Protecting Farmland Depends on Keeping Farming Financially Viable

 As odd as it may sound, the only way to protect valuable farmland in Oregon may be to train a new generation of farmers who can make a decent living farming that land.

As odd as it may sound, the only way to protect valuable farmland in Oregon may be to train a new generation of farmers who can make a decent living farming that land.

Despite Oregon’s pioneering land-use system designed to protect farmland from development, other factors are putting pressure on agricultural enterprises in the state.

“The tidal wave of farmland transition isn’t coming – we’re in the middle of it,” proclaims Nellie McAdams, farm preservation program director for Rogue Farm Corps, in a blog posted by EcoTrust.

Between 2012 and 2032, McAdams says, almost two-thirds of Oregon’s 16.3 million acres of ag land will change hands, in large part because the average age of Oregon farmers and ranchers is 59.6 years old. She claims many farmers and ranchers lack a solid succession plan and the number of beginning farmers and ranchers is on the decline.

What’s happening to farming and ranching in Oregon is part of a global migration of people to urban areas. Family farms are harder to run profitably, which makes selling off the land to investors or industrial farms more attractive. Farms close to cities are prime targets for urban expansion to provide housing for new city dwellers, when their land becomes irresistibly more valuable than their crops. In more sparsely populated rural areas, smaller ranches can easily be converted into trophy home estates.

Oregon’s land-use system has slowed the loss of valuable farmland, McAdams says, with the conversion of 500,000 acres in the four decades since land-use protections were enacted. Compare that to the loss of 678,000 acres of farmland in Washington in just the last 10 years.

However, farmland without farmers is a problem. The goal of the Rogue Farm Corps is to “offer hands-on, on-farm training in four regions of the state to build capacity in the next generation,” McAdams writes. Training farmers may sound oddly out of character, but it may be a key to the survival of agriculture and preservation of farm and ranch lands. One piece of the training is how to hand down farming and ranching operations to a new generation of non-family members.

Sustaining robust agricultural enterprise also will require urban assistance. Farmers need savvy consumers. As McAdams describes, EcoTrust is sponsoring an accelerator program to give farmers business training and instruction on how to enter wholesale and international markets. The program also encourages institutional food service buyers to invest in stronger regional food networks.

The Oregon Community Food Systems Network, McAdams says, is a collaborative of 40 organizations “dedicated to strengthening local and regional food systems to deliver better economic, social, health and environmental outcomes across the state.”

Even these efforts may not be enough to stem the steady creep of urbanization of farmlands, but they are an impressive start that recognize urban growth boundaries can’t make farms profitable – or convince families to make farming their business. “The best long-term defense for Oregon’s agricultural lands,” McAdams insists, “is ensuring that farming and ranching are financially viable enterprises.”