Eclipse’s Heavy Cell Phone Loads Could Parch East Oregon Crops

A center pivot beats above a field with some of eastern Oregon's dramatic mountain views in the background. ANNA KING / NORTHWEST NEWS NETWORK


Cell phone towers in Oregon’s path of totality are expected to overload. That’s because of selfies-with-the-sun that thousands of visitors might try to upload.

But there’s an unexpected consequence of cell coverage going down: farm irrigation circles could go dry.

A circle pivot is a wheeled arm that walks around 120-acres or more, spraying water across a field. Farmers can set the rate so it passes over the ground very slowly or more rapidly. The new ones work off cell towers, so farmers can adjust that water right from their mobile phones.

Ever since the eclipse has been creeping up closer, cell companies like Verizon have been working to increase their capacity in the path of totality for the expected crowds.

Verizon is one of the main companies that works out here and that farmers’ fields are connected with. But that cell expansion work has already thrown off many of the irrigation circles on Verizon service.

“We have a great network of people we work with,” Joe Hill, a wheat farmer in North Powder, Oregon. “But I mean it’s darn frustrating.”

Joe Hill, right, and some helpers test out the sickle of his combine before running the machine again. The tractor had broken down mid-harvest. Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network


Verizon said in a statement this is a “once in a lifetime occurrence” and they are expecting some challenges. But they have tried to upgrade their service wherever possible.

Hill is worried about the eclipse. He expects major trouble for at least four days.

“Well, In some of them we will still be able to have some control and drive out and turn them on and turn them off. But some of them are wired so, the only way we can turn the water on and off and-or change the speed is all based on using that cell-phone controlled unit,” Hill said. “In those cases it’s going to be pretty, pretty challenging.”

Down the road outside near the town of Haines, Jess Blatchford said he’s ready for this gathering storm of eclipse-rs. Blatchford also expects all his circles to go offline this week. He’s got four-wheelers primed so he and his crew can run to each individual field on his 2,000 acre ranch and get the water back online manually.

He’s hoping his phone will still alarm when the circles shut off.

Blatchford mainly grows processing potatoes. Even a couple hot days off water can cause heat stress. With potatoes it’s hard to know what you’ve got until you dig them up, but he said even a few days without water could mean thousands of dollars lost on a single field.

Blatchford is mainly worried about fire. He said it hasn’t rained much here in weeks. And there are a lot of dry fields—right where eclipse-rs might try to pull off the road.

“There is still a lot of stubble around,” Blatchford said. “You get people that don’t understand they don’t need to be driving out around fields and there is a pretty big fire hazard.”

Jess Blatchford says he’s ready for this gathering storm of eclipse-rs. He says he’ll have to use a four-wheeler to run out and manually switch on and off irrigation pivots. But he won’t mind his phone ringing a little less. Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network


As for posting on Facebook, making calls or Googling, Blatchford isn’t too worried.

“That doesn’t worry me,” he said. “If it quit for a day, that would just be a pretty quiet day.”

Like Blatchford, many farmers in the area said they don’t mind giving up their solitude and sharing their dramatic mountain views with visitors for a few days. But they’re just hoping there’s enough bandwidth and blacktop to share.

Stacked irrigation wheels line a barb wired fence in Baker County, Oregon. ANNA KING / NORTHWEST NEWS NETWORK

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.

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