Strengthening Agriculture in Oregon Through Collaboration

Greg Holmes
Thu, 03/29/2018 - 1:00pm

Through good times and economic downturns, agriculture is consistently one of the strongest sectors in Oregon’s economy. That success depends entirely on our protecting Oregon’s family farmers and the land that they need to do their work.

1000 Friends of Oregon has a long history of working within Oregon’s pioneering land use program to protect that land from incompatible uses so that farmers have it available. But long-term success is not just about having the right types land in the right places, which is why we have also worked for decades to help farmers succeed economically so that they face fewer pressures to convert their lands to other uses. But this work is bigger than any single organization, which is why we are a proud founding member of the Oregon Community Food Systems Network (OCFSN) in 2016.

The OCFSN is a collaboration of nearly 50 organizations, including non-profits like Rogue Farm Corps and the Oregon Tilth, community based organizations like Huerto de la Familia and Growing Gardens, and healthcare organizations like Healthcare Without Harm.  Emergency food providers such as the Oregon Food Bank, and university programs such as PSU’s Planning Oregon and the U of O’s Food Studies Program are members, as are food-related economic development organizations such as the James Beard Market and Neighborworks Umpqua. Members also include other statewide networks like the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network and regional food systems networks such as the Rogue Valley Food Systems Network, the High Desert Food and Farm Alliance, the Gorge Grown Network, and 10 Rivers Food Web, which each bring many other organizations under the tent.

While individually each of these organizations works in different parts of the state, and each works on different parts of the food system, they and over 30 additional members of the OCFSN are communicating and working together to improve Oregon’s community and statewide food systems. This includes improving food security for Oregonians, and growing the food economy—both for food business and for the farmers that supply them.

The groups that founded the OCFSN began coming together for what has become an annual two-day meeting, or “Convening,” in 2012. Earlier this month 1000 Friends staff members Greg Holmes and Alyson Marchi-Young  joined about 80 other Oregonians at this year’s annual Convening. As in past years, there was a lot of energy and passion in the room around Oregon and the food that sustains us.

The first part of day one was dedicated to trainings provided by the Non-Profit Association of Oregon on diversity, equity and inclusion. A major focus of those discussions was around identifying which voices are not represented in the current organization, how to include them as we move forward, and recognizing our personal biases. The afternoon included conversations about the types of information we have and what we need but don’t have in order to strengthen our work, how to improve farm to school and farm to institution programs in the state, and how to improve nutrition incentive programs at farmers’ markets across the state. Part of the afternoon was also dedicated to a discussion among the Access to Land Team around challenges associated with the projection that large amounts of Oregon’s agricultural lands are beginning to change hands due to the average age of Oregon’s farmers. This discussion brought over a dozen organizations into the room to discuss issues that have everything to do with 1000 Friends of Oregon’s mission.

During the second day Greg Holmes and Associate Director of the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems Lauren Gwinn co-facilitated a discussion among about 30 participants about how this collection of nearly 50 organizations can most effectively participate in policy advocacy. Suggestions ranged from simply sharing information and trainings to help individual members increase their own capacity to do policy work, to the idea of hiring a lobbyist to speak on behalf of all Network members with a single voice. There is a lot of work to do yet to figure out what that will look like, but another part of the discussion was around the topics that we all care about, and protecting Oregon’s land use system and agricultural lands featured prominently in that discussion.

The rest of day two included sessions on communications and collaborative fundraising, evaluating the effectiveness of our collective work, and meeting of the Beginning Farmer/Rancher Team, whose focus is to make sure farmers that manage to get access to land can succeed in the business of farming. The day concluded with a discussion among all the participants about the future of the OCFSN as a whole.

Closing remarks were provided by Sara Miller, who is the Chair of the OCFSN, an Economic Development Specialist for member organization Northeast Oregon Economic Development District, and herself a rancher in Wallowa County. Sara pointed out the value, not only of working together, but of coming together face-to-face. Oregon is a big state, and the food system is a big subject with many moving parts. Sara spoke of her personal experiences and how valuable this Network is for her and others who have felt alone in this work. Sara’s geographic isolation can also be seen as a metaphor for the isolation we all experience in working on our own projects. Her closing comments reminded us to keep sharing information, keep building relationships across the state and across subjects, and to keep working together so that all of us are ultimately more successful.

The work of building a sustainable and equitable food system is bigger than any one organization, but the success of that work depends on the success of the groups and people working on all of the parts. That includes the work of 1000 Friends of Oregon to preserve the land that our food is grown on and to build healthy communities across the state. Collaborating with people from organizations whose missions are dependent on the success of our mission helps to create more educated citizens and build more allies. Just like the Network as a whole, this is a “win-win” all the way around.