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.”


Bill introduced in Congress to aid farms that CFAP missed

Help may be on the way for direct-market farms during COVID-19 — that is, if Congress makes a move.

Last week, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced the Local and Regional Farmer and Market Support Act, aimed at helping farms that other aid programs have overlooked.

The bill is similar to USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP. But it’s smaller — about $1 billion versus CFAP’s $16 billion — and it targets farmers CFAP missed.

The bill, if passed, would create a payment relief program for farmers that sell direct-to-consumer — mainly in local and regional markets. It would also funnel $25 million into a grant pool to help farmers with direct marketing expenses, another $25 million to help farmers markets and similar organizations pay for infrastructure changes like public health installations and $50 million in targeted assistance to minority farm communities and farmers of color.

To qualify, a farm must get 25% or more of its sales income directly from consumers. This includes a variety of hybrid models, including farmers markets, CSAs, regional cooperatives and local food hubs.

Advocates say the bill is crucial to help farmers in direct-to-consumer markets.

Although many small-scale and organic farms are technically eligible for CFAP aid, trade association leaders say the law does not serve these groups well. That’s because USDA calculates CFAP payments based on national average prices. Farmers with premium markets say CFAP does not cover their losses and pays them mere pennies on the dollar.

“The original prices per pound proposed in CFAP were often laughable to farmers in specialty, local, regional and direct markets,” said Amy Wong, policy director at Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon grassroots nonprofit.

One premium-market potato grower, for example, lost $20,000, but calculated CFAP would only reimburse him $800, she said. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.

Instead of following CFAP’s price index model, the new bill would base payments on a farm’s historic revenue.

Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said his organization has been advocating a revenue-based approach all along, even when CFAP was introduced. Deeble didn’t get his way last spring, but he said he hopes this bill will pass.

“Conversations among legislators so far have been very, very good — constructive,” he said.

But a policy analyst familiar with the bill who did not wish to be identified told the Capital Press that Congress appears to have higher priorities than this bill — debates over the next federal relief package, unemployment benefits and the impending election.

This bill, the source said, is likely low on legislators’ list of concerns. And because Congress hasn’t exhibited much bipartisan cooperation of late, it looks a bit like a lame duck session even before the real lame duck session after the election.

Nevertheless, farm advocacy groups continue to press legislators to move the bill forward.

“I’ve heard from so many small farms in need all across Oregon, and I’m hopeful this will pass for their sake,” said Wong of the nonprofit.


Four small farms on West Coast receive grants

JUNCTION CITY, Ore. — Four West Coast farms in California, Oregon and Washington were selected Wednesday among 15 recipients nationwide for a 2020 grant supporting small, independent farms.

The FruitGuys Community Fund awarded more than $51,000 to small farms and agricultural nonprofits in 14 states to support environmental and sustainability projects.

This year’s grantees include Rancho Charanda in Redlands, Calif., a farm that grows citrus, chile peppers and native foods; Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas, Calif., which grows Asian heritage vegetables; Thompson Creek Farm in Newman Lake, Wash., which produces organic vegetables, berries and fruit; and Hollyaire Farm in Junction City, Ore., which produces holly, sour cherries, hazelnuts and other crops.

“We’re really excited about getting this grant,” said Ladonna Avakian, 32, co-owner of 80-acre Hollyaire Farm. “Taking care of the land is a passion for me.”

It was raining. Avakian let hazelnut leaves slip through her fingers as she threaded through the muddy orchard.

Avakian co-owns and runs the farm with her twin sister, Heather Paterson. Avakian brings her environmental science background to the farm, and Paterson brings business knowledge.

Together, they run a no-spray operation with vegetables, herbs, eggs, apples, hazelnuts, sour cherries, pumpkins, holly and more.

“It’s so important to us to grow things naturally,” said Paterson, “not just for the communities we feed, but also for our own kids.”

Hollyaire Farm sells produce at its farmstand in Harrisburg, Ore., and wholesales to other local farms and businesses like Junction City-based Hentze Farms.

With $3,650 in funding from The FruitGuys, Hollyaire Farm is investing in bat and owl boxes to encourage natural pest control, building beehives and constructing high tunnels, similar to greenhouses, to extend the growing season.

The farm is also planting 50 fruit trees, and the sisters have committed to donate a portion of the fruit to low-income families.

As disabled veterans — Paterson was exposed to chemical warfare and Avakian suffered a traumatic head injury — the women say they also bring a commitment to service.

“What better way to serve people than to grow food for them and…,” Paterson started, “…to make sure they have enough to eat,” Avakian added.

The sisters often finished each other’s sentences.

Founded in 2012, the FruitGuys Community Fund provides micro-grants of up to $5,000 to small farms with fewer than 300 acres that already have a big positive impact on local food systems, the environment and farm diversity and that plan to use the grant to further those goals.

To date, the fund has awarded $326,000 to 84 small farms in 30 states.

“The grant is all about preserving and enhancing farmland with sustainable management practices,” said Sheila Cassani, the project’s director. “We’ve funded pest management projects, alternative energy sources, water catchment systems, pollination, soil health, so many things.”

The FruitGuys is a fruit delivery company that works with local farms across the U.S., and this grant program, Cassani said, is the company’s way of giving back.

Of the 2020 grantees, 80% are owned or managed by women or people of color.

Cassani said many farms were selected based on their community engagement.

For example, Rebecca Woollett, who co-owns Thompson Creek Farm with her partner, Marcus Intinarelli, said they will use a portion of the grant to teach community workshops at a local Grange hall about how to save and package seeds.

Woollett said the remainder of the grant will go toward advancing seed production, building owl and bat boxes and installing “caterpillar tunnels” to protect crops from rain and hail.

Out of the 15 grantees, 14 are focused on increasing food access for low-income communities.

Hollyaire Farm, in addition to its seasonal farmstand, sells fruits and nuts at a gas station and truck stop, works with local food banks including FOOD for Lane County and is working to fill the salad bar for students in Junction City School District when schools reopen this fall.

“These projects are all things we would’ve done either way, with or without the grant funds,” said Paterson. “But having the support makes such a difference and lets us do even more to be sustainable and feed our community.”


Farmers join rush for SBA relief loans

Farmers and agribusiness owners across the U.S. are racing to apply at banks, credit unions and agricultural lenders for small business loans that are part of a COVID-19 federal relief package — before the money runs out.

The Payment Protection Program, run by the U.S. Small Business Administration, authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to support payroll so small businesses can keep workers employed during the pandemic.

The program is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Congress passed and the president signed March 27 to stimulate a virus-crippled economy.

The aid comes at a critical time when farms — especially those wracked by lost profits from displaced restaurant and wholesale markets — are hurting, industry leaders say. But because demand for PPP loans has been enormous, the loan pool is quickly evaporating.

“We expect the money to run out by the end of the week unless Congress puts more in the system,” said Tom Van Hoose, president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, the national trade association for 72 farm credit system lenders across the U.S.

Monday, the Paycheck Protection Program had already approved 880,000 applications totaling $217 billion, or 62% of allocated dollars, according to SBA figures.

Within just 36 hours of launching PPP, Columbia Bank, a commercial bank with locations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, received more loan requests than would typically be received in six to eight months and can handle no new applications, said a spokesperson.

“A lot of anxious farmers want to apply,” said Mark Hayes, spokesperson for the Farm Credit Council.

PPP loans are not just for agriculture. Across sectors, small businesses with fewer than 500 employees are eligible to apply.

According to SBA, businesses can apply for a loan up to 2 1/2 times their monthly payroll — enough to keep their workers employed two more months.

SBA will forgive all PPP loans if a business keeps all its employees on payroll for eight weeks and at least 75% of the loan is used for payroll. The remainder can be used for utilities, rent or mortgage interest. If a business breaks a requirement, the aid converts to a two-year loan at 1% interest.

Experts say non-agricultural lenders were typically first to get applications processed.

Hayes said this is because many banks and credit unions were already SBA lenders and could start immediate processing, while the farm credit system was new to working with SBA and “had a lot of government agency hurdles to get through.”

Van Hoose estimates only 20 to 25 of the 72 farm credit programs are ready to process applications.

“It’s been chaotic,” said Van Hoose. “Really, our lenders are just getting started right when the money is about to run out.”

The Farm Credit Council encourages farmers to consult with their local agricultural lenders, but said farmers with relationships with commercial SBA-lender banks should apply there first.

Although applications won’t be processed once money runs out, the Farm Credit Council encourages farms to apply anyway so they will be at the top of the queue if Congress approves more money later.

Van Hoose and Hayes say they hope Congress will recognize agricultural industry needs and increase loan resources.

“Farms have been hurting for a long time, and now they’re really hurting in this pandemic,” said Hayes. “This is timely assistance, but it’s a finite pool of money and I hope more help is on the way.”


Court grants temporary stay in organic lawsuit

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has granted USDA’s motion to stay summary judgment proceedings in a lawsuit against the agency over its withdrawal of a new organic livestock rule.

USDA asked the court to grant a stay and a voluntary remand of the rule to correct a series of admitted flaws in the cost-and-benefit analysis in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, according to court records.

Federal District Judge Rosemary Collyer granted the motion but set a deadline of 180 days for USDA to publish a final rule explaining its updated analysis to ensure timely action.

“This lawsuit represents the administrative process at its never-ending worst,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

She pointed out that USDA issued the final rule after 10 years of work, delayed implementation three times and then withdrew the rule.

The organic rule, finalized in the last days of the Obama administration in January 2017, included new standards for raising, transporting and slaughtering organic animals.

It was set to go into effect in March 2017, but implementation was delayed by an executive order from President Trump staying all pending regulations. USDA delayed implementation again in May and November of that year and withdrew the rule in March 2018.

At that time, USDA stated the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the National Organic Program.

The Organic Trade Association challenged the delays in court in September 2017, amending its complaint twice and challenging USDA’s withdrawal of the rule.

OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in October 2019 and, after two extensions, USDA was expected to file an opposition when it suddenly asked for remand, according to court documents.

OTA’s challenges to the withdrawal of the rule involve USDA’s conclusion the rule exceeded the agency’s authority and that the withdrawal rule contained errors in its economic analysis.

OTA urged the court to deny USDA’s motion for a stay and remand and address the fundamental issue of USDA’s authority.

“The court is sympathetic to OTA but rules (and cases) are best decided on a completed record,” Collyer stated in her ruling.

Any interim decision would be negated by USDA’s action in amending its reasoning, or action by USDA could render the issues moot, she said.

OTA said in a statement it welcomes the court-ordered deadline because of USDA’s willingness to drag out the rulemaking process and thwart the will of the organic industry.

The organization said it is confident the rule will be reinstated.

“At the end of the day and despite this delay, we are more confident than ever that our arguments will prevail and that the will of the industry will be served,” OTA stated.


ODA taking applications for Organic Certification Cost Share Program

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allocated more than $17.4 million for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) nationwide. Oregon was awarded $284,000 up from $258,000 in 2017. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is a USDA-accredited certifying agent for organic crop production and handling/processing. The purpose of the OCCSP is to reimburse organic operations for specific organic certification costs. Oregon is fourth in the nation in the sales of certified organic commodities.

“The cost of organic certification should not be a barrier for Oregon producers wanting to compete in the organic marketplace,” said ODA, Director Alexis Taylor. “Oregon is very competitive in the organic industry, with more than $351 million in annual sales and nearly 194,000 acres in production statewide and climbing. Our goal is to make these funds widely available in order to increase the opportunities for producers to contribute to the Oregon’s agricultural economy.”

The USDA is authorized by Congress to provide organic certification cost share assistance to Oregon producers or handlers who have paid eligible costs during the period of October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019.  Oregon producers or handlers that receive certification or renew their certification from a USDA accredited certifier are eligible to receive reimbursement for 75 percent of eligible certification fees, up to a maximum of $750 per annual certification scope.

Complete applications and all necessary documents with proof of payment between October 1, 2018 – September 30, 2019 must be submitted by October 31, 2019. Reimbursements will be made on a first come first serve basis until all available funds have been disbursed. Please allow 3-4 weeks to receive reimbursement.

ODA is now accepting OCCSP applications. For more information please visit the ODA webpage or contact the OCCSP at organiccostshare@oda.state.or.us or 503-986-6473


WSDA: Don’t put CBD from hemp in food products

Washington’s licensed food processors could lose points off inspection scores if caught adding cannabidiol to their products, state regulators say, adding that hemp’s hottest product has not been approved as an ingredient by the Food and Drug Administration.

The ban on making CBD-infused food and beverages likely will affect only a handful of the couple thousand food processors inspected by the state Department of Agriculture’s food-safety division, officials said Monday.

CBD is ostensibly regulated by the FDA, even though demand for CBD candy, honey, beverages and other edibles is helping drive the hemp boom. The department does not plan to raid stores.

“We understand the cat’s out of the bag,” said Steve Fuller, the department’s assistant director for food safety. “However, people want to know what’s legal. We need to clarify that for people.”

The department’s policy also prohibits food warehouses licensed by the agriculture department from distributing CBD-infused food and drink to in-state retailers. The products can be sent out-of-state.

“We’re not regulating interstate commerce, but we are regulating

distribution within the state of Washington,” Fuller said.

Washington’s ban on using CBD as a food ingredient won’t prohibit state-licensed hemp processors from making and selling the oil to marijuana retailers. The department’s policy also doesn’t prohibit farmers from growing hemp for CBD production.

Industrial Hemp Association Washington lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson said most hemp farmers are growing the crop for CBD. She said doesn’t expect the food-safety division’s stance to slow the industry.

She said she doesn’t know of any hemp processor who will be affected and that she expects the FDA and USDA to soon announce federal rules that will clarify CBD’s status.

Washington has 86 hemp processors licensed by the agriculture department’s Commodity Inspection Division, not the food-safety division.

The commodity division is inspecting hemp farms, but doesn’t plan on inspecting hemp processors unless it receives a complaint, the division’s head, Jessica Allenton, said.

A food processor or warehouse inspected by the food-safety division must score at least 90 out of 100 to pass. Using or distributing CBD likely will knock a “couple points” off the score, David Smith, the food-safety program manager, said.

The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the federal controlled substances list. The hemp industry, however, continues to operate in gray areas.

Oregon law allows any hemp product, including CBD, to be added to food. More-cautious Washington lawmakers, however, have chosen to follow the FDA’s lead.

The FDA last year approved CBD as the active ingredient in the drug Epidiolex to treat seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy.

Active ingredients in drugs can’t be added to food or animal feed sold across state lines, according to the FDA, therefore the interstate trafficking of CBD-infused products is illegal.

FDA enforcement has been focused on sending warning letters to businesses making unsubstantiated health claims about CBD.

The FDA has been taking public comments on whether it should allow more uses of CBD.

“If the FDA approves food ingredient uses for hemp extracts like CBD, those uses would be allowed under state law,” according to a policy statement from the Washington Department of Agriculture.

CBD is a chemical component of cannabis. CBD does not intoxicate, but trials leading to the approval of Epidiolex found side effects such as lethargy, mild liver damage and depression, according to the FDA.

Hemp seeds, or grain, can be used in food. The FDA has recognized that ingredient as safe.


Commentary: Farmland loss is a national crisis, and felt mightily in West

By Hannah Clark

American Farmland Trust

Anyone who has taken a recent drive in America’s western states can see first-hand what we at American Farmland Trust have been saying for years: our farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Between 1992 and 2012, 31 million acres of farmland and ranchland disappeared according to research from our recently released “Farms Under Threat” analysis — the most comprehensive study ever on agricultural land loss in the U.S.

While 31 million acres may not sound like a lot, at AFT, it set off alarm bells. It represents as much agricultural land as is in the state of Iowa. And, perhaps more importantly, 11 million of those acres were our best and most productive agricultural land — land most suitable for intensive food production with the fewest environmental impacts.

In a region so important to the nation’s food supply, AFT’s mantra and famous bumper sticker, “No Farms No Food,” is more poignant than ever. This region grows over 300 commodity crops, from apples and cherries, to potatoes, to sweet corn seed, to hops. It also has one of the fastest growing populations in the nation, and with that comes the demand for housing, shopping malls, schools, and highways — all resources that eat up farmland.

If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of local farmland and ranchland — not just for delicious food and as a pillar of our economy, but also for the many important environmental benefits it provides — we must come together as Westerners to take action now.

This was made abundantly clear in the recent article, “Western farmland continues to disappear,” by Brad Carlson in the Capital Press.

Let me reiterate and even illuminate important points made in Mr. Carlson’s article.

The numbers coming out of Idaho, as noted in the article, and the numbers coming out of the West in terms of farmland loss are downright scary. We need local and state officials to pay attention to this and to invest in funding and tools for farmland protection.

It is also important to consider how one allows development to happen. Planning is important. Urban sprawl and low-density development are both very damaging to farmland. It is easy to recognize urban sprawl and perhaps simplest to address, compact growth strategies have worked well in communities. Low density development poses an equal threat to farmland, but is insidious, often not recognized before it is too late. This is development that pops up in rural areas creating pockets of houses surrounded by farmland.

Not only does this kind of development chew up prime land, it makes it more difficult for farmers to farm and often leads to the disappearance of key farming services and infrastructure like equipment and seed dealers.

Investing in tools like agricultural conservation easements is also critical. Agricultural conservation easements are a way to keep working farmland and ranchland working, forever — by extinguishing the development rights on a property and compensating the landowner for the value of those development rights. The land stays in production and in private ownership and can be sold or handed down to heirs — but with the promise that it will not be taken out of agriculture.

These issues get more and more critical with a massive generational transfer of land on the horizon. In Oregon alone, two-thirds of the agricultural land will change hands in the next decade or so — and the majority of those landowners don’t have an identified heir or succession plan. Across the West, including in Idaho, AFT is advancing programming to help a new generation of new and beginning farmers access land.

We need to double down on protecting agricultural land in the West.

In Washington state, we’re calling on the legislature to continue investing in the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, the only state source of funding for farmland protection.

In Oregon, the legislature has an opportunity to fund the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which would be the first state funding source for agricultural land protection and supporting a new generation of farmers.

And in Idaho, we are calling on elected leaders, especially in the Treasure Valley, to ensure good planning to protect our land base — and invest in supporting farmers and ranchers.

Perhaps it’s even time to consider a funding source for agricultural conservation easements in Idaho. After all — No Farms No Food and perhaps even, No Future!

Hannah Clark is AFT’s Pacific Northwest region director. She previously served as the executive director of the Washington Association of Land Trusts, a statewide coalition of 28 land conservation organizations dedicated to private voluntary land protection. Get in touch with Hannah at hclark@farmland.org.
 


How produce safety rule impacts small farms

Blueberry pickers had come to glean the berries left over after harvest and donate them to hungry families in Salem, Ore.

Pat Zurbrugg, owner of Zurbrugg Blueberries, stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged as he watched the gleaners.

“I’m glad to donate my berries to people in need,” he said. “But there wasn’t always so much excess until I switched to U-pick.”

Zurbrugg changed to U-pick because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new produce safety rule made it difficult for him to continue processing his berries.

“For a busy small farm like mine, it’s very expensive and time-consuming to follow the rule,” said Zurbrugg.

The produce safety rule, part of the FDA’s Food and Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was created to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

The rule gives the government more oversight over farms — inspecting irrigation water for dangerous bacteria, making sure workers wash their hands and protecting against animal droppings, for example.

Joy Waite-Cusic, food safety researcher at Oregon State University, said most farmers were already following safety practices, but FDA made the rule in response to outbreaks linked to fresh foods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48,0000 people in the U.S. — one in six — get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die annually.

Much of that illness can be attributed to improper handling at the consumer and retail level, but some can be traced back to the farm. According to the National Institutes of Health, outbreaks linked to fresh produce were the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. in 2016.

The rule, though intended to protect consumers, has made it harder for some farms to stay in business.

Oregon Blueberry Commission Administrator  Bryan Ostlund said the rule has both positive and negative sides. It’s positive, Ostlund said, because it improves safety education and practices. “We need farms to understand food safety better, and this rule helps with that,” he said.

But Ostlund said the rule costs farmers time and money. Farmers must keep records, train employees and get inspections. Although the FDA does not charge for standard inspections, some farms need to buy new equipment or hire staff for record-keeping.

“It’s a good rule in many ways, but no one wants more bureaucracy,” said Ostlund. “It’s a march forward, but also a fall back. How does a small-scale farm keep up administratively? How do farmers survive?”

According to Waite-Cusic of OSU, some farms are exempt — such as those with average produce sales of less than $25,000 annually. But for farms big enough to fall under the rule yet small enough that income is tight, the rule creates a burden.

“Those farms are in a financial pinch,” said Waite-Cusic. “They’re impacted the most. They typically run a very lean operation, and they may not be able to afford a record-keeper or food safety staffer. So some are going out of business.”

But not every farmer dislikes the rule.

Greg Bennett, owner of Northwest Onion Co. in Brooks, Ore. said the rule is worth the extra work.

“There’s more training and accountability,” he said. “We’re protecting consumers better. We’ve got more peace of mind that people won’t get sick. The rule protects us, too. If we get into a food recall, we have the documentation behind us to back up our story. But it’s more work. We have a lot more dividers in our notebooks now.”

Waite-Cusic said resources are available to help farms comply with the rule without hurting their businesses. Farmers can request free consultations — called on-farm readiness reviews — with Oregon Department of Agriculture and OSU Extension staff.

Waite-Cusic said resources are under-utilized, and grant money to support the consultations may run out in 2020.

“This is one of the only ways you’ll ever get your tax dollars back,” she said, and laughed. “I want to keep farms in business and keep people from getting sick — a win-win.”


Western farmland continues to disappear

CANYON COUNTY, Idaho — Mike Somerville’s horse-hay operation between Caldwell and Marsing, Idaho, is surrounded by farms.

But like many others in the area, he’s concerned about a potential wave of development flooding the area with new houses and other uses.

“Our local officials need to be more sensitive to the values of agricultural land as compared to the developer, who just wants to buy land and develop it without any consideration of the land around it,” said Somerville, who is also a Canyon Soil Conservation District board member and a state Association of Soil Conservation Districts regional director.

Last month’s 2017 Census of Agriculture charts a 20-year decline in farmland across the Northwest and California. The drop is significant nationwide but in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, it is especially troubling.

Between 1997 and 2017, crop acres fell 13.7% in Oregon, 9.7% in Washington, 8.7% in Idaho and 13.2% in California. Nationwide, the average shrinkage was 10.9%.

During the same 20 years, the number of pasture acres dropped by 11.25% in Oregon, 17.4% in Washington, 7.6% in Idaho and 22.5% in California. Nationwide, the acreage was about even.

While those numbers are daunting, the shrinkage in farmland has slowed in some parts of the West.

For example, Marion County, the heart of Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, reported 9.7% fewer crop acres in 2017 compared to 1997. However, the trend reversed after 2012, and was up 8.7% by 2017 as more farmland was put into production for such crops as hazelnuts.

In Canyon County, Idaho, where Somerville farms, crop acres were down 9.5% from 1997 but are up 0.72% since 2012. Pasture acres fell 65.8% from 1997 to 2017.

Just east of Canyon County in Ada County, which includes Boise, Meridian and Eagle, cropland acres dropped 31.5% in 20 years but rebounded 17.6% between 2012 and 2017.

Defining farms
Part of the change in cropland can be attributed to how USDA counts it. USDA says a “farm” produces or sells at least $1,000 in agricultural products in the survey year, or would normally. Because of that, changes in the amount of land in farms don’t always directly equate to direct gains or losses of agricultural land.

The USDA also says enough agricultural activity can warrant categorizing land as farmland even though it doesn’t meet the $1,000 threshold.

Chris Mertz, director of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Northwest Regional Field Office in Olympia, said in Washington in 2017, 35% of farms reported sales of less than $1,000 but had enough ag activity to be considered a farm. The percentages were 31 in Oregon and 30 in Idaho.

Idle cropland and Conservation Reserve Program ground receiving federal government payments are considered farmland, as are animal and tree operations, he said. Government-leased grazing land is not, although cattle are counted separately. Also not considered farmland: pasture less than 100 acres lacking ag activity.

‘Hopscotch’ development
About 12 years ago, Somerville retired as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist for Arizona and bought his 40-acre, irrigated farm in Idaho.

Arizona allows agricultural land to be developed only if it adjoins a municipality. This is in contrast to “hopscotch” or “spot” development seen in parts of southwest Idaho for the past two decades.

“There have been 40-acre developments put in Canyon County with cropland surrounding the whole thing,” Somerville said.

NRCS, community planning groups and others have data about land characteristics ranging from soil quality and climate patterns to water availability. There is potential to tap it more, he said.

“Some land is more valuable as agricultural,” Somerville said. “But the prime land is also cheapest to develop because it has fewer limitations.”

His farm was wind-eroded when he bought it following years of low-residue crop production in sandy soil. Locally, he has also seen low-value crops planted on high-quality land. Typically, he said, that happens when a landowner is biding time before developing the land.

Preserving farmland
Farmers can help stem land loss by planting the right crops in the right places, Somerville said. This could narrow the gap between a parcel’s agricultural value and its development value, ultimately reducing the incentive for builders to buy extra land just because it is cheap.

As importantly, preserving farmland requires farmers and others to be involved, he said.

“We always say farmers are forced to sell,” Somerville said. “You are not forced to sell. You have to participate in this process with city and county government and with the whole community. We are not just independently out here farming. We are participating in a whole-community process.”

Canyon County Development Services Director Tricia Nilsson said an agriculture committee operating for the past 18 months has identified several agricultural areas worth preserving. The county will soon consider the committee’s input in updating its 2012 comprehensive plan.

“It fluctuates, but generally over 90% of the population growth is happening within city limits,” she said. “We do have a lot of growth, but we also have a lot of investment in agriculture and a lot more processing of commodities.

“One thing the ag committee is talking about is supply chain to our processing in Canyon County and elsewhere in Idaho,” Nilsson said. “It’s not land waiting to get developed. It is serving a huge economic purpose today.”

Other losses
Oregon Department of Agriculture Land Use and Water Planning Coordinator Jim Johnson said not all farmland losses are in urban areas. Land in farms in mostly rural Klamath County fell about 26% from 2012 to 2017 for reasons that include water shutoffs and drought.

Oregon land-use law aims to preserve farmland but is not a cure-all.

“A lot of people always look at conversion to be some some subset to urbanization, and that is true,” Johnson said. “But there are some 50 non-farm-related uses that can be approved in the Exclusive Farm Use Zone.” Energy generation and utilities, aggregate mining, golf courses, parks and other recreation uses are examples.

Some good news: “Oregon’s statewide trend is still land going out of production, but at a much slower rate,” he said.