Assessing the Long-Term Value of Oregon Farmland

Craig Beebe

A study released this week by the Oregon Department of Agriculture explores the long-range, multifacted value of farmland in the state, which transcends the short-term profits that result from developing such lands.

With so much pressure to develop or convert Oregon's most valuable farmland, which is often near existing urbanized areas, to other uses, the study is a vital reminder that farmland contributes on many levels to the health and well-being of the state's economy and environment. Moreover, unlike many other economic engines, it is virtually irreplaceable.

"You can only produce one crop of houses, but if that land remains in agriculture, you can produce a crop year after year after year," said Jim Johnson, ODA's land use specialist, in an ODA "Story of the Week" announcing the study's release. "You can even change the crop to react to world markets and changing situations. But once that land is developed, it's very hard to change it back to something else."

Agricultural operations are responsible for nearly 18 percent of all sales activiy in Oregon, and 20 percent of total employment. In Washington County alone, where 127,984 acres is dedicated to farmland, agriculture had a $1.9 billion impact in 2007. But to be successful, farmers and ranchers need ample productive land that is protected from development.

That is why Oregon's land use system, and advocates like 1000 Friends, work so hard to protect farmland from unnecessary development or conversion: because threatening farmland's productivity and viability threatens the very foundation of the Oregon economy, not just its beauty. When farms are lost, so are sales, wages, and jobs at nearby supply stores, distributors, processors, and related enterprises. The ripple effect through local and state economies can be severe.

Moreover, developing farmland ends up costing taxpayers millions of additional dollars in the years to come, through providing services and maintaining the layers of infrastructure that accompany development.

The study explores many possible directions for planners and policy makers to reduce the pressure on farmland to be developed or converted to other uses, such as keeping development within existing urban growth boundaries, avoiding placing industrial sites and quarries on high-value farmland, and rerouting utilities and conveyance infrastructure away from farm operations.

"Agricultural lands – even in urban areas – are critical drivers that contribute substantially to the region and the State’s economic engine and identity. These assets represent perpetual, renewable, adaptable, and sustainable economic, cultural, and ecological values," the study concludes (emphasis in original). 1000 Friends remains dedicated to the protection of these assets, through encouraging planning with long-term vision rather than short-term motives, all around Oregon.

Read the full study here.