Oregon researchers win $2 million in specialty crop block grants

SALEM — USDA this month awarded Oregon nearly $2 million in funding through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which will fund 14 innovative projects statewide.

Experts say the grants could make Oregon’s fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery industries more competitive.

This year’s projects include fascinating research, educational opportunities and marketing campaigns, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor.

“Oregon has a long history of creative and innovative Specialty Crop Block Grant projects and this year is no exception,” Taylor said in a statement.

Over the past nine years, according to grant program coordinator Gabrielle Redhead, Oregon has received about $18 million, which has fueled nearly 200 projects. This year’s awardees include nonprofits, for-profits, government bodies, colleges and universities.

ODA itself snagged $124,214 for a project intended to increase industry awareness and compliance with regulations related to seed production, sale and export. ODA and partners will develop educational materials about seed laws, record-keeping and labeling to help growers.

ODA also received $103,112 for a project that is supposed to connect specialty crop growers with at least 250 small- to medium-sized food companies that buy Oregon specialty crops.

Friends of Zenger Farms, a not-for-profit urban farm, received $166,073 to expand Oregon’s CSA market with a special focus on connecting CSA farmers with low-income consumers.

The Gorge Grown Food Network will use $66,000 to increase marketing and distribution of specialty crops in five counties and on the Warm Springs Reservation.

With its $95,566 award, Growing Gardens, a nonprofit, will expand gardening opportunities for adult and juvenile inmates at 16 Oregon correctional institutions. The program was designed to provide inmates with healthful food and job credentials to help them succeed when they re-enter society.

The Oregon Blueberry Commission received $175,000, which it plans to use to promote Oregon blueberries in Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. Experts say Vietnam especially stands poised to become the Oregon blueberry industry’s largest Asian customer.

Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network will use $92,043 to help producers interested in selling produce to schools and to expand an online, searchable directory so schools can easily find fruit and vegetable producers to work with.

With $175,000, Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission will develop better crop production practices and new markets for processed vegetables and rotational crops.

Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission was awarded $122,834 to expand marketing of Northwest berries in Japan.

Oregon State University won several awards: $93,335 to stop or slow sprouts from growing on potatoes using essential oils, $165,870 to control cabbage maggots in brassica vegetables, $174,984 to help turfgrass growers handle regulatory burdens imposed by greenhouse gas reduction programs, $162,794 to find alternatives to chlorpyrifos for growers who rely on it and $172,918 to turn waste byproducts from beverage-making — such as pomace, spent grains and fibers leftover from alcohol-making processes — into sustainable packaging containers.

ODA says the funds awarded this year will help Oregon producers and processors “face current and future challenges.”


Rogue Farm Corps accepting training applications.

Applications are now open for Rogue Farm Corps’ beginning & advanced farmer training programs in Oregon for the 2021 farm season.

Rogue Farm Corps seeks to train an inclusive next generation of farmers and encourages applicants of all backgrounds and identities to apply. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis until March 1, but early applications are considered first. Apply by Jan. 5, 2021, for priority consideration.

RFC tuition scholarship opportunities are available for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, veteran, and low-income applicants. (Scholarship application deadline is Jan. 5, 2021.)

Visit www.roguefarmcorps.org to learn more and apply.


After the fires, farmers face long-term feed shortages

When wildfires painted West Coast skies orange in September, the nation’s attention was fixated on California and Oregon.

But experts say the aftermath of wildfires is often overlooked. Loss of forage and rangeland is extensive, and many farmers are struggling to feed livestock.

Researchers say feed losses are worst in California, where some forage lands may not reach pre-fire production levels for years.

In western Oregon, the climate is more favorable, but animals still face feed shortages. In both states, farmers are donating hay to help.

“I could hardly even begin to guess the scope of damage. About 5 million acres burned in (California). How much of that was grazing land? At least a million acres?” said Mark Lacey, president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.

Total losses remain unknown, but ballpark estimates are emerging.

According to a recent theoretical modeling study published by the University of California, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire alone, which burned 396,624 acres, likely cost farmers $68.2 million — $18.4 million in just forage damage.

“When you have these large fire footprints, it adds up,” said Sheila Barry, co-author of the study and UC Cooperative Extension natural resource adviser.

Forage loss this year was estimated at 200 pounds per acre, followed by 40% lower-than-normal production the next year and 20% the year after that.

Where the hottest fires burned, Barry said, there are now scorched seed banks and soils turned hydroponic — unable to absorb water. Some upper soil profiles are sterilized and in annual grass pastures where rain is scarce, chaparral shrubs may grow back faster than forage.

Groups across California are collecting hay donations, but experts say the donations won’t make up for lost rangeland. Lacey predicted some ranchers will have to sell animals early.

Oregon, too, faces livestock feed shortages.

Oregon State University staff said it’s too early to estimate the number of acres burned or animals displaced, but impacts are widespread.

Melody Larson, administrative assistant to the associate deans of Extension and Academic Programs, has been coordinating statewide hay donations since the fires. Larson has arranged transportation of more than 500 tons of hay bales to feed horses, cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, alpacas and llamas.

“When we did the initial call-out, it felt like this, this onslaught of hay,” said Jenifer Cruickshank, OSU Extension dairy management expert who has been managing donations on the ground.

Sam Angima, associate dean of the Extension Service, said the largest donations came from Union and Harney counties.

As winter draws near, the team said it’s harder to keep bales dry because many farmers’ barns burned. Cruickshank said some farmers are asking for smaller loads at a time. The Oregon Office of Emergency Management has provided ropes, tarps and equipment to protect hay from mildew.

Angima said pastures will likely suffer post-fire impacts, and farmers are donating straw to lay over burned land to mitigate erosion.

“It won’t be an easy recovery, but it’s not as bad as California. Our grass started coming back a month ago. We’re fortunate to have the climate we have,” said Angima.


Organic food sales boom during pandemic

PORTLAND — The produce section at New Seasons Market in Portland was bustling on a weekday afternoon. Customers were filling carts and handbaskets with organic produce.

Grocers and industry experts say the pandemic has driven record sales and interest in organic food.

“I think there’s probably a combination of reasons. Certainly there’s the local connection and people want to feel secure and have access to a stable food source. But I also think people are just really tuned into health right now,” said Sarah Brown, education and advocacy director at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that certifies organic producers.

Brown, herself a farmer, said interest in her organic products has doubled since COVID-19 hit.

According to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, the trend extends beyond Oregon; organics are experiencing record sales nationwide. Organic food sales skyrocketed during the run on grocery stores in March, but even as markets have settled, sales remain strong.

“Sales of organic fresh produce show no signs of slowing and continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of the Organic Produce Network, said in a statement.

The Organic Trade Association’s report for the third quarter of 2020 shows organic fresh produce sales are 16% higher than the same timeframe last year.

The West is leading in terms of growth rate. This quarter in the western U.S., sales of organic produce are up 20% higher than last year in the same timeframe and region.

Mike Boyle, vice president of sales and sourcing at Organically Grown Co., a wholesale distributor, said many consumers are return customers simply buying larger volumes, but he said the organic movement also picked up new consumers.

Packaged salads, fruits and herbs have generated the highest growth, data show. Berries are the top organic fruit seller, generating more than $217 million in sales, followed by apples and bananas.

Experts say consumers have also purchased larger volumes of organic meat, poultry, eggs and milk during COVID-19.

One farmer told Small Ag Press she spent weeks trying to buy a freezer, but Home Depot, Lowe’s, Jerry’s and other suppliers told her they were sold out and back-ordered for months since more Americans are buying freezers this year to stock up on locally sourced meat.

Organic produce is still a small segment of the overall produce sector, but experts say the numbers of organic farms and acres are growing.

Certifiers say more farms are going organic.

“As a certifier, what I can speak to is that there has been no slowdown in applicants getting certified. You’d think with disruptions in the supply chain, you’d see a slowdown, but farms and companies are as interested as ever in getting certified,” said Brown of Oregon Tilth.

Experts predict consumer interest will remain strong.

“I think that the organic industry is going to continue to grow,” said Boyle of Organically Grown Co.


Some farmers frustrated by conservation program rule change

The Trump administration this month made several key changes to USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program rule in the Federal Register — changes some farmers like and others don’t.

Advocates say the rule change will incentivize producers to expand conservation activities. Critics say the new rule tends to favor larger farms, leaving small and midsized farms unrewarded for conservation efforts.

CSP, a popular program run by USDA in all 50 states and established by the 2018 Farm Bill, offers financial incentives to farms that make conservation efforts, such as developing wildlife habitat, improving grazing conditions and sequestering carbon.

Since last November, USDA records show the agency received some 600 comments on the interim final rule. Based on that feedback, USDA staffers say they changed the rule. The changes include prioritizing some conservation goals over others, rewarding new conservation efforts more than existing ones and changing payment rates.

“The rule change calls into question whether the program exists solely to have an environmental outcome or if its purpose is to support farmers who are doing the right thing,” said Eric Deeble, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “I think those separate goals have to be balanced because these are taxpayer dollars. But the new rule isn’t balanced.”

Deeble called the rule change a “slap in the face” to small producers. He said farms with existing conservation efforts will receive significantly less support according to the changed rule than farms that have few or no conservation efforts in place but choose to make one new change.

“The rule places too much priority on new and big. I’d prefer a more thoughtful rule that rewards both existing and new efforts, and also considers farms of all sizes,” said Deeble.

Small farm leaders have expressed concern that the new rule rewards changes to large acreage or livestock numbers more than the faithful work of some small farms.

The new rule also leaves minimum payment rates ambiguous. In its original form, the rule awarded small farms a minimum of $1,500 per year if that farm met certain conservation benchmarks.

Now, experts say, the new rule may not set a minimum payment amount. Industry leaders say they fear small farms may invest in conservation infrastructure expecting to get reimbursed, but may not receive what they need to make it worth their time and money.

But some policy experts say the favoritism shown toward larger farms in the new rule makes sense. Realistically, they say, one large farm making conservation changes will likely have a much bigger impact on the environment than dozens of small farms making the same changes. The new incentive structure, therefore, is weighted toward large producers.

A USDA spokeswoman said the program has already been successful in helping farms reach conservation goals across the U.S.

In a statement, Kevin Norton, acting chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the final rule aligns better with the agency’s other existing conservation programs and will “help farmers put more robust conservation activities in place.”


Indoor farmer grows his greens vertically

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Ken Kaneko, founder of Forward Greens, recalls the first time he saw a vertical farm.

Kaneko was a tech scientist for Intel at the time, on a business trip to Japan. When he stumbled upon a Japanese vertical farm — plants stacked high to the ceiling — Kaneko said he remembers being amazed.

Back in the U.S., he researched indoor vertical farming. In 2017, he incorporated in Vancouver, Wash., and in 2018, he started selling microgreens to grocery stores across the Pacific Northwest.

Kaneko said the business is an intersection of his passions. He said he loves salad and is able to use skills he learned from the tech world.

“I’m not doing technology for the sake of technology. Every design has a reason,” he said.

Kaneko’s vertical farm is one of just a handful like it in the West.

Globally, vertical farming is taking root. “Plant factories” filled with vertically stacked shelves are gaining popularity in the Netherlands, Japan, Scotland and other nations. But experts say the U.S. isn’t likely to adopt vertical farming on a wide scale anytime soon.

“The Netherlands and Japan are small countries with relatively high populations. Here in America, we’ve got all kinds of space. Especially here in the West, there’s so much room. I’m betting for a while, it’s still going to be easier and cheaper to go wide instead of going tall,” said Mykl Nelson, instructor of urban agriculture at Oregon State University.

But for Kaneko and a few other pioneers in the Pacific Northwest, growing vertical has its perks.

The classic appeal, experts say, is that for urban dwellers, the greens are as local and fresh as it gets. Kaneko’s greens are shipped from 1 to 150 miles, whereas greens from Arizona or California may be shipped more than 2,000 miles to Portland.

Advocates also tout vertical farming as more “sustainable.” Kaneko said his greens use 95% less water, 99% less land and 100% fewer pesticides than conventional greens grown outdoors.

Nelson of OSU added that vertical farms also have more control over “weather” conditions and shorter harvest turn-around times.

Consumers are taking notice.

Jeff Fairchild, grocery buyer for New Seasons Market in Portland, said he has seen an increase in interest from shoppers.

Fairchild said the total market share, however, remains small. The microgreens may be delicate, delicious and locally grown, he said, but they still have to compete with big, crunchy heads of lettuce from places like Salinas, Calif.

And vertical farming, experts say, has other downsides. OSU’s Nelson said LED lighting, though decreasing in cost, is still expensive, and while vertical farmers are typically more sustainable in water use, their higher electricity use can translate into higher carbon emissions.

“Sustainability is kind of a nebulous thing because right now it’s really vague,” said Nelson.

Kaneko remains excited by the positive consumer response. His team produces about 500 pounds of greens a day, and Kaneko hopes to reach 1,500 pounds per day in the next few years as he expands into more stores.


Demand for winter vegetables takes root during pandemic

Demand for winter vegetables is growing as more consumers seek to buy local food during the pandemic.

Consumer interest in winter vegetables — such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic and winter squash — has typically been far outpaced by demand for imported warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes. But this year, experts say, the winter vegetable market is gaining traction.

“Winter vegetables are the fastest growing greens segment. The market for these crops, especially radicchio, chicory, spinach and purple sprouting broccoli, is expanding faster than any of us can keep up with,” John Navazio, a national plant breeder for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, said in a statement.

Shari Sirkin, executive director of Friends of Family Farmers, said the pandemic has prompted record produce sales for many of Oregon’s small-scale farmers, a trend she anticipates will continue through the cold seasons.

Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association, told the Small Ag Press shoppers appear eager for farmers markets to continue running during fall and winter.

Jessica Land, market manager for the Oregon City Farmers Market, told the Small Ag Press there is “definitely” an increase in winter vegetable interest among market shoppers. Months into COVID-19, Land said shoppers want to support local farms and avoid longer supply chains.

The challenge, Land said, is that in normal years, shoppers are more likely to try unfamiliar winter vegetables, like radicchios, at the suggestion of farmers while they walk the market. With social distancing measures in place this and many shoppers opting to order online this year, Land said it may be harder to encourage shoppers to try new things.

But the good news, she said, is that farmers are creating descriptions for their produce on the Oregon City Farmers Market’s app. Descriptions include statements like: “This vegetable tastes similar to” or “This pairs well with.”

Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or PACSAC, said small farms that run CSA programs are also showing more interest in learning how to winter farm. Last year, she said, her coalition of 85 farms had seven farms offering winter shares; this year, she said, that has leapt to 23.

Researchers at Oregon State University have also picked up on the trend. With funding from the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, OSU researchers, in partnership with the Culinary Breeding Network, are launching a project called “Eat Winter Vegetables” this fall.

Heidi Noordijk, a small farms coordinator at OSU’s Extension Service, told the Small Ag Press the goal of the project is to increase production and consumption of winter vegetables in Oregon.

The project will host field days and events, including the 2020-21 Variety Showcase and Winter Vegetable Sagra, a virtual series of events featuring TED-style talks, interactive Q&A sessions, cooking demos and virtual field tours.

Friends of Family Farmers and similar groups will also be hosting “Fill Your Pantry” events this fall to encourage consumers to stock up on shelf-stable winter farm foods.


Some Oregon pumpkin patches almost got shut down

SAUVIE ISLAND, Ore. — Farmers say a lack of communication between government agencies and conflicting last-minute guidance issued to farms nearly shut down some Oregon pumpkin patch activities.

Farm advocates say visitors to Oregon pumpkin patches this weekend probably had little idea of the “crazy scramble” that happened behind the scenes to keep fall agritourism open.

Since spring, farmers have called Oregon Department of Agriculture, or ODA, and other agencies to ask how to safely operate pumpkin patches this fall.

Then last Thursday at around 5 p.m., less than 48 hours before many pumpkin patches were set to open, the Oregon Health Authority, or OHA, issued a last-minute change to ODA’s guidelines to some farms via email.

OHA’s rule, as interpreted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, an organization enforcing workplace safety, would have disallowed hay rides, corn mazes, tractor rides and similar “interactive” activities for any county still in Phase 1 of reopening. Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties in the Portland area are in Phase 1, as is Malheur County in southeastern Oregon.

“ODA’s previous guide for U-pick and pumpkin patch operations came out early this summer. So this OHA document came completely out of the blue,” said Samantha Bayer, policy counsel at the Oregon Farm Bureau. “Why weren’t the agencies coordinated on this?”

Emails obtained by the Capital Press show the new guidance was based on a chart from Gov. Kate Brown’s office that farm groups say had never been released to the public.

Aaron Corvin, spokesman for OSHA, told the Small Ag Press his agency has overall been nimble and worked hard to communicate clearly, but there have been a few minor hiccups.

“Every now and then, like this case demonstrates, you do … you get a situation where there needs to be some clarification. But from our end, you know, we’re able to pretty quickly get things ironed out and move forward,” said Corvin, who noted that the agencies corrected the miscommunication the next day.

Jonathan Modie, spokesman for OHA, told the Small Ag Press his agency works “really closely” with ODA and OSHA and that communication is “very fluid and collaborative.”

“Oh gosh, we’re working so hard to communicate clearly and listen to businesses. We definitely want to support our farming industries,” said Modie.

The Pumpkin Patch in Sauvie Island, Ore., founded in 1967, was one of the farms that would have been impacted.

Kari Egger, who co-owns the farm with her husband, Bob, said without a hayride option, the farm’s profits would have been hurt because the pumpkin patch lies a third of a mile from the main entrance, and the pumpkins are huge and would be difficult for some visitors to carry.

The pumpkin patch brings in about half of the farm’s annual sales.

The Eggers had prepared for months to open their pumpkin patch with new safety measures. They ditched a tractor-pulled ride for kids. They scrapped the hay maze and hay pyramid. They set up hand sanitizer stations, pre-picked pumpkin displays and signs reminding visitors that masks are required. They even set up online ticket sales.

“We felt like we went over the top,” said Egger.

So when Egger got the unexpected guidance Thursday, she called state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-District 16, who took up the farmers’ cause.

Because of Johnson’s help, just in time for the weekend, the Oregon Farm Bureau and the agencies crafted new rules for pumpkin patches that farmers say are simpler and more fair.

“Betsy Johnson and the Farm Bureau saved our hineys,” said Egger, “and they saved Halloween.”


Record numbers of CSA customers still buying direct from farms this fall

Nearly seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are still buying food directly from farms in record numbers.

When the pandemic struck in March, subscriptions to CSAs — Community Supported Agriculture — spiked. CSA is a partnership between a farmer and customer in which the customer pays for a membership share in exchange for a weekly box of produce, meat or other goods.

The early “run” on CSAs, experts say, made sense. People felt food-insecure, were uncomfortable about grocery stores and were trying to support local producers.

Several food policy leaders who talked to the Small Ag Press in the spring predicted that by fall, CSA sales would drop as people became more accustomed to grocery shopping and unemployed people found they could no longer afford a CSA subscription.

But the numbers tell a different story.

CSA association leaders across the West say they’re still seeing record numbers of memberships.

CSA membership in 2020 has been 167% higher than in 2019, according to Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or PACSAC.

Hutchason said it’s impossible to compare spring-summer numbers to fall-winter numbers, because fewer farms offer winter shares and more consumers purchase summer shares.

“Winter vegetable selections aren’t as popular: cabbage, radicchio, cauliflower, pumpkin. People are only just starting to recognize radicchio is a vegetable. And people can only deal with so much cabbage,” said Hutchason.

She laughed.

But Hutchason said it is possible to compare this fall to last fall. Doing that, she said, makes it clear CSA interest is booming.

According to the national association CSA Innovation Network, many CSA farms nationwide have already sold out or have waiting lists for winter shares.

“Demand from the spring is carrying over, definitely,” said Emily Cooper, owner of Full Cellar Farm. Cooper runs a year-round CSA near Boring, Ore.

Cooper said last year, she never sold all her winter shares; this year, she is sold out.

“I’m almost all the way filled up almost a month in advance of when (the CSA) normally fills,” said Danny Percich, owner of Full Plate Farm in Ridgefield, Wash.

This week, Percich taught a webinar to 15 farmers interested in learning how to winter farm and start or grow a CSA.

According to Hutchason of PACSAC, last year, her coalition of 85 farms had seven farms offering winter shares; this year, there are 23.

Some farmers are concerned CSAs may present challenges in the long term.

Michelle Wyler, a managing director at the California Alliance of Family Farmers, said many farms offer home delivery, customizable boxes, SNAP benefit processing and easy entry and exit — which may set unreasonable expectations for consumers.

But Hutchason said the most successful CSA farms have always been consumer-focused, kept good business records and been flexible — such as those that poll their consumers at the end of each season to find out what worked and what didn’t.

It may be too early to predict the post-pandemic future of CSAs, said Hutchason, but she’s excited about continued consumer interest.


Switch to retail, delivery pays off

CARLSBAD, Calif. — A third-generation grower who has been in business for more than three decades, Jimmy Ukegawa has seen plenty of ups and downs, and had to regroup and retool his strategies to adapt with the times.

But the pivot he made as the coronavirus pandemic began and shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed in California has paid off in ways he never expected.

He grows strawberries on 25 acres in Carlsbad, a coastal city in San Diego County, and hosts U-pick days when the public can visit and pick all the berries they want. Before COVID-19 began, he had begun expanding operations, using warehouse space to put up a farmstand.

When the lockdown happened, he realized people needed a safe place to go and he thought shopping outdoors would provide that opportunity, especially for families with children who find it challenging to remain indoors for long periods.

Ukegawa expanded the farmstand into a farmers market of sorts, sourcing locally grown produce and locally made foods such as jam, wine, salsa and guacamole, in addition to strawberries.

“It’s been going gangbusters,” Ukegawa said. “Our business has increased 300% to 400% since the pandemic began. People are looking for places to go where they can do something.”

The fact that he is located right by the Interstate 5 corridor has also helped boost agritourism.

He also began including produce he sources from the wholesale market in the deliveries he makes, enabling area customers to choose a la carte items or buy a produce box that varies from week to week and is delivered to their doorstep.

His oldest daughter, Robyn, manages web orders and posts what will be available for delivery each week. She also helps manage the retail stands that are open from 8 a.m to 5 p.m daily.

Ukegawa makes sure he carefully vets the goods and produce that he sources.

“It’s so important for the products and produce to taste good, so customers come back,” he said. “This is a lot like back in the day when shopkeepers would help customers fill out their grocery list.”

Word-of-mouth referrals have helped boost sales in a region that’s known for its strong community roots.

Ukegawa recalled how different this is from when he worked with his father, who ran a 1,500-acre tomato farm and 200-acre strawberry farm. In those days, he was up until 2 a.m packing boxes of tomatoes. Cheaper imports and the high cost of water meant the family had to wind down the extensive operations and sell land.

He took over in 1996 with 25 acres devoted to strawberries, and is now focused on expanding retail and delivery operations for local goods.

“So many people asked us to continue this after the pandemic, so this will become a permanent part of our business,” Ukegawa said.