Successful Farmers and Livable Cities: It's All Connected

Greg Holmes
Thu, 05/24/2018 (All day)

OHSU Farmer's Market from Oregon Department of Agriculture.  

Strong local food systems can provide fresh, healthy food to urban communities as well as jobs for agricultural workers. The foundation of a strong local food system is the preservation of agricultural lands for farming and ranching. Preservation of urban-edge agricultural lands also creates green space and helps spark demand for new urban development in the right places.

1000 Friends 2013 LULI Cohort tour suburban development on converted farmland at the edge of Washington County's Urban Growth Boundary.

Sadly, struggling agricultural landowners often feel compelled to sell to non-farmers, who then advocate for the conversion of agricultural land to sprawling subdivisions or other non-agricultural uses. This pressure is in part due to the myriad of business challenges farmers and ranchers face, including high land costs, inadequate processing and distribution infrastructure, and difficulty accessing capital. This threat is compounded as the country’s farmers begin to retire in record numbers.

Meanwhile, in cities across Oregon and throughout the country, we hear more and more stories of neighborhood opposition to policies that would increase the efficiency of our urban areas and reduce the need for expanding onto farm and other resource lands. Despite the fact that these policies could reduce the costs of building and maintaining our cities, and thus our tax burden, sometimes the political will to stand up to this opposition is not visible.

The American Planning Association (APA), the professional organization that represents land use planners across the country, is in the process of elevating the status of food systems planning within the profession to address these and other concerns and connections. As part of this heightened awareness, 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Food Systems Program Director Greg Holmes was invited to be part of a discussion of these subjects at the APA’s recent national conference, held in April.

The American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) Assistant Vice President Julia Freedgood provided the national context for the discussion, highlighting some of the findings of AFT’s latest report Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland. The report uses previously unavailable data and technology to reach the conclusion that the country has lost over 31 million acres of farmland—roughly an area the size of the state of Iowa—in the last two decades. This is nearly twice what previous studies have estimated. While about 59 percent of this loss has been due to expanding cities and urban areas, an astounding 41 percent has been due to dispersed uses including the building of houses on one to 20 acre parcels that then go out of agricultural production.

Farmer Felipe Jimenez in Milton-Freewater shows off his yield for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

It is worth noting that, due in large part to Oregon’s land use program, the amount of agricultural land lost to expansion of urban areas is far smaller here than in many other states. However, even our program does not stop counties from continually approving rural uses—including non-farm related housing—on agricultural lands, so it is not clear how well we fare in comparison to other states in this regard. The second part of the AFT study, to be released in the fall, will provide state-specific data and scorecards that will enable us to see how much land we are losing to these uses and evaluate potential solutions.

The conversation then turned to how land use planners, economic development organizations, and community leaders are working to strengthen local food systems in part to help farmers succeed in their business endeavors, and how these successes are creating new advocates for better regional planning. Joel Devalcourt, East Bay Regional Director for the Greenbelt Alliance, began by discussing efforts to manage urban expansion in the San Francisco Bay Area while also preserving adjacent agricultural operations.  Tools in use there include agricultural conservation easements and voter-controlled expansion of growth boundaries, as well as programs to help farmers find markets and succeed in business. Bay Area communities have also explicitly tied agricultural land preservation to greenhouse gas reduction policies, providing a prospective source of funding for agricultural land protection. Joel highlighted how farmers who are feeling the benefits of these programs are becoming strong advocates for better urban planning in the region.

Farmer/Chef Connection in Willamette Valley, OR by Sam Beebe

The discussion then shifted north, as Friends of the Greenbelt Alliance’s Senior Vice President Kathy Macpherson spoke about efforts to help farmers in the Golden Horseshoe region that surrounds Toronto in Ontario, Canada. The province initiated a regional planning process that proposed to permanently protect nearly two million acres of farmland, forest land and natural areas around one of the largest cities in the country. Rural residents of the area, which includes much of the province’s agricultural capacity, were skeptical of the idea until programs were incorporated to help farmers with land preservation, technical assistance and market development. Now that these programs are in place, farmers are among the strongest supporters of the Greenbelt and the urban expansion management programs that make it possible.

Our own Greg Holmes rounded out the discussion by presenting examples of agricultural communities working to encourage sound urban planning from the Rogue Valley and other parts of Oregon. Greg shared his experience working with farmers during the creation of the Rogue Valley’s Regional Plan. Initially farmers were organizing to oppose the plan, until provisions were included to buffer farmland from urban development and a task force was created to help preserve the agricultural economy of the region.  Although the County did not adopt all of the recommendations made by the task force, those that were adopted and the buffers that are now being implemented will help the region’s farmers continue to thrive in the face of urban expansion in the region.

Newport Farmers Market by Larry Miller

Greg also discussed efforts of the Rogue Valley Food System Network and the Oregon Community Food Systems Network (OCFSN) to bring organizations together to help new and beginning farmers, create markets for small and medium sized farm operations, and to help advocates that work in other parts of the food system understand the role that creating livable cities plays in preserving the farmland that all of their work depends on. Throughout Oregon, this understanding is creating new advocates for the livability of the cities we live in and for the land that supplies our food.

About 50 land use planners from all over the country participated in this discussion and shared some examples of programs and problems from their communities. We’ve had follow up conversations with several, and look forward to continuing to share what we learned with community leaders across the state.