The Future of Agriculture in Washington County

Stephanie Haugen ’12 grew up on a farm in Washington County. As a journalism major at Pacific University, she used her senior project to explore the changes in agriculture in her home county and to tell the stories of the farmers who are neighbors to the University. With her permission, Pacific magazine is publishing excerpts of her seven-story investigative series.

Since the 19th century, when settlers came to Oregon and agriculture as an industry boomed, farming practices have been ever evolving. In the past few decades, though, the farming lifestyle and agriculture production in Washington County—an area the rest of the state and nation rely on for a bounty of crops—has undergone unprecedented challenges.

Urban sprawl and high land values threaten all agricultural industries in Oregon. Paired with an economic downturn and a younger generation that is choosing careers off the farm, these challenges have put the future of Washington County farming on rocky ground.

Disappearing farmland

In the last 25 years, more than 22,000 acres of farmland has gone to other uses in Washington County alone, and the state of Oregon loses about 870 acres of agricultural land per year, despite strict land-use laws designed to protect it.

Katherine Daniels of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development said her No. 1 concern is the “continual expansion of the urban growth boundary.”

The URG is designed to protect against urban sprawl; land inside the boundary is not protected from development and other urban uses.

This boundary is pliable, however. According to Metro, the multi-county governmental organization responsible for managing the urban growth boundary in the Portland area, the boundary has expanded about 36 times since the late 1970s. In 1998, some 3,500 acres once protected by the UGB gave way to about 23,000 houses. In 2002, another 18,867 acres was tucked inside the boundary, soon the site for more than 38,000 houses. In 2004 and 2005, the boundary absorbed another 2,300 acres.

“Washington County is right in the path of growth,” Daniels said. “Many people don’t notice it as much because it happens incrementally.”

Many fear the demand for more housing in areas once dedicated to farming will only get worse, with Oregon’s population projected to grow by 1,7 million people by 2040. This new population is expected to need about 700,000 new houses.

Jim Johnson of the Oregon Department of Agriculture is more concerned about Washington County than the rest of the state, “because the expansion is much more than other areas. Urban sprawl often seems to trump the protection of farmland.”

Mai Nelson is the Willamette Valley advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a group dedicated to conserving natural areas, farms and forests. She believes the pressure to convert farmland surrounding city limits is even worse now than in the past.

Bordering Oregon’s largest urban center, Washington County is at a particularly high risk. According to a study conducted in partnership with 1000 Friends of Oregon, areas less than a quarter mile from low-density residential areas were nearly 50 times more likely to be developed than areas a greater distance away.

“Once land is moved inside the UGB, it doesn’t stay used for farming very long because the property value is so high,” Daniels said.

Recently, Metro enacted the Rural Reserves, which guaranteed certain large parcels of quality farmland would be off-limits to development for at least 50 years. In part, the measure was designed to discourage developers from buying farmland near city limits in the hope it will be included in the UGB.            

Changing land use

The land value of Washington County acreage is some of the highest in the state and, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, it also is some of the most fertile in the nation, along with the rest of the Willamette Valley.

Washington County is a leading contributor to local, state, national and global markets for a wide variety of agricultural commodities, including nursery and greenhouse stock, caneberries, wine grapes, hazelnuts, grass seed, Christmas trees and many others. The county is ranked sixth in the state in agricultural sales, with $284 million in gross sales in 2011 alone.

The Willamette Valley has long been an agricultural prize. The promise of ideal farmland was a draw for many early settlers, who started largely with subsistence farming. When the gold rush hit in California, demand for food and supplies increased sharply, and Oregon farmers were well-placed to provide.

By the end of the 19th century, eastern Oregon monopolized the state’s wheat crop with success in dry-land farming, and the Willamette Valley grew a huge variety of agricultural commodities.

Post-World War II, Washington County land use began to change. Urban and suburban populations grew. The 1930s brought the Sunset Highway, and the cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood boomed. A post-war electronics industry saw Tektronix moving north of Beaverton and companies like Intel and Epson thrived from the 1960s to 1990s.

At the same time, the dairy industry that had thrived in Washington County thanks to affordable electricity developed with dams in the 1930s started shrinking again in response to urban sprawl, high land values and changing regulation and pricing. Just 25 years ago, there were 70 dairies in Washington County. Today, there are 11.

Dairy land turned into nursery land, and in the last 20 years, Washington County became a large contributor to the thriving Oregon industry. The recent economic downturn, though, hit nurseries hard. As the housing market struggles, so too does the nursery business.

Finding today’s fit

In recent years, Washington County’s agricultural focus has shifted again. Many farmers are trying to find new ways to make a living on smaller parcels of land with niche farms and crops.

Community supported agriculture (CSAs) and farmers’ markets are growing in popularity.

With only 20 percent of Oregon-grown agricultural products staying in the state, local non-farmers rely on food produced in larger-scale production, often from other states and countries. CSAs offer an alternative to those who want locally-grown food and a relationship with the farmer who grows it. Farmers’ markets, too, have grown to be a popular method of selling and buying produce since the early 1990s.

The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is trying to create public awareness about the food system in an effort to encourage people to be conscientious about food, its sources and how it’s raised. Currently, the bureau is re-examining regulations concerning growing and distributing food in Portland neighborhoods, said the bureau’s Steve Cohen. The Urban Food Zoning Code Update proposes new and revised regulations to accommodate local small-scale growers due to the rise in farmers’ markets, community gardens, CSAs, food-buying clubs and backyard farming.

Meanwhile, other landowners are turning to the growing vineyard and winery industry, particularly in Washington County. The Oregon wine industry has grown fast since the 1970s, when there were only a few experimental vineyards in the state. Oregon wine producers tend toward personal operations, and the reputation and land productivity yield Oregon growers a higher average price for their grapes than other parts of the nation.

In Washington County, shrinking farmland combined with economic challenges and national trends are changing the face of agriculture. The farmers who remain are focusing on niche markets, but many are leaving their agricultural roots. With them go support industries such as processing plants and feed and supply stores.

Oregon’s economy continues to rely on farming, though, as do its people.

Protected farmland, said Daniels, of 1000 Friends of Oregon, is important for food security for everyone, as well as for the economy and local farmers.

“It’s a long-term investment,” she said. 

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