Bill to fund Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program passes committee

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers advanced a bill last week to fund a new program that would provide state grants for projects to protect and conserve farmland.

The House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use voted 5-0 to send House Bill 2729 to the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for determining the state’s budget.

HB 2729 calls for appropriating nearly $10 million from the general fund over the next biennium to subsidize the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, created in 2017 as a voluntary grant program to help farmers and ranchers with easements, succession planning and conservation strategies to ensure working land remains in production.

A 12-member commission met six times in 2018 to write the program rules, which were approved by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board in January. OWEB would administer the program, awarding grants to not only preserve farms, but the fish and wildlife habitat they support.

Ken Bailey, of Orchard View Cherries in The Dalles and a member of the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission, submitted testimony to the House Agriculture and Land Use Committee, saying that Oregon family-owned farms and ranches “face a critical turnover period in the coming years.”

“Continued pressure on our state’s productive agricultural land threatens to fragment working lands and leave us with a patchwork of low-density, unwise development,” Bailey said.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University, Portland State University and Rogue Farm Corps, more than 10 million acres, or 64%, of Oregon’s agricultural lands are bound to change ownership over the next two decades. This comes as the average age of farmers has increased to 60, up from 50 in 2002.

The study also suggests that fewer young people are getting into farming — 24% of all Oregon farmers were beginning farmers in 2012, down from 32% in 2002.

Lois Loop, a fourth-generation Willamette Valley farmer and member of the Agricultural Heritage Commission, also submitted testimony saying that she has seen non-agricultural uses pop up on exclusive farm use land in the region, regardless of state land use laws.

“This program would provide the encouragement needed for working farm families to get succession planning, and provide a way of financing the conservation needs and a method of protecting the heritage of the farm,” Loop said. “This includes the need to continue to produce the food and fiber needed for a growing population.

In addition to paying for grants, HB 2729 provides $738,652 for OWEB to hire three new positions and contract for services provided by the program. Positions include a full-time program coordinator, natural resources specialist and part-time office specialist.

State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, one of the bill’s chief co-sponsors, said farmland and ranches are a critical economic driver for the state.

“It’s important that we preserve our irreplaceable natural resources,” Hansell said. “Funding this program will help farmers and ranchers pass on their agricultural legacies to future generations.”

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, another of the bill’s co-sponsors, also advocated for the program, pointing to bipartisan support and backing from a coalition of farm and environmental groups.

“In this legislative session, we need to either commit to preserving our agricultural heritage and all of its co-benefits, or allow Oregon’s working lands to be further fragmented and sold off in a way that may irreparably harm agricultural and conservation purposes,” Witt said.