07 March 2012

Will There Be Enough Farmers?

By Richard Benner, Portland Farmers Market Board President

The number of farmers’ markets in the region, in the state – 12 in 1985, 158 today (Oregon Farmers’ Markets Association) – has been rising dramatically in the past decade.  The rise in the number of CSAs has also been dramatic.  Will there be enough farmers to meet the demand for fresh, local food?

For nearly 50 years, departments of agriculture around the country have worried aloud about the increasing average age of farmers, rising to the upper 50s (58 in Oregon).  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently called for 100,000 new (presumably young) farmers over the next few years.

But signs of a new farmer “Spring” are popping up everywhere.   The New York Times has devoted several articles of late to the “young disillusioned”, particularly women, departing high-paying jobs on Wall Street and elsewhere for the personal satisfaction of growing food for local consumption.  (Women were “principal operators” of 14 percent of all U.S. farms in the 2007 Census of Agriculture; but women were “principal operators” of 21.4 percent of all farms in Oregon).

Agricultural colleges around the U.S., including Oregon State University, are adding courses on beginning and small-scale farming.  There is unquestionably something happening out there, motivated in part by increasing concerns over food safety and near-epidemic dimension of diabetes and obesity, exacerbated by poor diet.  The “happening” is small, of course, compared to the agricultural industry as a whole.   But it’s big enough for Arlo Guthrie to call it “a movement.”

There are daunting barriers to young people who want to farm.  Finding affordable land,  a lender, affordable equipment, reliable markets, help on the farm, crop insurance – the “you’re crazy even to think about farming” list goes on.  Then there are the work hours.

It is nonetheless remarkable how many cities, counties, regions and states are developing strategies, sponsoring workshops and designing training programs to address the barriers.  There is a formidable “caucus” in Congress pushing for changes to the Farm Bill to reduce subsidies for large growers of commodities and help small growers of fruits and vegetables.  Even now the USDA Farm Service Agency can help beginning farmers who want to buy farmland, guaranteeing purchases up to $500,000.  The Oregon Department of Agriculture co-sponsored a conference in 2009 on farm transitions and new farmers, and offers grants and other resources through its SARE program (Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education).  The 2011 session of the Oregon Legislature exempted small-scale farms from some federal food-inspection laws when selling fruits and vegetables they produce.

Multnomah County adopted a Food Action Plan late in 2010, with commitments from a wide range of non-profits, agencies and other entities to carry out actions to meet plan goals.  Goal 2 call for support for small- and mid-scale farms.  One action to help achieve the goal is the new Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship program (BUFA, for the acronym-needy), a partnership between Multnomah County and the OSU Extension Service.

Small and beginning farmers also benefit from a rich network of nonprofits in the region, to which a short article can hardly do justice.  Three examples offer a glimpse: EcoTrust’s Food Hub has grown into an online market that connects local farmers with local buyers.  As of 2010 the Hub had 620 buyer and seller members.

“Generation Pitchfork”, an iFarm Oregon program of Friends of Family Farmers, connects new farmers with those leaving.  Grow Portland teams with MercyCorps to connect beginning farmers, including refugees, with consumers in the region.

Albeit small now, these sprouting efforts to attract young farmers bode well for fresh, local food.

Richard Benner serves in the Office of Metro Attorney and advises Metro on urban growth management and transportation.  Between 1991 and 2001 he served as Director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, the state agency that oversees the Oregon statewide land use planning program.  Before that, he was the Executive Director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission during the time (1987-1991) the commission developed a management plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.   Prior to that, he spent 12 years as Senior Staff Attorney with 1000 Friends of Oregon.  He is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Oregon Law School.