Preserving the County’s Endangered Farmland – The Cedar Mill News

by Annie Bronez, Education and Awareness Specialist, Tualatin Soil & Water Conservation District

As Oregonians, we are fortunate to have agriculture deeply rooted in our economy and cultural heritage. The Willamette Valley is one of the most diverse agricultural regions on the planet due to its rich, fertile soils and abundant rainfall. Washington County is one of the most productive agricultural counties in the state and is home to many farm families, thousands of acres of farms, and a wide range of agriculture-related businesses. Our agricultural landscape is unique in that it contains an incredible diversity of crops. Our farmers produce nearly 100 types of products, ranging from fruits, grains and nuts to nursery plants, grass seeds and dairy products.

A thriving agricultural landscape benefits everyone, including residents of urban areas. Farms in Washington County contribute enormously to the local economy. Farms create jobs directly through hired labor and indirectly through support businesses such as equipment dealers, feed stores and processing plants. Locally grown food is fresher and more nutritious than food shipped across the country. Access to local agriculture strengthens the community by creating opportunities for enjoyable experiences and mutually beneficial relationships between producers and consumers. Despite the many benefits of local agriculture, farmland in Washington County is rapidly disappearing.

As our population increases, there is increasing pressure to convert agricultural land to other land uses. Urban sprawl and rural property development resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of farmland in rapidly growing Washington County. Once this land is converted to non-agricultural use, it will likely never return to agricultural production. While farmland loss is a nationwide concern, farmland loss in Washington County is occurring much faster than in other areas. In just five years, 23% of our agricultural land has been converted to other uses (Source: 2017 US Ag Census, National Agricultural Statistics Service).

Preserving our farmland requires a variety of approaches and the involvement of the whole community. Farmers can ensure that their property is protected by a conservation easement. Easements are legal documents that are attached to the deed of ownership. This document describes what can and cannot be done to the property by future owners. Easement holders, such as land trusts or government agencies such as the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District, enforce the easement once the property changes hands.

Another tool available to farmers is a farm succession plan. Many farmers hope to pass their farm on to the next generation of farmers. Transferring a farm business and its assets is more complicated than you might think. Without a plan in place, farmland can be divided or sold due to the complex details of estate transfers. This makes the plots even more vulnerable to development and too small to support profitable farms in the future.

Even residents living in urban areas can help conserve Washington County farmland. The easiest way to protect farmland is to support local agricultural businesses. Being an active consumer of locally sourced agricultural products helps our farmers compete with industrialized farms in other parts of the country. Washington County has nearly a dozen farmers’ markets where you can get to know your farmers and support them directly. Another way to directly support farmers is through an agricultural CSA (community supported agriculture). A consumer buys a share of the farm’s harvest in advance and then receives a steady supply of goods throughout the year. Finally, residents can invest in future farms by supporting organizations like Adelante Mujeres and Rogue Farm Corps that provide training and mentorship to beginning farmers.

With the arrival of spring, residents have many opportunities to explore and support Washington County farms. A thriving farming community supports a thriving Washington County. To learn more about our unique agricultural landscape, visit tualatinswcd.org.