Land Use Leadership Initiative and Board of Directors Tour French Prairie

Victoria Demchak, 1000 Friends Volunteer
Fri, 10/05/2012 (All day)

On Saturday, September 22, our Land Use Leadership Initiative participants joined the 1000 Friends Board of Directors to witness the productivity and pressures affecting some of Oregon’s most productive farmland, in the French Prairie region just south of the Portland metro region.

Our conversations focused on the challenges of keeping this historic yet active farmland in agriculture. We were joined by Ben Williams, President of Friends of French Prairie, representing the farming region that bridges Clackamas and Marion counties, and Jim Johnson, land use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Ben treated us to a geological and social history of the area, and Jim described the high soil quality, productivity, and economic contributions of the area.

We started out tracing the Willamette River just south of Wilsonville on the crisp first day of fall. The northern edge of French Prairie cuts through the vicinity of Champoeg and Butteville, where today large riverside homes sit across from Pacific Foods’ dairies and composting facilities. The area has many conflicts: between non-farming residents who object to the sounds and smells of agriculture, attempts to purchase farmland for solar energy production, and transmission line siting controversies.

To the south, just into the flat, high-value farmland that defines much of French Prairie, we had our first stop at Mustard Seed Farms. There David Brown showed us ranks of organically grown giant pumpkins, all more than 80 pounds. When prompted as to why he grew these giant pumpkins, rather than smaller edible priorities, he responded “because you can’t look at a giant pumpkin without a smile on your face!”Mustard Seed Farms

Brown’s challenges weren’t unique to being an organic farmer: land costs, stability, and fertilizer restrictions. At $15,000 an acre, land in French Prairie is costly for the 80 acres he manages organically. Brown leases all of the land he farms, which creates certain challenges but also gives him some flexibility. He discussed the need to make more land available for new farmers to lease or buy, though it is important to keep farmland in larger parcels to keep it viable.

We continued our tour through French Prairie, passing nurseries, the Oregon Hophouse, grain fields, and grass seed farms. Some of the nurseries we passed had moved out of Clackamas County to get away from development, rapidly rising land costs, land use conflicts, and water restrictions

Our next guided stop was in Donald, a small but busy hub for agricultural infrastructure. The tall Wilco cooperative grain elevator towered above the town’s Main Street. Nearby, manufacturer GK Machine had fields of customized farming equipment. Jim Johnson related Donald’s occasional desire to expand its urban growth boundary for housing, which he said conflicts with its identity: “If Donald didn’t have agriculture, it just wouldn’t exist.”

Our final farm stop was at Aurora Farms, just south of the Marion County line. There, Mike Iverson farms 44 acres owned and another 140 leased for an intensive market vegetable operation. Iverson deftly summarized the conflicts he saw in French Prairie as land speculation and conflicting uses threaten local farmland. (Click here to watch our New Face of Farming video profile of Iverson.)

Iverson worried that land speculation and development would remove the best soil from production. Projects like expanding Aurora airport, and development pressure on recently-designated rural reserves in south Wilsonville, are a major concern for French Prairie farmers. As Iverson put it, “If [development] jumps the river, we’re dead. It’ll be a strip mall to Salem.”

Aurora FarmsIverson also cited canola cultivation as a threat, which he said would be a “major decimation of agriculture as we know it here.” Iverson described canola’s potential to be an invasive weed that could threaten the vegetable and clover seed industry in Oregon. Iverson said it could spread throughout the Willamette Valley and threaten Oregon’s valuable seed industry by interbreeding with specialty seed crops in the valley, like turnips, cabbage, and kale.

Our day concluded with a presentation and discussion on the state of agriculture in Oregon from Jim Johnson. Johnson described agriculture’s continuing centrality to Oregon’s economy, including its prominent role in exports and employment.  Johnson discussed how vital it is that Oregon land use policies continue to protect the land that makes this industry possible.

Throughout the day’s tour and discussions, two things were eminently clear. First, farming remains an essential part of Oregon’s economy, particularly in the Willamette Valley, as it always has; in fact, its economic contributions are only growing. Second, all this great farmland needs strong advocates and effective land use tools to protect its viability and keep the farmers who depend on it in business. Groups like Friends of French Prairie, an affiliate of 1000 Friends, are an important local presence, engaging in direct local advocacy and keeping 1000 Friends informed about how we can best advocate for the agriculture industry locally and in the legislature.

Thanks to the tenacity of local farmers, organizations like Friends of French Prairie, and 1000 Friends of Oregon, farming still thrives in Oregon 170 years after the first French Canadian farmers began working the soil near Champoeg. Oregonians will need to continue standing up for farming if it is to survive that far into our future.

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