Oregon farmers and ranchers face many challenges. In a global economy, they often cannot be assured of a decent price. In a changing climate, they might get too much or too little water in any given year. Added to that, they often face uncertainty over how their land will pass to the next generation.
Farmland in Oregon is changing hands — fast. Two-thirds of Oregon’s agricultural lands — more than 10 million acres — will change hands in the next 20 years, according to research from Oregon State University. The same research tells us that up to 80 percent of Oregon farmers and ranchers may not have a succession plan.
In this transition, productive agricultural lands may be may be subdivided into parcels too small to keep in production. Or they may be converted to non-farm uses like residential or commercial development. Oregon won’t just be losing agricultural land — we will be losing our farming heritage and important habitat for native fish and wildlife.
All of that’s bad for farmers, bad for our economy, bad for our environment, and bad for Oregonians’ quality of life.
Last year, a bipartisan coalition in the legislature came together to solve this problem by creating the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program (OAHP) to help farmers and rural communities plan for the future. The new program aims to provide grants that help Oregon’s farmers and ranchers plan for generational succession, and protect or enhance the agricultural and conservation values of their land.
The next step happened 10 months ago, when the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission was formed — made up of 12 leaders representing Oregon’s farming, ranching, conservation and tribal communities. Since then, these leaders have collectively volunteered hundreds of hours developing the program.
But one of the key pieces of this puzzle is unfinished: the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program will remain an empty promise until the Legislature funds its implementation. If we want to provide reliability for Oregon’s farms and ranches, and the rural communities and fish and wildlife that depend on them, we need to invest in their future.
Investing state funds in our agricultural heritage will also mean that Oregon can finally access the growing pot of federal Farm Bill funds available to protect U.S. agricultural land. Each year, Oregon leaves millions of federal dollars on the table because we do not have a state grant program to match this USDA funding. Dedicating state funds to Oregon’s agricultural heritage will help us access these federal investments for our communities, families, and fish and wildlife. It will also demonstrate the state’s commitment to our rural communities.
Working lands support many different kinds of fish and wildlife habitats. Sagebrush habitat on large ranches is critical for sage grouse. Flood-irrigated hay meadows in southeast Oregon sustain seasonal wetlands for migratory birds. Oak woodlands and savannas support almost 200 species of wildlife. And streams and rivers crisscross most working lands, providing fish habitat and wildlife corridors. Keeping farmers and ranchers who are good stewards of these lands in business through generational changes will help maintain these important habitats for years to come.
Gov. Kate Brown showed her support for this program by convening the work group of agricultural and conservation interests that developed the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program. The legislature showed its support last session by providing funding to set up the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission. We now need our governor and legislators to invest $10 million in the 2019-2021 state budget to finally put this program to work. This is an investment in our agricultural heritage, working lands and wildlife, local economies, and Oregon’s way of life — big changes are coming, and we need to act now.
Doug Krahmer is chairman of the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission. He has served the Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District since 2001. The owner of Berries NW, he has previously served on the Oregon Board of Agriculture and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. Bruce Taylor is vice chairman of the commission and is a Portland-based coordinator for two regional bird habitat conservation partnerships: the Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture and the Intermountain West Joint Venture. A former congressional staffer and newspaper reporter, he also worked for Defenders of Wildlife, managing its Oregon biodiversity program.