Conservationists hail $5 million investment in preserving Oregon’s farmland

The move will fund a program that was set up in 2017 but never received any money to prevent farmland from being turned into housing and industrial sites

By: - March 10, 2022 5:22 pm
Field in Wallowa County

Wallowa County voters decided to break away from Oregon and join Idaho. (Courtesy of Rick Vetter)

Oregon was among the first states to develop land use laws but that’s not stopped the conversion of farmland into hundreds of thousands acres of housing and industrial sites over a decade.

But an investment just approved by the Legislature could stem that trend by putting money into the pockets of farmers and ranchers to support their operations and allow them to keep the land in their family. 

As part of the supplemental budget approved in the short session, lawmakers invested $5 million in the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which is tasked with preserving farmland. But since it was set up in 2017 under the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a state agency that offers grants to preserve waterways, wetlands and natural areas, the heritage program has never been funded.

Now the program has money to do its job – and at an opportune time. 

“Many of our farmers and ranchers are approaching retirement and looking to pass on their operations to the next generation,” said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane. “This fund will help ensure Oregon’s farmlands stay in production, supporting clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, rural economies and our Oregon way of life.”

The heritage program will buy conservation easements or development rights from landowners, according to Kelley Beamer, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts. She said that, in turn, will make it easier for the watershed board to preserve waterways. 

“It’s really easy for them to work with one landowner to manage that riparian area,” Beamer said. “But when a ranch is subdivided and broken into pieces and you’re dealing with 10 different owners, it’s a lot harder to achieve that contiguous success. So this program is set up on the front end to ensure we’re keeping those properties whole.”

With such easements and rights, property owners retain ownership of their land but agree to conditions that allow for preservation.

In 1973, according to a report by the American Farmland Trust, Oregon became the fourth state to embrace land use planning. The Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission, born from that legislation, adopted statewide land use planning goals, which it uses to review local plans to ensure they are consistent with those goals. 

“We are lucky in the state of Oregon that we have strong land use laws,” Beamer said. “But despite that, we are losing agricultural land at a rapid rate.”

One example: Columbia County commissioners are considering siting a biodiesel plant on more than 800 acres at Port Westland, an area that’s currently home to 40 farms, including two blueberry farms, a mint farm and a grass-fed cattle operation. The plan has sparked strong local opposition.

Besides losing land to residential and industrial development, some properties have been split and sold to newcomers who want a hobby ranch or farm – not a viable operation, Beamer said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oregon lost nearly 440,000 acres of farmland to development between 2007 and 2017, the most recent data available.

That’s much larger than the entire Portland area and greater than all of Oregon’s 10 largest cities put together, according to the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts. 

The number of mid-sized farms – between 50 and 1,999 acres – also has diminished. The most recent data show that Oregon had more than 35,000 farms in 2012 on nearly 16.3 million acres. The number of farms grew to nearly 38,000 five years later but their holdings dropped to 15.9 million acres.

“The amount of farmland lost in Oregon keeps growing,” Beamer said. “It’s a disturbing trend.”

She called the funding of the heritage plan a “huge victory.”

The money is part of the current two-year budget cycle, which stretches to July 1, 2023. She suspects there will be more demand than funds.

The money will compensate farmers and ranchers for voluntarily protecting their land and its natural resources, keeping the property intact. The heritage program also will pay landowners for implementing soil and water conservation practices that enhance existing habitat. 

In addition, the program will help landowners pass their land to the next generation and it will work with organizations involved in land conservation.

Federal data show that Oregon’s farmers are getting older, with an average age of 60 years in 2017, up a half a year from 2012. 

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, who has more than 30 years of journalism experience, is Oregon Capital Chronicle's editor-in-chief. She previously was editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site; reported on health in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio.