Land Use Planning in Oregon

This past week I was asked to speak with a panel of other speakers about what it’s like as a young farmer in Oregon, what are the challenges and what are the benefits, all having to do with Land Use Planning.  Oregon has a very complex, yet very beneficial land use policy in place.  This event was for planners all over Oregon and it was a great experience!  They all had great questions and I think they all came away with some good insight on what planning does for us, and how important their job is to our industry here in Oregon, especially to young farmers like myself!  At the end of the presentation one of the attendees came up to me and said, “One great thing to always remind planners, because we are more often than not saying no over and over again, is that even when we say no, we are still saying yes to many people out there that are benefiting from our holding strong to the plan.”  I really appreciated this opportunity and I hope that all who listened to the panel came away feeling good about saying yes to us farmers!  Here is basically what I covered in my 15 minute presentation…

I wasn’t planning to be a farmer, actually I was planning to be a lawyer.  But after four years of city living down in Los Angeles for my undergrad business degree I was ready to come back and see what kind of opportunities there were in agriculture for me.  Farming was my first choice, but it took awhile for my dad to sign on.  He never wanted me to feel like the farm had been handed to me, or that it was my right to come back.  He was also hesitant because it’s always a bit stressful working with family, emotions and such are hard when you’re trying to run a business.  So he came up with an idea, because in the end we love our lifestyle but more importantly we are a business.  He decided to offer me a 2 year internship; which allowed me to learn all about the daily farm operation, and decide if that is where I really wanted to be.

I realize that I was born into this situation; I have parents who worked and loved something that turned out to be my passion.  But I want to make sure that you understand that just because I was able to grow up on a farm, it doesn’t mean that I would ultimately want to come back and farm.  I say this because it’s so important that we work to not only encourage new farmers, but also farmers that are making the decision on whether or not to return to current legacies are very important for Oregon’s ag economy!

So to you planners, while I was doing all my research for this presentation and chatting with many different groups of young farmers, I realized that you as planners have a heck of a job!  I saw that as long term planners you’re up against a situation where politics, and your boss ultimately is always changing.  I can’t imagine if my boss changed every couple of years, because I understand how important long term planning is to everyone involved!  So I just want to say that I really hope you all go out there and follow that plan that is in place.  That you don’t let politics be your guide, and you also don’t get entrenched in your own philosophy.  There are so many sides to land use and to planning and I just encourage you to listen to all sides, and truly make yourselves the experts in your field.  Because we rely on you so that we can feel comfortable in a long term business such as farming!

I believe that with something as complicated and complex as land use in Oregon there is always room for improvement.  But the thing that I want to talk most about today is the fact that agriculture needs to find a way to work together.  We are all playing in the same soil.  We need conventional, organic, small, large, sustainable agriculture to satisfy all markets here in Oregon and keep our ag economy strong.  I’m tired of the small farmers looking at large farmers like they are taking over and they are big corporate agriculture.  When the reality is that 99% of incorporated farms in Oregon are family owned businesses.  We need to find a way that we can talk about organic without criticizing the way that sustainable conventional ag operations farm.  I think that we are doing our own industry a dis service by gaining market share on the backs of other farmers, because we are all in this together.

As for some positive sides of land use for farmers I want to start by asking you all a question, how many people would want their homes built in the industrial zone of a city.  Or how many of you once you did move into that factory area would feel that you have the right to complain about what is going on, when you chose to put your home there.  Well that is what it’s like for us farmers, we have a factory without walls.  It’s a lot prettier I’ll give you that, than an industrial area of a city, but it’s still the same idea.  It’s dirty, it’s loud, it smells and it happens at all times of the day and night.  So land use first and foremost helps us keep our factories safe, helps keep those who don’t know what they are getting into, away from our factories.

Within these factories without walls also have water rights that have been in place for generations.  When you start to have homes placed in certain areas, the builder doesn’t have to show availability, they don’t have to show that it won’t harm those who have already had water rights.  And in many cases where water isn’t plentiful, it usually amounts to having the farmer dig his wells deeper.

Regarding the 80 acre min rule I think that it’s a huge benefit to agriculture and farmers.  First of all it actually keeps the cost of land per acre down and manageable, especially for beginning farmers.  If you don’t have to compete with developers when you’re buying land it’s a huge help.  Plus when you purchase larger acreage, the cost per acre is lower than if you buy in smaller tracks, especially the cost if there is a house on the property!

Also when you’re farming you need a certain level of land to be able to be profitable.  Granted there are many small farms that have markets out there that they can sell to, but the majority of larger production ag in Oregon needs a greater amount of space.  It’s pure economies of scale when you look at it.  If I have 10 acre fields, even if I have 1000 acres it’s going to be impossible to farm.  Our average field size is about 60 acres, I would love to have 80 acre fields because everything is much easier, everything is more efficient and in farming you need to be as efficient as possible to help your bottom line.

Also by having these larger producers to support an infrastructure that is imperative to our state economy.  Seed dealers, Seed Cleaners, equipment dealerships.  All of these businesses are not only important to our economy, but they are also important to farmers of all sizes.

In the end I feel that land use and the 80 acre min especially isn’t a barrier for young farmers or those starting out, instead it has many benefits that help existing industry and those wanting to start out.  My concern with adjusting this minimum would  be that the loop hole wouldn’t be just for young farmers, it would open the door for other hobby farmers, and we truly need to keep larger tracks of land in production agriculture to feed our population.

I think that what I want you to understand here today is that what we need as young farmers or to encourage existing farmers to continue on in this industry is stable and consistent land use planning.  We need long term plans so that we can take our business plans, run our farms like businesses and know that we aren’t going to be dealing with a housing development next door in the next couple of years or 15 years down the line.  Real barriers are out there, and they look more like education of both business and ag, and financial issues.  Farming in itself is a risky business, you put all your money, hard work and know how into a crop that less than a year later could be taken away by Mother Nature.  We have enough uncertainty, so I would urge you that long term consistency is what we need to help encourage young farmers and beginning farmers to have hope that there is going to be land to farm in Oregon far into the future!

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