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.


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.”


USDA starts team to help beginning farmers, ranchers

USDA is starting a new team to better serve beginning farmers and ranchers.

The 2018 Farm Bill directed the agency to name national and state coordinators to help new producers navigate existing programs more easily. Goals include training staff at the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency and at USDA Rural Development to help new producers conveniently access the agencies’ offerings.

USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinators include Sarah Campbell, national; Denise Adkins, Idaho; Kathy Ferge, Oregon; and Cara McNab, Washington.

“We have been focused on helping new farmers and ranchers, and a lot of things are word-of-mouth,” Adkins, with the NRCS Idaho state office in Boise, said in an interview. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher program aims to “give a broader understanding of what each agency does and how it can help.”

For example, a farmer interested in an NRCS grant program that can help pay for an efficiency upgrade such as a new sprinkler setup could find out about it while interacting with another USDA agency, whether at a state or field office.

“Training is going to drive a lot of that,” Adkins said. In-house instruction is gaining momentum after being slowed by COVID-19.

NRCS Idaho spokeswoman Mindi Rambo said public outreach will follow, including preparation of educational materials available to people interacting with USDA, or participating in university extension courses or other agriculture events.

Need for a coordinated approach is driven in part by demographics, as the average age of a U.S. farmer increased by 1.2 years to 57.5 between 2012 and 2017, according to the latest Census of Agriculture, which also said 27% of farmers had less than 10 years of experience.

FSA in Idaho also is involved in Beginning Farmer and Rancher training and outreach.

“There are almost 25,000 farm operations in Idaho, and of that, the number of producers age 45 and below is about 5,000,” FSA Idaho State Executive Director Tom Dayley said.

He said the state’s young-producer headcount rose nearly 13.7%, from 4,106 as of the 2012 Census of Ag to 4,668 in 2017.

“We are moving in the right direction clearly, but it still shows that we need to figure out a way to make it (farming) attractive, but once it is attractive to a younger person as a career choice, facilitate them to be able to make that choice,” Dayley said.

Adkins said NRCS in fiscal 2019 funded 166 contracts in Idaho to beginning farmers and ranchers, for about $5.3 million on 15,000 acres combined.

The group accounted for 45% of all NRCS Idaho contracts in 2019 and has generated 39% of applications so far in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Adkins, who has worked for NRCS since 2004, is joined on the Idaho Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordination team by Susan Smith, farm loan specialist with FSA; Anastasia Griffin, risk-management specialist with RMA, and Dale Lish, area director with USDA Rural Development.

Each state coordinator will develop beginning-farmer outreach plans, help employees to better reach and serve beginning producers, and be available themselves to assist in navigating programs.

Dayley said USDA in the new program wants to make sure personnel at the various agencies, working together, also can help young farmers and ranchers operate successfully after first accessing programs.


Small Farm School goes online

Registration for Oregon State University’s Small Farm School opens Aug. 18.

This year offered as an online event because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is a collaboration of OSU, Clackamas Community College, Clackamas Soil and Water District, Rogue Farm Corps and Friends of Family Farmers.

Small Farm School 2020 will be a series of online sessions running Tuesday and Thursday evenings from Sept. 15 through Nov. 19. The sessions will be presented from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Classes will include: Poultry for Beginning Farmers, Field to Market Food Safety from Farm to Kitchen, Racism in Oregon Agriculture, Equitable Food Access: Hear from Farmers in the Field, Pasture Management, How to start a farm business, Developing a Brand Identity, Dry Farming: Vegetable Crops in the Maritime Pacific Northwest, Sustainable Hemp Production Growing Hemp Responsibly,
Data Tracking on your farm, Equitable Food Access: How to contribute to Oregon’s Food Sovereignty Network, CSA in a pandemic, Cut Flowers, Weed control, Winter vegetables in the PNW growing and marketing, Bookkeeping Practices, Regenerative Ag/ Soil Ecology, and Farming while black: Documentary and discussion w/FOFF.

For more information, go the the event’s website.


Here’s a course for small farmers and ranchers

Washington State University Extension is taking registration for a 12-week online course from small-scale farmers and ranchers.

Sustainable Small-Acreage Farming and Ranching will be presented via Zoom on Tuesday evenings from Sept. 22 through Dec. 8. The course is for small- and medium-sized producers, or those who plan to start farming.

“Sponsored by WSU Snohomish County Extension, Snohomish Conservation District, and King Conservation District, the course gives participants a broad overview of production and marketing options for today’s small farm,” according to the event website.  “Whether you are just exploring the opportunities available or already have an existing operation, you’ll learn what it takes to create, sustain, and grow a viable small farm enterprise.”

“Weekly presentations include local growers, organizations, and university specialists with expertise in direct marketing, value-added processing, production planning, agronomy, livestock production, and more. In addition to a wealth of resources on a broad variety of ag-related topics, students will also receive a copy of Market Farm Success by Lynn Byczynski”

The instructors are Kate Ryan, a grower and Agriculture Program Coordinator for WSU Snohomish County Extension, and Bobbi Lindemulder, a cattle rancher and District Operations Program Manager for the Snohomish Conservation District.

Class size is limited, and participants must pre-pay a $200 per family registration fee. To register, and to get more information, go to the event website.


Who USDA’s farm aid package leaves behind

USDA began taking applications for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP, May 26, which will deliver $16 billion in direct payments to farms hurt by the pandemic.

Farm Service Agency branches will handle applications.

“It’s been a collective breath of relief. Things will continue to be tight, but this will mitigate those first quarter losses,” said Shelby Myers, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Many industry leaders have expressed excitement about how the relief package will help agribusinesses. But some say CFAP’s structure is flawed and excludes thousands of farmers and ranchers in crisis.

CFAP outlines some exclusions clearly. Ineligible commodities include sheep more than two years old, eggs and layers, soft red winter wheat, hard red winter wheat, white wheat, rice, flax, rye, peanuts, feed barley, Extra Long Staple cotton, alfalfa, forage crops, hemp and tobacco.

Northwest wheat growers say they are concerned because hard and soft red winter wheat, along with soft white wheat, account for the majority of wheat grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. State and national wheat associations are calling on USDA to make all wheat classes eligible for CFAP aid.

“We are struggling with cash flow like all other farmers and ranchers throughout the nation,” Clint Carlson, Oregon Wheat Growers League president, said in a statement.

Some major agricultural sectors, like poultry growers, went unmentioned.

“Poultry is the big one on our minds and the minds of our members,” said Myers.

The American Farm Bureau, she said, is talking with USDA to understand why poultry producers are not eligible for aid.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Association, told the Capital Press his members will not submit comments yet requesting inclusion, but will seek aid in a possible phase four relief package.

Other sectors, including aquaculture, cut flowers and nursery products, were also excluded.

“For the moment, nursery and greenhouse growers find themselves in a no-man’s land, on one hand described in the rule as ‘other eligible crops,’ but on the other hand, not actually yet eligible to apply for relief at this time,” Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, said in a statement.

A USDA spokesman said the agency encourages ineligible producers who believe they’ve suffered a 5% or greater price decline from January to April 2020 to submit comments.

The Federal Register, which allows people to comment on proposed rules and plans, opened last week for public comment on CFAP. Critics say this leaves little time for farmers to demonstrate need.

But even after applications open, said Myers of the Farm Bureau, USDA and FSA branches are eager for input and will be “receptive to any information.”

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, or OAN, said his organization is seeking an easier way for members to comment instead of using the Federal Register, but said this is “far from a criticism of USDA.”

Stone told the Capital Press that OAN leaders had a “great conversation” with one of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s senior staff members this week about industry needs.

Whether cut flower growers will get financial help is still uncertain, experts say.

Erin McMullen, board member for the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, told the Capital Press the board is meeting Friday to decide what to do during these “unprecedented times.”

“I’m really worried about flower farmers right now,” said Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Highly specialized industries, such as bison and beefalo, are also not currently eligible.

CFAP’s critics say direct exclusion is not the only problem. Even eligible farmers face other barriers.

Although small-scale and organic farms are eligible, trade association leaders say CFAP may not serve these groups well because payments are based on national average prices and not actual losses. While payments based on price may work for conventional and large farms, farmers with premium markets say the money won’t cover losses.

Ackoff said a small-scale grower lost $20,000 on premium-market potatoes, but calculated CFAP would reimburse him only $800. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.

Ackoff said young farmers, especially first-generation and minority farmers, are likely to miss out on aid. She said they are more likely to be unfamiliar with FSA operations, to grow for premium or niche markets that won’t show price changes even though losses were great and tend to have limited or no support staff.

“We’ve been advocating for USDA to set aside funds for some of these disadvantaged farmers. I’m really disappointed that hasn’t happened,” said Ackoff.

According to USDA statements, CFAP will operate on a first-come, first-serve basis similar to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said this gives an advantage to businesses with accounting infrastructure and simple production systems.

Myers of the American Farm Bureau encourages farmers to track every price and purchase date, keep inventory and familiarize themselves with required documents in advance at https://www.farmers.gov/cfap.

Myers said she understands the fear and frustration some farmers feel with CFAP’s structure, but she said this program overall is a big win for agriculture.

“My advice is, as always with programs this complicated, be patient with the people trying to put this together at USDA,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll all get through this together.”


OSU has COVID-19 resources for small farmers

The Oregon State University Small Farms Program has a website devoted to resources to help small farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Access to credible information is important during any public health crisis,” according to the site. “Faculty in the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food systems are working with community partners to provide current information that is relevant for small farms and local food systems.”

The site provides information about the virus itself — how it’s spread, safety practices and how to deal with employees during the outbreak. It also provides information about financial resources and ways farmers can change their businesses to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the outbreak.


New WSU pollinator center to address bee health

OTHELLO, Wash. — Two years ago, the Hiatt Honey Co. in Ephrata, Wash., lost roughly 10,000 hives to diseases and pests.

That’s about 53% of its hives, co-owner Chris Hiatt said.

It was the worst loss since 2004, when the company lost 8,000 to 9,000 hives, Hiatt said.

“This past year was only 33%, so that’s great,” Hiatt told the Capital Press. “Isn’t that crazy for me to say only? The national average was 40% last year. Everyone just expects to lose 30 to 40% through the whole year (to) mites, virus, pesticide pressure.”

Hiatt was one of the speakers during the March 6 ribbon cutting of Washington State University’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator research, extension and education facility. It is designed to help protect and improve pollinator health.

The university purchased the Othello, Wash., building, formerly owned by Monsanto and used for research and corn growing operations, for $2.5 million in June 2019.

No bees were yet at the center during the March 6 ceremony. They were in California pollinating almonds and will be moved to Yakima to pollinate cherries this week, said Brandon Hopkins, entomology assistant research professor.

The university has roughly 100 colonies, each with 40,000 bees. The center will eventually run 400 to 500 colonies, Hopkins said.

The new facility will scientifically seek solutions such as mite treatments or virus controls, any of which would be helpful, Hiatt said.

About six top universities for bee research, including WSU, are working to find answers for the hive losses, he said.

“Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply,” said Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “Bees are threatened by a host of challenges, and they need our help.”

Honeybees are “key to the existence of agriculture and, I guess you could argue, to the existence of humans on this planet,”  U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

Hiatt said it’s hard to measure how quickly the center’s effects will be felt in the industry.

The facility will allow researchers to collaborate with seed producers and other farmers, Hopkins said.

For example, WSU pollinator ecology professor Steve Sheppard is leading an experiment in which mushroom extracts are being tested as a way to help bees combat viruses.

Hiatt said bringing the extracts to market would be huge.

“It’s urgent, it’s super-urgent,” he said. “Honey price is down, (the price of) pollination is up, but these high losses just make it harder to stay in business.”


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.”