VANCOUVER, Wash. — Blue tomatoes! Mild habanero peppers! Never heard of such things? That’s the point, says Washington State University Extension agricultural specialist Justin O’Dea. They’re novel and just might fill a niche.
O’Dea works in a fast-growing county across the Columbia River from Portland. The county has the same rich soil as the Willamette Valley, but the farmland has been broken up for homes. Half the county’s 1,978 farms are less than 10 acres, according to the just-released 2017 Census of Agriculture.
O’Dea said he sees no reversing the trend toward smaller-acreage farms. Therefore, his goal is to help growers maximize per-acre returns with high-value crops for local consumption and processing.
“The challenge is to turn urbanization into an economic opportunity,” said O’Dea, 40. “One thing we’re not short on the westside (of the Cascades) is urban markets.”
WSU Clark County Extension operates on the county-owned 78th Street Heritage Farm, once the county poor farm. Homes and businesses surround the 79 acres of open space. A native New Yorker, O’Dea came here in mid-2017 to test growing crops that could help small farmers thrive financially.
“I’ll try to make the mistakes here instead of the farmers doing it,” O’Dea said.
Clark County Farm Bureau President Bill Zimmerman said he hopes it’s not too late.
“If we had a county agent like Justin 30 years ago, 40 years ago, we’d be in a lot better shape,” Zimmerman said. “We really are impressed with what he’s doing.”
O’Dea, whose grandparents farmed in New York, came West to Washington to go to college. He graduated in 2003 from The Evergreen State College in Olympia. He earned a master’s degree in land resources and environmental sciences in 2011 at Montana State University.
For the five years before joining WSU, O’Dea was back in New York working for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in the Hudson Valley.
O’Dea said he was attracted to WSU in part because of his background in working with grains and the research being done at WSU’s Bread Lab in Mount Vernon.
To test growing varieties of grain, O’Dea has planted 1.6 acres of wheat, barley and rye. The varieties are from WSU, Oregon State University and a private company.
County farmers may be well situated to supply grains for craft brewers, craft distillers, craft malt houses and artisan bakers, he said.
Three Clark County farmers grew wheat in 2017 and one grew barley, according to the census. Nevertheless, O’Dea said the climate is good for grain — ample rain, but dry summers.
O’Dea also plans to try growing crops that overwinter well and can be harvested in the late fall and early spring, exploiting a demand for year-round local fresh produce. He said he will start with organic kale.
Also, he said he will try growing a variety of strawberries and vegetables, such as the blue tomatoes and mild habanero peppers, indoors and outdoors.
“I’m trying to give examples of ways farmers could diversify and link up with value-added opportunities,” O’Dea said.
According to the 2017 census, on average farms in Clark County that year lost $4,844.
“My pessimistic view is you’re seeing the end of agriculture in Clark County, at least production agriculture,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, whose farm sells fruits and vegetables directly to customers from a roadside store, said every time a farmer retires, a developer buys the land. Water is in demand, too, and agriculture hasn’t fared well under county rules, he said.
Zimmerman said his store was “grandfathered” in and exempted from new county building and zoning laws that would be impossible for him to meet. “If I had to start from scratch, I couldn’t afford to do it,” he said.
Still, he said, there are all these residents close by, and they eat.
“If people can do direct marketing and cut out the middle man, it can be quite an opportunity,” Zimmerman said.
O’Dea said the county is in a “time of transition and reinvention.”
“It is as risky as it is exciting,” he said. “Clark County is tricky. We lack the (agricultural) benefits of a low population, but we have all these local markets.”