Commission proposes rules for Agricultural Heritage Program

After four months of meetings, the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Commission has come up with a budget request for state lawmakers to fund grants for farmland conservation, preservation and easements.

The 12-member commission was appointed in January to write administrative rules for the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, established in House Bill 3249 which passed the Legislature in July 2017.

Commissioners are recommending $10 million to run the program, administered by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. The program initially sought $4.25 million, though at the time legislators did not allocate any funding.

OWEB is now seeking public comment on the proposal, with a pair of public meetings scheduled July 16 in Salem and July 17 in Burns.

Nellie McAdams, program coordinator, said the bulk of the money would go toward grants to help Oregon farmers and ranchers develop conservation plans for their property, establish conservation easements or move forward with succession planning to ensure the land remains in agricultural production.

Conserving farmland is essential, McAdams said, not only for the economy and rural communities, but for the environment as well.

“The commission has taken great efforts to integrate both conservation and agricultural outcomes and goals for each of the grant programs,” McAdams said. “This program goes a long way toward ensuring the land can be kept in farming, and can also be a contributor to the ecosystem and conservation values.”

Roughly one-quarter of all land in Oregon — 16.3 million acres — is currently in agricultural production. Over the next 20 years, 10.5 million of those acres will change ownership as the average age of farmers across the state rose to 60 in 2012.

Despite this trend, researchers estimate that most Oregon farms and ranches do not have a succession plan in place, and 84 percent are sole proprietorships. That leaves them vulnerable to being bought and converted to non-farm uses, such as subdivisions, vacation homes and industrial development.

In turn, McAdams said environmental goals become harder to achieve without having larger blocks of open space kept in agricultural production.

“The commission has discussed at great lengths how preventing fragmentation and preventing non-farm uses on farmland can lead to conservation outcomes,” McAdams said.

The Agricultural Heritage Program is intended to complement Oregon’s existing land use planning laws. McAdams said Oregon has lost 500,000 acres from agricultural production and 65,500 acres from Exclusive Farm Use zoning even since the state land use program was adopted in 1974.

Members of the Agricultural Heritage Commission represent a range of interests, from farm production to natural resources and wildlife. The group met seven times since Feb. 1 to write rules for the program, most recently on June 25 at Cascade Locks.

Public hearings are scheduled for 1-4 p.m. July 16 at the Department of State Lands building in Salem, and 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. July 17 at the Harney County Community Center in Burns.

Meta Loftsgaarden, OWEB executive director, said she was impressed at how much the commission was able to accomplish in a short period of time.

“I am floored by the amount of work they got done around the rules,” Loftsgaarden said. “We were really privileged to be working with that group.”