Focusing on preserving farms

PORTLAND — As farmers in Oregon are getting older, a seismic shift in land ownership may be on the horizon.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University, Portland State University and the Rogue Farm Corps, more than 10 million acres, or 62% of Oregon’s farmland, will change hands over the next two decades. Yet an estimated 81% of producers — whose average age is now 60 — do not have formal succession plans, opening the possibility of non-farm development.

Enter Alice Williamson, whose job boils down to preserving Oregon’s farm and ranch legacy for generations to come.

Williamson was hired in July as program director for the newly formed Oregon Agricultural Trust, working with landowners on keeping valuable farmland in production. Already, Williamson said she has heard from about a dozen farm operators across the Willamette Valley and as far south as near the California border.

“It’s been great. People are calling us,” she said. “I’m optimistic that we are being viewed as a potential partner for a lot of different types of operators.”

The Oregon Agricultural Trust formed in January to increase the pace and scale of farmland conservation statewide. Williamson, who has a law degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland and previously served as conservation lead for the Columbia Land Trust in Vancouver, Wash., said she has met with a variety of growers, whose operations range from small organic farms to larger vineyards and nurseries.

“We’ve had the chance to talk to landowners across the spectrum,” Williamson said. “For Oregon to maintain its rural communities and our local food supply, we need to protect our farmland from fragmentation and urban development, particularly among our high-value soils.”

Statistics from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture show that Oregon is already losing farmland. Between 2012 and 2017, the state lost 340,000 acres from production, an area larger than Multnomah and Hood River counties combined.

Maintaining farmland provides community benefits beyond just food production, Williamson said. Sustainable farms can also overlap with values such as fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, carbon sequestration and recreational opportunities.

“All of that is packaged within an economic generator for a community,” she said.

A native of North Carolina, Williamson was drawn to the West Coast for law school after earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental policy from the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

In addition to working at the Columbia Land Trust, Williamson spent five years as a policy program associate at Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based nonprofit that balances economic and environmental interests in rural communities, and as an associate for U.S. Forest Capital, a consulting firm that works with landowners and conservation groups on the purchase and sale of working forests.

That experience led her to the Oregon Agricultural Trust, which seeks to protect farmland primarily through purchasing conservation easements.

Nellie McAdams, OAT executive director, said they are nearly finished writing their first strategic plan, which will focus first on farm conservation in the Willamette Valley, followed by the Columbia River Gorge, southeast Oregon — including Malheur, Harney and Lake counties — and the north coast.

“Agriculture makes a huge part of our state’s geography, our economy and just the lifestyle and way of life that we cherish as Oregonians. All of that is dependent on land,” McAdams said. “Once it’s paved, you can’t unpave it.”

The Willamette Valley is home to a range of specialty crops and highly valuable soils, Williamson said, yet is under the most pressure from expanding cities. While land conservation easements can take months, if not years, to develop, she said the trust is already talking with landowners about potential projects and partnerships.

“I think we provide farmers with a tool they can use to secure the investments they have made in their land,” she said. “I think it’s the diversity of farmers we’ve heard from that gives me hope that we are being seen as an asset in our communities.”

FSA lowers reimbursements for organic certification

The USDA Farm Service Agency is reducing payments to assist organic producers with their annual certification costs through fiscal year 2023.

Under the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, farmers may be partially reimbursed for organic certification in four main production areas, or “scopes,” including crops, livestock, post-harvest handling and wild crops — things that grow in the wild, as opposed to cultivation.

On Aug. 10, the FSA announced payment rates will be lowered from 75% or up to $750 per scope, to 50% or up to $500 per scope.

While the agency says the decision was “due to expected participation levels and the limited funds available,” organic farming groups and certifiers say they are dubious.

Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, said the change caught him by surprise. Based in Corvallis, Ore., Oregon Tilth certifies organic operations in 49 states.

In Oregon, the Organic Certification Cost Share Program is administered jointly by the FSA and state Department of Agriculture. Figures from ODA show Oregon received $284,000 from the USDA last year and paid out $177,679 to 239 applications.

Leftover funds are supposed to roll over to future years, as required by the 2018 Farm Bill. According to a notice in the Federal Register, the program had approximately $4 million in national funding available from previous years to use in 2020.

However, the USDA stated in 2019 that it had $16.4 million in carryover to use for future years. Schreiner said that disparity has left him scratching his head.

“Where did those dollars go? I think that is the question on most people’s minds,” he said. “What’s the accounting here?”

USDA spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp said the $16.4 million in carryover funding for 2019 did not take into account money that still needed to be disbursed to state departments of agriculture for the previous fiscal year. She said the agency going forward will only announce the amount of funding for “new” program applications, hence the difference.

Heitkamp said carryover funds vary from year to year, depending on the number of approved applications. Between local FSA offices and state departments of agriculture, the USDA received 12,700 applications in fiscal year 2017, 15,600 in fiscal year 2018 and 13,600 in fiscal year 2019.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the Organic Farmers Association, also questioned USDA’s accounting. She said the program should have enough money to maintain payments at the 75% rate, if not provide additional support for organic producers reeling financially from the COVID-19 crisis.

Organic farmers were largely excluded from other USDA pandemic relief programs including the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Mendenhall said. The Organic Farmers Association and National Organic Coalition have advocated increasing the organic certification cost share to 100% as a means of providing some stimulus.

Instead, Mendenhall said regulators are doing the opposite.

“I think all (organic) farmers are feeling unsupported by the USDA,” she said. “These are farmers that feed our communities. We do a good job to steward our clean earth, water and air, and we need better support from our USDA.”

The USDA Census of Agriculture shows the number of organic farms increased from 14,326 to 18,166 nationwide between 2012 and 2017, and product sales more than doubled from roughly $3.1 billion to $7.2 billion.

In Oregon, the number of organic operations rose from 554 to 567, while sales jumped from $1.9 million to $2.7 million.

Abby Youngblood, executive director of the National Organic Coalition, said the group is outraged about reducing payments for certification in the midst of a pandemic.

”Producers and their organic operations need this support now more than ever because they are faced with loss of markets due to COVID-19 and increasing costs as they modify their operations to keep workers and customers safe and implement new sanitation and staffing procedures,” Youngblood said.

Changes in the payment calculation will allow more certified organic operations to receive assistance, the USDA stated, adding that reimbursements could return to 75% if Congress authorizes additional funding.

Schreiner said it is not certain that will happen, and even if it does, it may be too little too late for some farms.

”Unfortunately, it’s going to have a disproportionate impact on those operations that could use the help the most,” Schreiner said. “Everyone is trying to weather this storm, but those dollars stretch longer for those small to mid-size operations.”

Organic dairy farmers urge USDA to finalize ‘origin of livestock’ rule

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organic dairy farmers are again urging the USDA to clarify its rule for transitioning livestock under the National Organic Program, eliminating a loophole they say puts smaller producers at a severe economic disadvantage.

Regulators first issued the “Origin of Livestock” rule in 2015, allowing dairies to transition cows from conventional to organic over a 12-month period, when the animals are raised using only organic farming practices — such as eating 100% organic feed and managed without antibiotics or added growth hormones.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the national Organic Farmers Association, said the transition is supposed to be a one-time event. Some dairies, however, have a different interpretation of the rule.

Rather than raising calves as organic from birth, Mendenhall said dairies might use cheaper conventional farming practices during their first year before “re-transitioning” livestock in the second year. The result is cows are essentially cycled in and out of organic production, creating an uneven playing field for the rest of the industry.

“We’re asking for clarity within the rules to make it a one-time transition,” Mendenhall said. “Most farms have been held to the standard that they can do it once and it’s done. They can’t leave (organic production) and come back.”

Congress gave the USDA 180 days to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule, though the agency missed its deadline of June 17. In response, 70 organic farming groups including the Organic Farmers Association wrote a letter asking lawmakers to step up the pressure.

“Organic dairy farmers are suffering and continued delays in implementing this rule will prolong the dire economics facing organic dairy farmers, as well as jeopardize consumers’ trust in the organic label,” the groups wrote.

Oregon Tilth, an organization based in Corvallis that certifies organic farms and ranches in 49 states, also signed the letter. Chris Schreiner, the group’s executive director, said he is frustrated with the USDA for dragging its feet on finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule.

“The government is just not keeping pace with what the industry wants,” Schreiner said. “Certainly here in the Northwest, organic dairy has provided an opportunity for family-scale dairy farms to stay economically viable … This will help level the playing field, and will help dairies here in the Northwest for whom the organic marketplace has been a way to maintain economic viability.”

Organic milk makes up 5% of all milk produced in the U.S., according to a 2016 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. California leads the country in the number of certified organic dairy cows by a wide margin with 50,136, followed by Wisconsin, Texas and New York.

Around the Northwest, Oregon had 21,101 registered organic dairy cows in 2016, while Washington had 9,211 and Idaho had 7,434. The total value of sales across the three states topped $9.8 million.

By allowing dairies to inappropriately use the organic transition multiple times, they can grow their herd much more rapidly and at a much lower cost, Mendenhall said. One estimate shows it costs dairies $623 less per animal to raise calves conventionally for one year.

As a few herds continue to grow larger, Mendenhall said farms have flooded the market with organic milk, causing prices to drop. Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic cooperative, paid out an average price of $35.68 per hundred pounds of organic milk in 2016. That fell to $30.10 in 2017, and $29.52 in 2018.

“All dairy farmers have been in crisis for a number of years now,” said Mendenhall, who has an organic mixed livestock farm in Iowa. “Organic dairy farmers have especially suffered, in part because this rule has allowed inequity to happen. I know a lot of organic dairy farms that have gone out of business across the country.”

Mendenhall said she worries the Origin of Livestock standards will fall by the wayside unless the USDA acts soon, especially heading into an election year.

“We really don’t want that to happen,” she said.

Network of small farmers voices support for cap and trade in Oregon

SALEM — As Oregon lawmakers clash over a controversial bill to curb the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, Mimi Casteel says climate change is already posing a major identity crisis for winegrowers.

Casteel grew up on her family’s vineyard in the Willamette Valley, home of internationally recognized Pinot noir. She remembers harvest usually happened around October, with the area’s relatively mild weather allowing more time for grapes to ripen and add layers of distinctive berry-like flavors.

Over the years, Casteel said that climatic window has begun to shift. Summers are becoming hotter and drier, forcing growers to pick grapes earlier in the season when sugars — and thus alcohol content — are higher but flavors have not yet come into balance.

In short, Oregon Pinot noir might no longer taste like Oregon Pinot noir.

“We just established ourselves a world-class wine region,” Casteel said. “We’re looking at a hard reality where that is not what we have anymore.”

In 2008, Casteel started her own vineyard, Hope Well Wine, in the Eola-Amity Hills west of Salem. She is one of more than 270 small farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who signed on in support of Senate Bill 1530 — Oregon’s cap and trade proposal — through the Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network, or OrCAN.

The bill is now stalled in the Legislature as both House and Senate Republicans staged boycotts of the short session this week, demanding that cap and trade go to the voters.

OrCAN Director Megan Kemple rejected that notion, saying the bill is comprehensive with extensive input from all sides.

“No bill has had this much work and this much public process,” Kemple said. “The Legislature is where policy like this should be made.”

Opponents of the bill, including the Oregon Farm Bureau and Timber Unity, a grassroots group of farmers and loggers whose members have staged large rallies outside the Capitol, argue that SB 1530 will raise fuel and energy prices, crippling agricultural producers who cannot pass the increased costs along to consumers.

A statewide cap-and-trade system would also have a negligible impact on climate change, critics add. Oregon generated just 0.13% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

But Casteel said the bill contains a number of compromises intended to protect rural communities and trade-exposed businesses, and is a necessary step toward protecting natural resources.

“This would facilitate the transition toward climate-smart farming,” she said. “The smartest, most responsible thing we can do right now is throw our full and honest support behind farmers who can protect this region.”

Under cap and trade, the state sets a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions and charges companies for allowances to exceed the limit. The cap gradually lowers over time, which is meant to encourage the companies to adopt more climate-friendly practices and technology.

Money collected would go into a state Climate Investment Fund with specific allocation levels for adaptation projects, including 25% for wildfire mitigation and 25% for natural and working lands to adopt measures such as tree planting, cover crops, no-till farming, riparian buffers and capturing dairy gas to create renewable energy.

Casteel, who built Hope Well Wine on 80 acres of reclaimed property, said these practices will ultimately determine whether Oregon is able to maintain its ecological resilience.

“It’s really farming where we make our greatest impact,” Casteel said. “We are on the front lines (of climate change).”

Other farmers who support cap and trade say the costs of doing nothing now are much higher than the cost of waiting until climate change creates irreparable harm.

In the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, Taylor Starr, executive director and farm manager at the nonprofit White Oak Farm and Education Center, said the last 10 years have seen increasing wildfires and lower snowpack in the Siskiyou Mountains, creating a lack of water flows later in the season.

Two years ago, Starr said the farm had its irrigation water shut off in early July, about a month earlier than usual. White Oak Farm grows and sells a variety of produce and contracts with several seed companies. The center also receives grants and contributions to support its programs.

“We’ve really had to adjust our scheduling,” Starr said. “When things are so uncertain, it makes that planning really challenging.”

Starr estimates the farm has invested about $10,000 to upgrade its irrigation systems, installing more efficient drip lines and resurrecting an old 1940s-era water storage pond. He said the farm is also shifted toward planting more deep-rooted perennial plants that can better withstand drought, versus shallow-rooted annuals.

Wildfire smoke is another serious issue, Starr said, choking skies and impacting customer turnout at local farmers’ markets. He said the farm has experienced a 10% drop in market revenue during smoky summers, which adds up to thousands of dollars of lost revenue.

“It is stressful,” he said. “It just feels like we’re in this ecosystem here that’s a little bit on edge.”

Sarah Deumling, forest manager for Zena Forest Products in Salem, said the company owns one of the largest intact remaining forests in the Willamette Valley, though climate change is beginning to change the makeup of species in the woods.

Deumling said drought has led to a 10-20% loss of Douglas fir trees that had to be removed and replanted with white oak and cedar.

“I’m not the only one who has firs dying,” Duemling said. “Some people have cedars dying that wouldn’t normally be dying. … If you put that out on a trajectory, the costs can be huge.”

Deumling admits she is is not certain whether cap and trade is the best solution for managing Oregon’s greenhouse gases, but she said producers can no longer afford to wait years for someone to do something about it.

“We’re trying to make a living. It’s not easy,” she said. “We better do all we can to prepare for and get a handle on climate change.”

OSU conference draws participants from around the Northwest

CORVALLIS, Ore. — For Jake Carpenter, the strategy was to divide and conquer at the annual Oregon State University Small Farms Conference on Feb. 22.

Carpenter and his wife, Freya, are preparing to take over their family’s 4-acre urban farm in Oregon City, south of Portland. The farm grows a smorgasbord of seasonal produce, including tomatoes, sweet corn, apples, pears and leafy greens, which it sells at the Oregon City Farmers’ Market.

OSU began hosting the Small Farms Conference 20 years ago to give farmers like the Carpenters information and resources to bolster their bottom line. Over 92% of Oregon farms are considered “small” under the USDA definition, meaning they make less than $350,000 in annual gross income.

With so many seminars to choose from, Carpenter said he and Freya decided to split up and canvas as much of the conference as possible. He sat in on sessions covering hoop houses, dry farming and hemp production, while she went to talks on farm stands, winter vegetables and basics for beginning farmers.

“It’s been great,” Carpenter said. “The content is what we were expecting. The tips and tricks are super helpful.”

Carpenter said they expect to buy the farm from Freya’s parents sometime later this year. His mother-in-law, Jackie Hammond-Williams, is one of the founders and a longtime manager of the Oregon City Farmers’ Market, though she plans to retire in May.

Their goal, Carpenter said, is to provide healthy, nutritious food to their family and community. The biggest challenge is getting the most out of the farm, without sacrificing sustainability.

“That takes a lot of effort and a lot of learning to do that the right way,” he said.

A state of mind
At its core, the OSU Small Farms Conference aims to make small-scale farming a viable business by sharing university-led research and highlighting new market opportunities.

Garry Stephenson, director of the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at OSU, said the event focused specifically on expanding farmers’ markets when it began in 2000. About 125 people attended that first year. Since then, it has grown to about 900 attendees who pack the LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Hill Alumni Center on the Oregon State campus in Corvallis.

“We get all of those people for one day in the same room to interact,” Stephenson said. “It’s not just farmers. It’s the people who support them.”

According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, Oregon had 37,616 total farms in 2017, of which 34,714 were labeled small farms based on income. Yet just 682 farms accounted for a whopping 75% of the state’s $5 billion in agricultural sales — a troubling sign of increasing consolidation, Stephenson said.

“We’re losing that classic medium-size farm that we identify as the family farm,” he said.

There is no way small farms can compete at that large scale growing commodity crops, Stephenson said. That’s why, for the last 20 years, the Small Farms Conference has focused more on cultivating specialty crops and developing local or regional marketing channels.

“(Small farms) have more of an entrepreneurial approach to farming, because they really need to be nimble,” Stephenson said.

Economics aside, Stephenson said he thinks of small farms as a state of mind. In recent years, the conference has pivoted to include an emphasis on social and food justice issues such as climate change adaptation and diversity in farming.

Danny Percich, of Full Plate Farm in Ridgefield, Wash., said the event is a chance for him to network and pick up new ideas that he can take back to the farm.

“It’s always invigorating, too,” Percich said. “It kind of gets you excited for the growing season.”

Beginning farmers
Teagan Moran, a small farms education program assistant for the OSU Extension Service, led a session in the morning tailored to new and beginning farmers. A beginning farmer, she said, is anyone who has been farming for less than 10 years.

While farming is deeply personal, Moran said deciding what to grow boils down to three main questions: What do you want to do? What can you do? and What can you sell?

“This is not something that comes overnight,” Moran said. “It is a journey. All of you are at different points on this farming path.”

Before planting, Moran said, it is critical to evaluate several key resources on the farm, with soil quality serving as the foundation for everything. If a farm has Class I soil, it is considered prime farmland, she explained, and the better the soil, the more options are available for high-value crops.

“Some soils can be improved, but will never be as versatile as Class I soil,” Moran said.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has an online soil survey where farmers can look up which classifications of soil they have on their property. Moran also recommended farmers buy a soil test kit to see if they need to add any organic matter, nitrogen or other nutrients in the ground.

“You can build soil,” she said. “There is hope, even if you’re working with a challenging place.”

In addition to soil, Moran said, location, climate, water rights and other farm infrastructure will directly impact what farmers can grow. Even without irrigation, she said some crops, such as Christmas trees, hay and grains, can still thrive locally depending on climate and rainfall.

Angel Hammon, a 21-year-old senior at OSU majoring in agricultural sciences, said she is interested in running her own farm and starting a farm-to-table restaurant. She participates in the college’s Organic Growers Club, which is how she heard about the Small Farms Conference.

“It has been fun to just fit in immediately, knowing that other people here have the same energy and passion for agriculture that I have,” Hammon said.

Stephenson, with the OSU Center for Small Farms, said if farmers can take home one inspiring lesson from the conference, then it is a success.

“That economy of scale is what those farmers are trying to do,” Stephenson said. “It’s a small business way of thinking.”

Finding a niche is important

Renard Turner, of Vanguard Ranch in Gordonsville, Va., said the primary challenge for small farms is to become profitable and sustainable in today’s marketplace.

It may be difficult, but it can be done, said Turner. His solution is to combine value-added products with direct-to-consumer marketing to increase revenue while cutting out the middleman.

Turner and his wife, Chinette, raise meat goats on organically managed pastureland, which they process into ready-to-eat meals such as burgers, curries and kabobs. The couple purchased a mobile food cart to sell directly at major events including the State Fair of Virginia.

That vertically integrated business model, Turner said, also allows them to avoid selling at slaughterhouse prices and guarantee the quality of their product from field to plate.

“Don’t give away the power that you have to the middleman. He’s not your friend,” Turner said.

For example, Turner said, the highest prices farmers can usually hope to get from the slaughterhouse is about $3 per pound. Those slaughterhouses will then turn around and sell the same meat to customers for $9-$10 per pound.

“That’s upside-down math,” he said. “I’ve learned to change the paradigm.”

Small farmers have to be creative and committed to earn extra money through niche markets and direct-to-consumer sales, but Turner said there are options out there.

“It takes more initiative on your part, but I think it’s exponentially more rewarding for me as a producer to do that,” he said.

Small farmer crowned National Jersey Queen

ALBANY, Ore. — As far back as she can remember, Gracie Krahn has been living and working with dairy cattle.

Her father, who managed the Oregon State University Dairy Research Center for 13 years, once performed a caesarean section on a pregnant cow with Gracie, then a baby, strapped to his back. She competed in her first open junior livestock show at the age of 4, showing a Jersey heifer named Annie Bluebell.

Krahn, now an 18-year-old senior at Santiam Christian High School in Adair Village, Ore., was recently crowned the 62nd National Jersey Queen by the American Jersey Cattle Association, promoting the breed and U.S. dairy industry at events across the country.

“I really want to tell the story of what truly happens on the farm,” Krahn said. “This is a position to give back.”

Krahn and her family — father Ben, mother Amy and sister Clancey — operate Royal Riverside Farm in nearby Albany, Ore., which opened in 2018 as the only farmstead creamery in the Mid-Willamette Valley. The farm milks 15 cows, mostly Jerseys, and bottles milk for sale at over 25 local stores from Hood River to Eugene.

“My sister and I are sixth-generation dairy farmers,” Krahn said. “It is really in our blood.”

Growing up, Krahn spent many months and holidays helping her father milk and feed cows at the OSU Dairy Farm. She came to love being around the animals, especially Jerseys, for their “sweet but spicy” personalities and rich milk high in butterfat and protein.

“There’s not a better way to grow up than around agriculture and around livestock,” Krahn said.

Both Krahn and her sister have competed in countless livestock shows, exhibiting cattle and hogs. In 2013, Krahn, then an eighth-grader, participated for the first time at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., which she described as an incredible experience.

Two years later, Krahn won intermediate showmanship at the All-American Dairy Show in Louisville, Ky., while sister Clancey won junior showmanship, becoming the first siblings in show history to accomplish that feat.

Yet as much as she likes working with the animals directly, Krahn said her passion is sharing her expertise with others and mentoring younger members of 4-H and FFA. She plans to run for Oregon FFA state president at this year’s convention, and has already been accepted to Oklahoma State University, where she plans to study agricultural communications and animal science.

Serving as National Jersey Queen is another platform to tell agriculture’s story, Krahn said. She was selected from a group of nine women on Nov. 9 at the Jersey Junior Banquet in Louisville.

“I knew that my passion and love for the Jersey breed ran as deep as anybody’s,” Krahn said. “I’m super blessed that I’m here now.”

In addition to traveling to and meeting consumers at several national events — including the American Jersey Cattle Association and National All-Jersey annual meeting June 24-27 in Portland, her own backyard — Krahn is also responsible for managing the National Jersey Queen Facebook page, posting photos and factoids about her yearlong journey.

“Every time I get a chance to advocate for milk or promote the dairy industry, I hop on it,” she said. “That’s really where my heart lies.”

Training Latino farmers in sustainable ag

FOREST GROVE, Ore. — Growing up on his family’s 2-acre farm in Guatemala, Alejandro Tecum came to despise the arduous chore of hand-tilling fields to plant crops such as corn, beans and squash.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Tecum said he was also hurting the soil by robbing it of nutrients and organic matter needed to grow healthy food.

“We have destroyed the soil to an extreme that what we eat, it doesn’t contain nutrition anymore,” Tecum said during a recent interview from his office in Forest Grove, Ore., west of Portland. “We have killed all the life in the soil that provides the nutrients to the vegetable, for example.”

Tecum, 59, now teaches regenerative farming practices for Adelante Mujeres, a nonprofit organization that supports Latina women and their families through adult education and youth outreach programs.

Last year, Adelante Mujeres received a $400,000 grant to expand its sustainable agriculture program, working with five other groups in Western Oregon to help minority farmers start their own businesses, while learning to care for the land.

The project includes Rogue Farm Corps based in Ashland; Huerto de la Familia in Eugene; The Next Door in Hood River; Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood; and Zenger Farms in Portland.

A teacher by profession, Tecum was hired as the sustainable agriculture education manager for Adelante Mujeres in 2005. He has embraced regenerative farming, which he says goes beyond organic, and sworn off the conventional growing practices and chemicals he once used nonchalantly.

“It is the care we give to the soil,” Tecum said. “We feed the soil with every single organic matter that we can find.”

The 12-week course, taught entirely in Spanish, covers soil biology, pest management, disease management, composting and irrigation. That includes several hands-on workshops at the local Forest Grove Community Gardens.

“I have seen many changes in the participants,” Tecum said. “The best reward for me is when I go to their garden, their farms, and I see they are putting into practice the techniques that we are teaching them. When I see the soil becoming richer every year, or when they say, ‘Oh, I cannot eat vegetables from the store now, because of the flavor,’ that’s the kind of compliments I get.”

The real challenge, Tecum said, is convincing people to join the program. Most of the Latinos that come to Adelante Mujeres are trying to get away from farming — either they have already spent years working as a farm laborer, or because farming it is seen as a second-class job.

“I tell them that agriculture or farming is a science, and an art,” Tecum said. “I tell them that, if you come to the class, you may change your mind. And they do.”

The USDA grant will help them to reach even more Latino and Hispanic farmers by partnering with other nonprofits, forming the Western Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Collaborative, Tecum said.

According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, Latino or Hispanic producers owned land on 1,666 Oregon farms and rented or leased land on 345 farms in 2017, accounting for about 5% of all farms statewide. That is roughly double the number from five years earlier, when Latino or Hispanic producers owned land on 803 farms and leased land on 186 farms.

Washington County has the highest percentage of Latinos in Oregon, rising from 50,000 in 2000 to almost 90,000 in 2014. Adelante Mujeres originally began as a program under Centro Cultural de Washington County, Oregon’s oldest Latino nonprofit, before spinning off as its own group in 2002.

The sustainable agriculture program started in 2005, in conjunction with Adelante Mujeres relaunching the Forest Grove Farmers Market.

From providing jobs to introducing healthier eating habits, Tecum said the program has proven invaluable to the community.

“I think it is necessary, if we want to live a good life, to eat healthy food,” Tecum said. “The only way to eat healthy food is to take care of the soil.”

Attorney explains pitfalls of farm succession planning

SALEM — As Oregon farmers and ranchers get older, the need for estate planning is growing more urgent to ensure working lands remain in operation.

Maria Schmidlkofer, an Oregon attorney with 13 years of experience with farm succession plans, knows the pitfalls all too well.

Family dynamics, disability or lack of foresight can all complicate the passing of farmland from one generation to the next, Schmidlkofer said during her educational seminar Wednesday at the 50th annual Northwest Ag Show in Salem.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University, Portland State University and Rogue Farm Corps, farm operators over the age of 55 now control 64% of the state’s agricultural lands. That means roughly 10 million acres are likely to change ownership over the next two decades.

It is up to lawyers like Schmidlkofer, with the firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Salem, to help that transition happen smoothly with well thought out succession plans.

“If you have a farm in this room, chances are you need a living trust,” Schmidlkofer said. “It’s just so much easier for tax planning, for transitioning (farms) to the next generation. I think it’s just a far superior way of doing that.”

As part of her presentation, Schmidlkofer explained the difference between wills and trusts, and outlined the process of establishing a limited liability corporation — or LLC — to incorporate multiple generations in the farm who may one day take over the business.

Most estate plans also address things like mental or physical disabilities, Schmidlkofer said, to ensure succession does not get muddled in those cases.

While these are sometimes depressing subjects to consider, Schmidlkofer said it is worth it to avoid heartache and family rifts later.

“If there is anything a bad farm plan does, it is tear apart a family,” she said. “You do not recover from that.”

To highlight common errors, Schmidlkofer used several examples from real-life celebrity cases.

Actor James Dean, who died in 1955 at age 24, never wrote a will, meaning his entire estate was passed to his father — even though his father had abandoned him as a child.

“The first lesson here is to make sure you at least get something in place,” Schmidlkofer said.

Actress, singer and model Marilyn Monroe left 75% of her estate to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, with “wishes” to donate the rest to charity. Strasberg later married, however, and when he died in 1982, the estate plus all licensing and royalty fees went to his widow.

“The lesson here is that you want to make sure whatever plan you have is going to stand,” Schmidlkofer said. “Litigation is rampant with farms and ranches. … Someone dies, and then they change the plan. It just causes so much heartache in families when something like that happens.”

Schmidlkofer recommended farmers meet with an estate attorney to help review their personal assets, think about how they should be distributed and whether that matches their business plan.

She said an effective succession plan allows producers to “give what I have to whom I want, the way I want, when I want.”

“The family succession plan needs to be well thought out,” she said.

Oregon snowpack well below normal heading into 2020

Early season snowfall is lagging again across Oregon, potentially foreshadowing another dry and difficult summer ahead for farmers and ranchers.

But as 2019 proved, things can turn around quickly, giving plenty of reason for hope.

According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Oregon’s snow-water equivalent — the amount of water contained within snow — is just 45% of normal statewide. Every water basin is measuring below average for snow, with the exception of the Owyhee Basin in southeast Oregon, which is holding up at 117% of normal.

The lowest totals are in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basins at 25% of normal, and the Willamette Basin at 26%.

Mountain snowpack is crucial for replenishing streams and reservoirs for farms and fish, especially in Eastern Oregon. As snow melts, it trickles down into creeks and rivers, sustaining healthy stream flows while providing irrigation water for crops and livestock.

Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for NRCS Oregon, said the agency will release its first water supply outlook report by Jan. 10. Based on the current lack of snow, Oviatt said he anticipates lower water availability earlier in the spring, though there is still time to rebound.

“We’re not in panic mode yet,” Oviatt said. “It is early in the (water) year … We can see some improvement, depending on conditions.”

The water year, as defined by hydrologists, begins on Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30 of the following calendar year. November and December are typically much cooler and wetter months for Oregon, Oviatt said, however most of the state’s 90 snow monitoring sites are measuring less than 8 inches of snow-water equivalent.

Perhaps more concerning, overall precipitation including rain is averaging just 50% of normal statewide. The Oregon Water Resources Department reports that November in particular was one of the top five driest months on record for northwest Oregon.

Racquel Rancier, spokeswoman for OWRD, said that average stream flows were just 40% of normal statewide as of Dec. 30.

“We certainly would like to see better and more consistent stream flows and a greater snowpack at this point,” Rancier said. “Conditions need to greatly improve in the coming months in order to have a more normal water year.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly 98% of Oregon listed in some stage of drought, ranging from “abnormally dry” to “moderate.”

Conditions were much the same at this time last year, too, when snowpack was just 42% of normal levels in early January. Then came February, which brought drought-busting winter storms that dumped several feet of snow at higher elevations and boosted snow-water equivalent by 20-30%.

With two-thirds of winter still to go, Oviatt said he is optimistic for improvement.

“At this point, our message will be to watch the conditions,” he said. “Let’s just hope for improvement at this point.”

Snow-water equivalent is measured using what is known as a “snow pillow,” made out of a synthetic rubber and filled with an organic antifreeze solution. As snow falls, it compresses the pillow and a sensor measures the pressure in real time, which is used to calculate the amount of water in the snow.

The data is then compared to a 30-year average between 1981-2010 to come up with a percent of normal.

Between the “snowmageddon” of February and drier-than-usual November, Oviatt said increasingly large and unpredictable swings in weather variability are making it harder for the NRCS to accurately predict water supplies until later in the season.

That could lead to changes in modeling, Oviatt said, though he did not elaborate.

“It’s a changing world,” he said. “We’re trying to keep up with technology as our partner agencies are doing. It’s an ongoing process at this point.”