Saving Oregon's Farms by Shopping Local

Willamette Week has a great cover story this week about the rise of local farms that are serving the "food snob" market in Portland. Apparently, it's caused Oregon to be one of the few places where the numbers of farmers are increasing:

Buried in dry data spreadsheets cranked out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture lies a dramatic tale: At a time when small farmers are dying out across America, the number of farmers in Oregon is on the rise. The latest USDA "agriculture census" showed the number of full-time farmers in Oregon increasing more than 55 percent from 13,884 in 1974 to 21,580 in 2002, the last year the USDA surveyed. Part-time farming, where many growers who specialize in farmers markets and other buy-local niches begin, is up, too.

Who's buying all this stuff? Well, it's going beyond high-priced restaurants serving big-money guests:

"It started with white-tablecloth places. Now it's trickling down. There's a place in St. Johns that has lottery machines but still wants to say it sells Sauvie Island salad. There's more demand than we can possibly keep up with." [says Tanya Murray, a Sauvie Island farmer.] ...
"When we started, our customers were almost all either earth-muffin hippies or urban yuppie gourmets," says Doc Hatfield [of Country Natural Beef], 67. "I don't mean any insults by either of those descriptions, but that's how it was. It's getting more mainstream now. I don't think Burgerville customers really fit into either of those categories."

Of course, the real question is whether this fledging industry can possibly get off the ground and compete successfully with Chinese, Chilean, and Mexican agriculture. Willamette Week suggests looking at the microbrew industry for a glimpse at one possible future.

Twenty years ago, the Oregon microbrew industry didn't exist. The idea that anyone would voluntarily pay $8 for a six-pack instead of grabbing the Budweiser half-rack next to it seemed faintly ridiculous to some, repulsively pretentious to others. And yet today, the state's microbreweries churn out 600,000 barrels of beer a year, to the tune of $375 million in wholesale revenues, more than Oregon's $350 million-a-year grass-seed industry.


  • Paul Bonneau (unverified)

    Interesting you use microbreweries as an example, since it was a deregulation in the Oregon legislature in 1985 that started them going.

    And Oregon agriculture was originally mauled by the importation of California ag products of the big growers, accomplished by the taxpayer subsidies for cheap water and irrigation projects down there.

    Moral of the story: when government leaves people alone to do what they want, and does not steal their money, enterprise thrives (especially at the small business level), diversity in products expands and local economies do well.

  • (Show?)

    Um...Mr. Bonneau, I think you're being selective in your arguments. You act as though government is some foreign agent. It's puzzling.

    If you disagree with government, okay. But to argue that our true history is ideal and distinct from government activity is to revel in a bizarre antisocial utopia.

    For starters, the practice of the Spanish/Mexican governments of doling out massive land grants remains an important foundation to California agriculture. At least the US form of free land was more egalitarian.

    Some examples of government intervention in the agricultural marketplace:

    The Louisiana Purchase The Spanish-American War The various federal homestead provisions (i.e. with above=free land) Pro-farmer judicial activism in the development of water law (i.e. free water) The Columbia River hydroelectric system (i.e. cheap power, more free/cheap water) FDR's reform of the banks The Interstate Highway Act

    Each one of these actions was a necessary prerequisite for establishing agriculture as we know it. We may agree that the aggregate results of some of these acts favored economies of scale, but you libertarians lose me when you simultaneously argue on behalf of free markets and the little guy who's swept aside by those same markets' efficiencies.

    How do you feel about getting all of our food from China, since, from a free market standpoint, in many cases it's cheaper to grow it there, freeze it, and ship it over?

    Anyway, I thought Zach wrote a great story--I think he put the right question on the table. Is this intense interest in food the beginning of a huge trend, or an isolated fashion?

    Do Oregon progressives have an agricultural policy? If not, seems like Zach showed us where we can go get one.

  • Sid (unverified)

    Well Paul,

    It's interesting that in the same post you say that California farmers were helped by taxpayer subsidies for "cheap water and irrigation projects," but then you go on to say small business can thrive when government doesn't "steal their money." Hmmmm... So where did California get the "taxpayer subsidies" for farmers from? Was the state "stealing money?"

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I laughed and laughed when I saw this blog post.

    Oregon land use laws allow a deferment of property taxes for those properties in Exclusive Farm Use if it is in “production”. 97% of Oregon is in a Farm Use Zone.

    Ahh, sure there are supposed to be income criteria on these farms to keep the exemption/deferment – but really there is no assessor’s office in the State that can keep up with this totally. If I were retiring, I might put some effort into my land to save on taxes, and if I was retired and doing this, I too could claim to be a “full time farmer”.

    I believe there are some more farms now than before, but I don’t think it is really that dramatic. I think where ever those statistics came from might just have included a few thousand “hobby” farmers.

    One must really watch these statistics. For example, just because Oregon has more desert than irrigated land doesn’t mean we aren’t an agricultural State. Or, just because Oregon has 1000% more desert than Mississippi, doesn’t make Mississippi more of an agricultural State than Oregon.

    Real statistics would report how many acres are in cultivation now versus then, how many head of cattle now versus then, and productivity numbers. If a thousand acres of productive land had one farm then, and that same thousand acres has now been parceled into 50 farms each with 20 acres, do we really have 50 times more farms?

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    "When we started, our customers were almost all either earth-muffin hippies or urban yuppie gourmets," says Doc Hatfield [of Country Natural Beef], 67. "I don't mean any insults by either of those descriptions, but that's how it was. It's getting more mainstream now. I don't think Burgerville customers really fit into either of those categories."

    Funny, at one time or another, I could have fit either the earth-muffin or yuppie gourmet profile and tonight, stuck for something for dinner in a hurry, I drove into Burgerville because of their use of natural beef, etc. So it works both ways.

    By the way, it could very well be that there is more acreage in food production now. And certainly among many agricultural sectors, there is more production per acre. I'm sure someone has the stats.

    The wine industry alone has accounted for substantial increases in both number of farms and amount of acreage under cultivation. And most of this acreage devoted to vinyards is on land previously deemed unsuitable for agriculture. The growth of Oregon's wine industry is a strong case for the LCDC, because without land use regulation, most of Yamhill, Polk and other Willamette Valley counties would be blotted by leapfrog subdivisions.

    I live on about three acres outside of Dundee. This year, we were getting a small antique restoration business off the ground and neglected our farming, though we quadrupled the number of laying hens we have. Also the weather this year really messed up our orchard. I suppose you could consider us a "hobby farm" now, but next year, we will be utilizing all of our acreage for food production.

    Actually, you don't have to claim to be a full-time farmer to get a tax break. The break may be figured on acreage, but for our small plot, all we have to do is sell a measly $600 a year, and half of it could be for our own use. We do considerably better than that just off our egg production.

  • Ray Whitford (unverified)

    This data and interview point to something that I've possible mentioned here before. With our farms being close to their customers, our shock when "Peak Oil" is considered in progress will hopefully give Portland an edge when it comes to food allocation and distribution.

    If the time comes, I would hope that Portland will not be going through the food riot I envision happening elsewhere.

    Funny how a set of 1970's land use planning laws could actually save lives in other ways besides cleaner air and water.

    We live in interesting times. I'm glad I live here.

    Ray Whitford

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    I think it is so much more serious in a worse way. But then, I would ...

    Just the simple headline, "Saving Oregon's Farms by Shopping Local," turns out clueless. More reflective might be: "Saving Shopping Locals by Oregon's Farms."

    The farmers are not the ones needing to be saved from starvation. Or unemployment. Local shoppers, meaning whoever drives to the grocery store. The newswire has an update on the situation -- the good news is there's no gas, the bad news is there's no grocery store.

    Okay, okay, no one wants to hear it. Maybe here is a way to imagine it, sort of a worst-case emergency drill for civilians. Don't go in to work today as if everything's closed since the stand-down lock-down, and that includes your place of business. Turn off all your electricity, as if it was ... until further notice, stay tuned. Well, but you don't have a battery-powered tv. Or radio, Or flashlight. With batteries. That's okay, add that the stores are closed. For the time being, stay tuned. How's that working for you? Well, at least you don't have to go in to work. Go ahead and plan your day -- live! eat! drink! sleep and be merry. And imagine the next morning it is still like that. Go ahead and plan your day.

    Now, where was the closest Oregon farm we saved ?


    It was major good to see this in The Sunday Oregonian, (but in the Editorial Opinion section ?!!!! Well, it was "balanced" by a positive economic report, like "... the engine was running fine when the vehicle went off the cliff ...") After the oil runs out, The coming permanent scarcity of fossil fuels will touch off a seismic cultural shift

    Many will be stranded in the suburbs as grocery store shelves empty. Others will lose their jobs as our oil-dependent economy withers. ... there's great resistance to any suggestion that our comfortable lifestyles might change; we Americans ... Cities, even neighborhoods, will become more self-sufficient. Agriculture will play a heightened role in everyday American life. Cities such as Portland will have to find creative ways to feed their residents.

    Rural folks have the advantage of more open space for crops, but, like city dwellers, they'll have to learn how to grow their own food. Farm populations have been decimated by the impact of large-scale corporate farming and the globalization of agriculture. [Emphasis added.]

    And how much Oregon farming have we saved? Oregon Agriculture tops $4 billion commerce.

    And where is the nearest farmer's farm, anyway?

  • allehseya (unverified)
    <h2>Thank you for that last link, Tenskwatawa.</h2>
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