Big difference between protecting farmers and protecting farmland

By Dave Hunnicutt
Oregon Property Owners Association

I gave a speech years ago with a representative from an organization claiming to represent the agricultural industry. After we were done with our speeches, an audience member asked the ag representative to explain the difference between his organization and OPOA.

The speaker paused to think, and then said, “I think the difference between Dave’s organization and mine is that we care about farmland, and OPOA cares about farmers.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

Our work on behalf of Oregon farmers focuses on finding ways to help them succeed. Today, that means diversification of the farm operation. Unfortunately, diversification in farm operations doesn’t work well under Oregon land use law.

Ag Census shows scary trends for Oregon’s family farms.

Today, it’s clear that the days when a family could farm 40-acres and generate sufficient farm income to live are a bygone of the past — an unfortunate fact demonstrated by the recently published 2022 Census of Agriculture and the most recent Modern Farmer magazine.

These publications show that an increasing number of farmers need supplemental income from non-farm work to continue with their agricultural operation. Farmers simply don’t make enough money per acre from farming alone to profitably operate a farm. That’s one reason why Oregon saw a concerning decrease of over 5% in the number of active farms since the last census. Farms are getting bigger and more concentrated in fewer hands – that’s not good for anyone.

Oregon land use laws prevent farmers from prospering.

The threat to small family farms comes from a variety of sources, many of which are within our land use system. If you listen to the “farmland preservation” crowd, they’ll tell you that the primary threat comes from urban encroachment in rural areas. In plain terms, sprawl. This simply isn’t true, as we’ve documented many times on this blog.

There’s also a continuing fear that if “city people” start visiting a farm, the farmer will be plagued with complaints from the townsfolk who just don’t understand the sights and smells of farming. This was the prevailing view in 1975 when LCDC’s first land use goals were drafted. The original idea was that farming in Oregon was going to look something like THIS.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with traditional farming, which OPOA completely supports. But times have changed for farmers while our land use laws have not. Today, a farmer that wants to get creative or diversify the income stream on their property can forget about it.

It becomes obvious pretty quickly that making a comfortable profit from farming alone isn’t in the cards for most family farmers. Is it any wonder why the average age of Oregon farmers and the average farm size continues to grow, while the number of farmers shrinks? The fact is, Oregon’s land use legacy is about consolidation of land in big blocks, not farm preservation or a vibrant farm economy. It’s funny you don’t read that in any articles focusing on how our laws have “saved farmland”.

In short, if Oregon loses its farmers, we don’t really have farmland, and we haven’t “saved” anything except open space. That’s our point – if we truly want to “save farmland” we have to “save farmers”. We’ve been making this point for three decades, and with each new Ag Census, it becomes increasingly clear.

Agritourism offers hope to family farms.

So, what can we do about it? Here’s an idea – allow farmers to make some income from other activities on the farm beyond strictly farming. Agritourism is a good example.

Sam and I spent a day last week meeting with some of Oregon’s best farmers on Oregon’s truly great farmland. These farmers share a common theme – they love farming, and they want to stay in the industry, but they also need to make enough money to do so.

What our farmers have done is to turn to agritourism or “on-farm experiences” to keep the family operation alive. Agritourism involves direct marketing of farm products to Oregonians. By combining fun activities with promoting agriculture, farmers can generate additional income to keep farming at a commercial scale, while also teaching the public about agriculture and why it’s valuable.

The examples are obvious. A pumpkin patch in October full of families and kids having fun and learning about the farm. A flower festival or farm to table dinner with live music on the farm to showcase the amazing (and delicious) things we grow. A brewery on a hop farm in the valley that also makes gourmet pizzas. As the Modern Farmer publication points out, each of these uses allows the farmer to create additional income for the farm, while allowing the public to have a good time and appreciate the value of agriculture. A real win-win.

But Oregon law makes it tough for farmers to engage in agritourism. Our laws are still based on the 1970’s farm model where farmers could make sufficient income from farming alone. Those days are gone, and our land use laws are increasingly out of step with reality. That’s a shame.

OPOA launches “Keep Oregon Farming” campaign.

Oregon needs to take a fresh look at our farm laws to bring them up to modern standards. We need to create opportunities for farmers to stay in the business, rather than make it hard. We need to encourage and make it easier for the next generation to start in business and discourage consolidation of farmland in the hands of a small number of agricultural conglomerates.

We can do this, but we need to stop caring so much about “protecting farmland” and start worrying about “protecting farmers.”

We’re going to roll out a campaign in the next few months to promote needed changes to Oregon law to support the agricultural economy. We hope that farmers and the public will join us in support. As a first step, we have launched our Agritourism Survey. If you are a farmer who hosts agritourism activities, please fill it out. If you are friend of a farmer who hosts agritourism activities, please share and encourage them to also fill it out.

To learn more please stay subscribed to our weekly updates. If you are a farmer or a farm-supporter who would like to help support our campaign, please reach out to us.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not represent the opinions or positions of any party represented by the OPOA Legal Center on any particular matter.