Capital Press File
SALEM — Oregon lawmakers have created a state fund dedicated to buying farmland-preservation easements, albeit without the $4.25 million initially sought by supporters.
Proponents of the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Fund are nonetheless cheering the news, since new spending bills were met with skepticism from legislators due to a tight budget outlook.
“It’s pretty incredible to create a program like this in a not-easy legislative session,” said Nellie McAdams, farm preservation program director with Rogue Farm Corps, a group dedicated to training future farmers.
Because the state’s land use system greatly restricts building on farmland, working lands easements aren’t as common in Oregon as in many other states.
Farmers can sell easements on their land that extinguish most development rights while still preserving their ability to grow crops and livestock on the property.
However, existing funding sources for easements are often geared toward conserving wildlife habitat and riparian areas and not production agriculture.
The Oregon Agricultural Heritage Fund would help solve that problem with money dedicated to working lands easements, but the $4.25 million originally planned for the program was viewed by legislators as an unrealistic request.
Instead, supporters focused on getting the program’s basic mechanisms and governance established.
“We can focus in the future on funding,” said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau. “There’s a tremendous public benefit so we’ll be looking for public funds in the future.”
Under House Bill 3249, which passed with strong majorities in the House and Senate in the waning days of the legislative session, nearly $200,000 will be directed to writing rules for the program and forming a commission to oversee it.
“The next step will be finding out who will be shaping this program,” said McAdams.
It’s likely that proponents of the fund will go back to lawmakers in 2019 to seek money for the fund, so the next two years will be devoted to setting priorities for the program, she said.
“That process should probably be long and include a lot of public involvement,” McAdams said.
Another farm-friendly program also won funding late in the legislative session.
House Bill 2038, which provides $4.5 million in grants for schools to buy food from local growers, passed both chambers unanimously on July 7, when the session was expected to adjourn.
Funding for the farm-to-school program was pared down from the original request of $5.6 million, but the program is expected to remain functional with the reduced amount, said Jenny Dresler, state public policy director for the Oregon Farm Bureau.