CANNON BEACH, Ore. — The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has approved new administrative rules for a voluntary state grant program to protect and preserve working farms and ranches.
Established by lawmakers in 2017, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program was conceived to address the increasing fragmentation and conversion of farmland — an issue that simultaneously threatens natural resources such as fish and wildlife habitat supported by agriculture, officials say.
An 11-person Agricultural Heritage Commission met six times in 2018 to write the program rules, setting in place grants to help pay for conservation planning, easements, succession planning and technical assistance. OWEB approved the rules at a board meeting Jan. 16 in Cannon Beach, Ore.
Nellie McAdams, Farm Preservation Program director for the nonprofit Rogue Farm Corps, worked with the Agricultural Heritage Commission to coordinate membership and meetings. She said farm preservation is one of the biggest challenges facing rural Oregon economies.
“At this point, we are seeing a major transition of agricultural lands,” McAdams said. “This would provide the funding to help with that planning, and hand off viable farmland to the next generation.”
The average age of Oregon farmers is now 60, up from 55 in 2002, according to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University. As older farmers start to retire, more than 10 million acres, or 64 percent, of Oregon’s agricultural lands are poised to change ownership over the next two decades.
The Agricultural Heritage Program is Oregon’s first attempt at awarding grants to keep working lands in production, which in turn benefits the fish and wildlife habitat they support.
“(The commission) sees it as integrating agriculture and natural resource benefits,” McAdams said. “They don’t see them as competing. They see them as helping each other.”
The program is supported by a broad coalition of farm and natural resources advocacy groups, including the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Sustainable Northwest, The Nature Conservancy, 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and Oregon Association of Conservation Districts.
The next step is for the Oregon Legislature to approve funding for the program. State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, will co-sponsor a bill seeking $10 million to fully implement the program.
“Oregon’s working lands are a critical economic driver for the state and it’s important that we preserve our irreplaceable natural resources,” Hansell said in a statement. “I am pleased that OWEB approved these rules so that we are ready to help farmers and ranchers preserve working landscapes and promote resilient rural communities.”
With broad bipartisan support from lawmakers, McAdams said she is optimistic about the bill passing, even as the state faces a budget crunch in 2019.
If the funding passes, OWEB will then decide when to release applications for the grants. McAdams said the program would also help farmers and ranchers secure matching federal dollars for agricultural easements and conservation through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We have a huge opportunity,” she said. “This would be a way to leverage a small amount of funds from a state program to bring in a large amount of federal funds.”