more than a million acres of desert in eastern Washington. Thirty years and more went by without that river water reaching many thousands of authorized acres. To help farmers get by, pending the arrival of the hoped-for water, wells were authorized to tap into ancient Ice Age floodwaters across the eastern flank of the still-water-hungry land. The river water never arrived, and the wells had to go deeper and deeper, sometimes 2,000 feet or more, sometimes reaching more saline groundwater. Fertile cropland started to go idle, and water for homes, wildlife, and underserved rural communities was threatened. 

OGWRP is an aquifer rescue mission. It involves collaboration among partners that include Reclamation, the Washington State Department of Ecology, irrigation districts, and landowners. Much progress has been made through advocacy and outreach, coordinated through coalitions including CBDL, the Columbia Basin Sustainable Water Coalition, and others. Here’s what’s at stake: Just in potato production, the potential annual losses are $100– $140 million. The risk is $1.6 billion in annual revenue, 3,600 jobs, and nearly 100,000 productive irrigated acres. The land, with 6–10 inches of rain, sometimes less, would be much less productive if the water were taken away. 

Let’s look at the progress. Work began in 2004 to find ways to share future water supplies for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses. Reclamation, Ecology, and the Columbia basin irrigation districts got together and signed a memorandum of understanding. Then, Governor Christine Gregoire permitted the state to share costs, with the legislature pitching in as well. Ecology then created the Office of Columbia River. The first leader of the new office, Derek Sandison, who is our current state director of agriculture, reminded people that big projects don’t happen overnight, but they do happen if enough people pull together to make them possible. Reclamation authorized an environmental impact study, and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District gave the green light to pursue a course of action. It was interesting to me that one of the annual speakers at the 2013 CBDL annual dinner, Grant Pfeiffer, was eastern Washington’s lead for Ecology. “We are excited,” he said, “about working together with agriculture and helping address water issues. What a process!” Along the way, it included a sovereign review team with representation from 4 Northwest states, 15 tribes, and 11 federal agencies; a consultation on the Endangered Species Act; and a search for new secondary water rights from Lake Roosevelt. What a process indeed! 

It’s time to call for action. At least $300 million will be needed to complete this project over the years to come. Together, we can and will do it, replacing the wells with a small portion of the mighty waters of the Columbia, thereby allowing the continued production of high-value crops on 97,000 acres while preserving the ancient deep waters. 

Fundraising will allow CBDL to connect more citizens to the cause and to push for more state and federal support. CBDL has done well over the years, communicating a sense of urgency about what is at stake. One of its strengths is its strong focus on protecting and enhancing the CBP. Another strength has been its powerful and consistent message. I think about it in six pieces: First, replace the wells with renewable surface water; second, protect the water supply for our rural communities; third, protect the potential $5 billion in economic activity in the region; fourth, ensure food security; fifth, protect the environment; sixth, protect wildlife refuges. As I see it, farms, food security, communities, economic vitality, and our environment are all at risk. 

There are encouraging signs of progress. Among them are elements of the federal infrastructure package alertly fought for by Washington’s United States Senator Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee. Those include an $8.3 billion western water infrastructure package and a provision for federal technical assistance for groundwater recharge, aquifer storage and recovery, and water source substitution for agricultural production projects. Such programs will help with water storage in the Odessa and Yakima regions, the upgrade of a pumping station at Grand Coulee, U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty negotiations, and the improved coordination of water flows between the two nations. It’s a big deal, and it will help irrigators here and around the nation. 

It’s been a privilege to work with CBDL and farmers across the irrigated Columbia basin and adjacent dry-land areas. The OGWRP effort affects so many people. The fact that we could take on a project like this and win the support of communities and people interested in the protection of wildlife, agriculture, and so many other enterprises makes me excited to see what else can be done. I’m an unquenchable optimist, and this step forward, though there are many more to follow, keeps that vein of optimism running strong. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the best way to balance water use and environmental interests? 

Alex McGregor: OGWRP shows what can happen when people from a wide variety of backgrounds work together to get things done. I’m devoting a lot of my time lately to writing, meeting, and giving speeches about the need to find common ground on salmon and the four lower Snake River dams. It’s been a long-term battle, fought for more than a quarter century. There are no simple solutions, and the aggressively funded advocacy effort to breach (that is, destroy) the Snake River dams would return tens of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland to desert; deprive the Northwest of efficient, low-cost, renewable hydropower; and replace energy-efficient tugs and barges with trucks and trains, which emit more greenhouse gases and thereby worsen the ocean-temperature crisis faced by our iconic salmon. 

The Columbia River ports—the largest in the nation for wheat, the second- and third-largest for corn and soy, respectively—are vital to our economy and the world. Barges bring fertilizer upriver, making timely deliveries to hundreds of thousands of acres of family farms. The infrastructure package that Senator Cantwell played an important role in shaping provides badly needed funding for salmon research, habitat, and hatcheries and for other improvements that can bring lasting benefits rather than harsh rhetoric and endless lawsuits. 

I can say from experience that pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Farmers and those of us who serve them have set higher marks when we are equipped with optimism, tenacity, teamwork, and a great story to share about what we do and why. When we flex our collective muscles and speak loudly, as CBDL leaders Alice Parker and Vicky Scharlau advise, we hold our own, overcoming many a challenge along the way. We should accept nothing less. 

Alex McGregor is the chairman of the McGregor Company. He can be reached at alex@mcgregor.com or (509) 397‑4355.