Ag Census shows declining farmland in Oregon

PORTLAND — From his 56-acre family farm in rural West Linn, Ore., about 15 miles south of Portland, Richard Fiala has observed a worrisome trend.

Land that Fiala, 62, remembers haying 30 years ago is now crowded with houses, or awaiting development at the hands of investors as the region’s cities plan for urban growth.

Figures from the newly released 2017 Census of Agriculture reveal that Oregon, like the U.S. in general, is steadily losing farmland. That has raised concerns not only about food production and security, but also fish and wildlife habitat provided by working farms and ranches.

The USDA conducts the Census of Agriculture every five years. It provides a full count of farms across the country, broken down by income, crops and production practices.

What the numbers show is a decline in the amount of farmland for every census taken over the last 20 years. Between 1997 and 2017, total land in farm production fell roughly 6% nationwide, from approximately 954.7 million acres to a little more than 900 million acres.

The downturn is even steeper in Oregon, from 17.6 million acres in 1997 to 15.9 million acres in 2017, or nearly 10%. That’s an average of 85,000 acres, or 132.8 square miles, of farms each year.

Jim Johnson, land use and water planning coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the state is clearly losing farmland. Less obvious are the reasons why.

“(The census) doesn’t tell us what the land that was in farms was changed to,” Johnson said.

Drawing conclusions practically requires a county-by-county examination. For example, Klamath County in Southern Oregon lost the highest percentage of farms and ranches from 2012 to 2017 — 165,417 acres, or 25.7%. But Johnson said much of that land may only be temporarily out of production, due to lingering water shortages and uncertainty in the Klamath Basin.

On the other hand, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties — which make up the Portland metro area — lost 40,807 combined acres, likely to urbanization, Johnson said.

“I can’t think of a lot of land, especially cropland, that wouldn’t be kept in production in the Willamette Valley unless it was being converted to something else,” he said.

Fiala’s grandparents bought the property that would become Fiala Farms, north of the Tualatin River, in 1906. The family had a small dairy and grew cabbage and other row crops to sell at a fresh market in East Portland.

Today, Richard Fiala runs the farm with his siblings, Anne, Doug and Wes. They grow a variety of fruits and vegetables for sale at their farmstand, and host all types of events from about mid-July through Halloween.

Farming around the nearby suburbs of West Linn and Lake Oswego, Fiala said the area is well within arm’s reach of urban development — especially if farms do not have a succession plan or conservation easement to keep the land in agricultural production.

“What we’ve seen in the last 30 years is speculators and developers come in when a farm hasn’t stayed in the family,” Fiala said.

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide $10 million over the next biennium to fund the state Agricultural Heritage Program, created in 2017 as a voluntary grant program to help farmers and ranchers with succession planning, easements and other conservation strategies.

The funding measure, House Bill 2729, is up for consideration in the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee.

Nellie McAdams, a consultant formerly with the Rogue Farm Corps, has advocated strongly for HB 2729. With two-thirds of Oregon’s farmland set to change hands over the next 20 years, McAdams said it is imperative to stem further losses.

“Those agricultural lands are not permanently protected,” McAdams said. “Once agricultural land is developed, it permanently falls out of production. You can’t un-build a Walmart.”

Johnson, with the ODA, said land use planning goals adopted by the state in 1973 have slowed the rate of decline for farmland, but acknowledged that issues still remain. Goal 3, specifically, requires counties to identify farmland and establishes an “exclusive farm use” zone that limits development.

“We’ve still got issues with conversion of farmland,” Johnson said. “We still have to get into policy discussions about urban growth, and where it’s going to occur.”

Otherwise, McAdams said she wonders when the losses will add up to a breaking point.

“For an urban city-dweller, that means you don’t have access to local food, you don’t have food security, and you would also lose open space habitat that almost every farm offers,” McAdams said. “We need to act now to reverse the loss of farmland from agricultural production.”