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Agritourism summit seeks coexistence for small farmers, county regulators


For the Capital Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- At part two of the Oregon Agritourism Summit, regulators, policymakers, farmers and nonprofits met to discuss coexistence -- how small farms can coexist with commercial operations, how agritourism businesses can coexist with traditional farm uses and how farmers and government regulators can coexist with one another.

The all-day event, held at the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University, was a follow-up to an earlier summit, which took place in November. At the first summit, farmers voiced concerns and confusion relating to agritourism policy, and many left frustrated by the current situation.

"The first (summit) was looking at issues and gaining momentum," Brooke Willow of Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashland, Ore., said. "This one is much more about how to effect change in our state at every level."

The March 1 summit, which drew about 60 farmers and 40 state and county policymakers, regulators and nonprofit workers, left many attendees expressing hope about the parties' willingness to listen and work toward better opportunities for Oregon agritourism.

"I think policies are generally well-intentioned, but they're not crafted for the margins," Tom Hogue of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development told listeners during one of the day's discussion panels. He acknowledged that many small farms are "on the margins."

In Oregon, approximately 30 percent of farms produce less than $1,000 gross product each year, and many of those farms supplement their income with an agritourism business such as a pumpkin patch, farm stand or farm stay.

Hogue said laws that restrict agritourism are intended to preserve farmland, manage nuisances and conflicts of use and manage the cumulative impacts of agritourism. Those could include noisy events and the addition of new buildings for agritourism. Though the state doesn't have an overarching agritourism law, the main goal of the current laws is to minimize agritourism's impact on industrial farm use.

"We're not in support of large agricultural operations at the expense of smaller agricultural operations," Greg Holmes, the Southern Oregon advocate of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, assured farmers. He said his presence at the summit should be evidence of his support for agritourism. "We want to be part of the conversation."

The summit included discussion panels with question-and-answer time, an extended lunch hour to encourage networking between farmers and regulators and break-out sessions in which small groups of attendees analyzed agritourism-related case studies and developed potential solutions to the scenarios.

The day ended with the "Bull Pen," a panel of regulators and farmers who offered feedback on the case study solutions and answered questions from the crowd. At times the discussion elicited tension and flurries of questions from audience members, but by the end many shared a laugh or two with the Bull Pen panelists.

"One of the goals of the day was to identify a group of people who are passionate about agritourism ... and who are interested in helping move this forward," organizer Melissa Fery, of the OSU Extension Small Farms Program, said.

Her team passed out surveys to attendees, and will use responses to determine if Oregon has a group that's willing to push for better agritourism opportunities, which may include the development of a state law regarding agritourism.

Willow, who has hosted campers and farm stay guests on her pork, goat and chicken ranch since she began farming in 1985, said the summit left her feeling optimistic about the future of Oregon agritourism and her role in the process.

"I feel more confident that small farms in Oregon are moving together as a group," Willow said. She said she'd encourage her customers to be involved by voting and talking to county commissioners and state legislators.

"The biggest challenge is recognizing how society's needs have changed and updating land use laws accordingly," she said.


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