SALEM — Organic farmers gathered Feb. 6 at the Oregon State Capitol to meet with legislators and push for support of an industry that annually generates $350 million in farm gate sales.
They are asking the Legislature to formalize a state Organic Advisory Council, and set aside money in the budget for four full-time positions dedicated to helping farmers transition to organic practices and certifying organic farms.
Organic Valley, the nation's largest organic farm cooperative, hosted the event, which included a reception featuring remarks from Gov. Kate Brown. Last August, Brown and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visited the Organic Valley creamery in McMinnville, Ore., which opened in 2017 with $350,000 in support from the state's Strategic Reserve Fund.
Brown said she is committed to maintaining Oregon as a leader in organic agriculture. The state currently ranks ninth overall with 864 organic businesses.
"I am very excited about this sector in Oregon's agricultural economy," Brown said. "We know it is a very valuable component of the agricultural sector."
Overall, Oregon farmers generate more than $4.5 billion in annual farm gate sales and services.
Other event sponsors included the Organic Trade Association, Oregon Organic Coalition, Organic Materials Review Institute, Oregon Tilth, Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences, OSU Extension, Friends of Family Farmers, Mountain Rose Herbs, Organically Grown Company and Hummingbird Wholesale.
Organic producers also spent time meeting with lawmakers, highlighting their businesses and advocating for a greater voice in policy decisions. The Organic Advisory Council would be made up of farmers, researchers, retailers and distributors, meeting quarterly and providing input on proposals affecting the industry.
Farmers must demonstrate they are using organic practices on their land and animals for at least three years before they can be certified organic. The four newly created positions would focus on assisting certified and transitioning organic operations, and may be associated with OSU, the Oregon Department of Agriculture or another nonprofit organization.
Melissa Collman, a fourth-generation dairy farmer who runs Cloud Cap Farms in Boring, Ore., said she spent the morning meeting with Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, and Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, and felt their message was well-received.
"We just want to remain relevant and competitive," Collman said. "We're doing the best we can to bring a healthy product to market."
Cloud Cap Farms is one of 39 Oregon dairy farms that have joined Organic Valley. The co-op paid $56 million to the farms in 2018, and produced 7.6 million pounds of butter and 12 million pounds of milk powder at the McMinnville creamery.
Collman said the farm milks 200 cows, and grazes the animals on open pasture. While they do not have many inputs, Collman said additional research could help them with issues such as weed management, helping to produce a better and healthier product.
"Our cows already do so well in this area," she said. "But the resources we need would go into managing our grass to keep it at that better quality."
Steve Pierson, of Sar-Ben Farms in St. Paul, Ore., is on the Organic Valley board of directors. He said legislators who support organic agriculture are also helping to keep small family farms in business, which has a ripple effect in rural communities.
"If you look at what's happening to the rural economy, there are fewer and fewer farms to support the local businesses," Pierson said. "It's just a downward economic spiral in those communities."
Pierson said transitioning to organic in 2005 and joining Organic Valley has allowed the farm to remain profitable, and all three of his kids — Kevin, Ryan and Sara — have returned to the farm after graduating from OSU.
Sara Pierson, 23, said she could not imagine life any other way.
"I'm excited to raise my own family there, and hopefully see them become the sixth generation at our family dairy," she said.