Courtesy Thomas Kirchen.
At 73 years old, Oregon cherry farmer Ken Bailey says he is getting close to retirement.
Bailey and his brother, Bob, took over daily operations at Orchard View Cherries in The Dalles, Ore. from their parents in the mid-1960s. Now Bailey has taken a step back while the business once again changes hands to the fourth generation of family.
“It’s just been kind of a transition,” Bailey said. “I think, by far, it’s been positive.”
Getting to this point took years of succession planning, Bailey said, sitting down with lawyers and tax accountants to make the best decisions for the farm and family moving forward.
Succession planning was the main topic of discussion at the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission’s first meeting Thursday, Feb. 1 in Prineville, Ore. The 12-member commission is in charge of overseeing the state Agricultural Heritage Program, created by the Legislature in 2017 to protect and preserve agricultural lands.
Commission members, including Bailey, were recently appointed by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.
According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University, the average age of Oregon farmers is 60, up from 55 in 2002. As older farmers begin to retire, more than 10 million acres, or 64 percent, or Oregon’s agricultural lands are bound to change ownership over the next two decades.
To make sure farmland stays in production, Bailey said families need to be on the ball when it comes to succession planning — and not wait until faced with an emergency.
“When you’re in crisis mode, it really cuts back on your options,” he said.
Succession planning is just one part of the equation, said Meta Loftsgaarden, executive director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, or OWEB. The newly formed Agricultural Heritage Commission is also working to develop grant programs for land easements, implementing conservation management plans and on-the-ground technical support for farmers and ranchers.
Agriculture is the state’s second-largest economic driver, with crops valued at $5.4 billion annually. Loftsgaarden said farms also support a myriad of natural resources, including fish and wildlife, which could be threatened if the land is sold to outside developers.
“This (program) is putting a spotlight and focus on the importance of these agricultural lands to all aspects of how we live here in Oregon,” Loftsgaarden said. “We think we can create something that helps dual purposes.”
Established under House Bill 3249, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program is the result of collaboration between the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, Sustainable Northwest and the Nature Conservancy.
Members of the Agricultural Heritage Commission include representatives of farming, OSU Extension Service, fish and wildlife, water, easements and tribal interests. Loftsgaarden said their initial meetings will be focused on setting rules and guidelines for grant programs before returning to the Legislature for funding.
House Bill 3249 provided just less than $200,000 for OWEB to set up the commission. Supporters had asked for $4.25 million, though lawmakers viewed the request as unrealistic.
“We in Oregon have not had a program like this,” Loftsgaarden said. “This program gives us an opportunity to highlight some policy issues that the Legislature might consider.”
Mary Ann Cooper, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said it is imperative for the state to get ahead of the issue before swaths of land begin to transfer ownership.
“Without assistance in passing on that farmland, we might lost it from agriculture forever,” Cooper said.
Kelley Beamer, executive director of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, said the Agricultural Heritage Commission is a “shining example of Oregonians coming together around a common goal — to protect Oregon’s rich natural resources and agricultural heritage.”
The commission is scheduled to meet again Thursday, Feb. 22 back in Prineville. Bailey said he is confident the group will be able to come to a consensus on future programs.
“I was very pleased with everybody’s knowledge,” Bailey said after the first meeting. “The goal is to develop programs that can help make farm transition easier, and get people to go thoughtfully through the process.”
Members of the commission include:
• Chad Allen, Tillamook (farm/ranch)
• Ken Bailey, The Dalles (farm/ranch)
• Doug Krahmer, St. Paul (farm/ranch)
• Woody Wolfe, Wallowa (farm/ranch)
• Sam Angima, Corvallis (OSU Extension)
• Mary Wahl, Portland (fish and wildlife)
• Bruce Taylor, Portland (fish and wildlife)
• Lois Loop, Salem (agricultural water)
• Derek Johnson, Portland (easements)
• Mark Bennett, Unity (natural resources)
• Nathan Jackson, Myrtle Creek (tribal)
• Will Neuhauser, Yamhill (ex officio, non-voting)