The Uncertain Future of Oregon’s Agricultural Lands, and the Role of Planners

April 18, 2017

With the average age of farmers in Oregon edging towards 60, up to 10.45 million acres (or 64%) of Oregon’s land in current farm and ranch use is expected to change hands in the next 20 years.  The fact that Oregon’s farmland will change ownership in the coming decades could present opportunities for access by young and beginning farmers, sustainable and direct market farmers, and women farmers and farmers of color, and ultimately to a more equitable and sustainable future.  However, there are many barriers to this vision. Many Oregon landowners are unprepared for succession. Simultaneously, beginning farmers are finding it harder to enter the profession because of challenges like dramatically increasing land prices. Meanwhile, farmland ownership around the country is increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few.

What is the future of Oregon’s farmland? This question inspired a recent research study by Oregon State University and Portland State University researchers, Rogue Farm Corps, and members of the Oregon Community Food Systems Network’s Access to Land team. The study examines trends in land tenure and the effects they might have on Oregon’s economy, rural communities, and environment, and makes recommendations to preserve Oregon’s agricultural heritage. In this article, we review a few highlights from the research and discuss implications for planners.

Why Oregon farmland matters

There is no doubt that the stakes are high when it comes to who owns Oregon’s farmland and what happens on it. Agricultural production was valued at almost $5.5 billion in 2014, making it the second-largest economic driver in the state.   Agriculture directly accounts for four percent of the state’s employment and indirectly accounts for 14 percent. Twenty percent of Oregon’s agricultural products remain in the state, supplying local food systems and providing food security. Agricultural business owners contribute to their rural economies and communities. And the open space and associated fish and wildlife habitat that agricultural lands provide support important environmental, scenic, and lifestyle benefits for the entire state.

Percent of Oregon farm acres controlled by farmers

Figure 1. Percent of Oregon farm acres controlled by farmers in each age category in 2002 and 2012. Increasingly, older farmers operate more of Oregon’s farmland.

Aging farmers are unprepared for succession.

Oregon farmers tend to be white men, and they are older (60 years on average) than at any other time in history (see Figure 1). Meanwhile, farmland is being consolidated into fewer and older hands: those aged 55 and older operated 23 percent more farms and 26 percent more land in 2012 than in 2002. It is uncertain who will farm and steward this land into the future. More than eight out of ten Oregon farms are sole proprietorships — one indicator that the vast majority of Oregon farmers likely have not created plans to smoothly transfer their businesses and assets to the next generation.

Percent change in Oregon acres

Figure 2. Percent change in Oregon acres controlled by principal farmer age, 2002-2012.

There are fewer next generation farmers, and they face many barriers

Fewer people, and particularly fewer young people, are entering the farming profession in Oregon. Less than one of out of five Oregon farmers in 2012 were beginning farmers (defined as farmers with ten years of experience or less), down from 32 percent in 2002.  The share of operators under 45 years of age, and the amount of land they operate, also dropped significantly from 2002-2012 (see Figure 2).   Beginning farmers and ranchers face many barriers, including insufficient incomes and rising land prices. The price of farmland is rising dramatically in Oregon, with a regional average of nearly $55,000 per acre among North Willamette Valley counties (higher than noted in the report, due to ongoing research post report publication). The cost is more per acre for smaller parcels, suggesting even higher costs for small-scale farmers. One reason that farmland prices are escalating is increasing demand from non-farming farmland purchasers, including investment companies and “lifestyle” rural residents. Some farmers, including women farmers, farmers of color, and those from non-farming families, face additional barriers.

The land base for agriculture faces ongoing threats.

Oregon’s history of land use planning, particularly exclusive farm use (EFU) zoning, has been critical to preserving Oregon’s land base from development. However, there are ongoing threats related to the reality that zoning does not offer permanent protection. Some of the threats to the ongoing protection of farmland include changes in zoning and the cumulative impact of nonfarm uses on EFU lands (see Figure 3). Other limits are that protection of land does not ensure farm use or access by the next generation of farmers mentioned above. Meanwhile, many direct market farmers farm on land that is not zoned EFU, and is not given the same level of protection.

Land use and land use change in Oregon

Figure 3. Land use and land use change in Oregon.

What might be done

The report demonstrates that three inter-related issues — aging farmers unprepared for succession, multiple barriers for beginning and particularly young and diverse farmers, and a declining land base — together suggest that the future of Oregon’s agricultural land may be one that does not serve Oregon’s economic, social and environmental goals. The report identifies important avenues for further research and also educational and policy tools that will help Oregon farmers with succession planning and assist beginning farmers in securing land. Examples include working lands easements, farming-savvy succession counselors and other strategies. The report emphasizes that planning ahead for farmland transition, and focusing on access by diverse farmers, is key to making sure land remains used for agricultural purposes.

The role of planning

State and local-level planners can play an important role in addressing these issues. The role of individual planners will depend on their particular context. For example, economic development and environmental planners can support incubator farms, like East Multnomah County Soil and Water District’s Headwaters Farm Incubator.  Economic development planners can support the development of local markets for small-scale direct market farmers, such as by doubling the value of food stamps at farmers markets, as other municipalities have done. Land use and resource land planners can develop farm lease programs, like Metro, which currently leases out approximately 1,239 acres of agricultural land within Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah Counties. Land use planners can commit to no net loss of EFU zoned land. Land use planners can develop government support for working land easements and for Purchase of Development Rights and Transfer of Development Rights programs. Long-range planners can develop comprehensive plan goals and policies that support small-scale, direct market farming. These are just some ways planners can be involved in ensuring the future of Oregon’s agricultural lands is bright. What ideas do you have?

Read the report and executive summary on OSU’s website for more information

Contact Megan Horst, author of this article and one of the report’s co-authors, for more information:

 Submitted by Megan Horst, Ph.D., AICP, Portland State University and Nellie McAdams, JD, Rogue Farm Corps.