Al Garre’s farm represents the kind of agriculture Portlanders love — a small, family operation bringing fresh vegetables and other edibles to local tables. That makes it all the more interesting that the city has made it impossible for him to continue working the family homestead.
Garre’s family has been farming in North Portland for nearly 100 years. His grandfather cleared the farm from the wilderness in the 1920s.
Back in those days, the farm was rural ground well outside the city of Portland. But by the mid-1980s the farm had been swallowed up by the city and was surrounded by housing developments. That’s when farming became a lot more difficult.
“The goal posts started changing after that,” Garre said.
City regulators have put Garre out of business.
At issue is soil runoff into city storm drains.
Garre said he repeatedly took steps to avoid soil runoff, culminating in a 2012 erosion prevention plan that devoted about 20 percent of the 10-acre property to grass strips and other features meant to filter out sediment before water flowed offsite.
Under the plan, Garre also stopped growing kale, collards and other hardy crops during the fall and winter, replacing them with cover crops that prevented erosion but did not generate a profit.
But it wasn’t enough. The city fined him $1,000 for discharging “visibly discolored water,” which others have described as what you might get from washing a dirty car.
The erosion controls have rendered the farm economically unviable. The property is now leased to another grower who has multiple plots, but Garre remains vulnerable to future enforcement actions.
Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services says it’s just enforcing the rules. Officials say the Clean Water Act requires the city to regulate discharges into the city’s stormwater system.
Matt Criblez, the city’s environmental compliance manager, said the agency works with farmers on runoff controls.
“Ultimately there was still a discharge off-site,” he said. “We’re not regulating his farming practices, we’re regulating what’s discharged into our city system.”
If the land isn’t viable as a working farm, what’s it good for? It seems that as a farm, Garre’s land would make a pretty good housing development.
And maybe that’s the point.
Farm interests are concerned the city’s enforcement practices are designed to push farmers out in favor of development to relieve Portland’s housing shortage.
More and more farmers are finding themselves in Garre’s position. The city is coming to and surrounding their property and subjecting them to new challenges.
“This system has built up around us,” Gabrielle Rossi, who owns a farm adjacent to Garre and who is a member of the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, said. “The more you hit these small farms, the faster they go away.”
Garre and other farmers need to follow the rules. But Rossi is right. If Portland and other cities don’t do more to help producers meet the standards and remain viable, they will lose the farms its residents love.