Multnomah County Adopts Bold Vision for Local Food Economy

Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends Communications Intern

Oregon’s most urban county might seem an unlikely candidate for adopting an ambitious plan identifying local agriculture as a key driver of healthy communities and economies. Yet the Multnomah County Commission voted unanimously January 27 to do just that.

The Multnomah County Food Action Plan begins with a bold, comprehensive vision for 2025, of a “thriving regional food system that engages the community in healthy food production, equitable food access, opportunities for collaboration, low environmental impact, living wages, and local economic vitality.” Linking this vision to 16 goals as well as 65 community-wide actions and suggestions for individual choices, the plan takes important steps toward recognizing and expanding the interdependencies of urban and rural residents’ livelihood, health, and prosperity.

Importantly, the plan's policies start with land use, recognizing the importance of strong land use planning regulations to protect and expand the local agricultural base.  Despite its urban reputation, Multnomah County actually contains 563 farms on 28,506 acres, nearly ten percent of the county’s area. From Sauvie Island to Troutdale and Corbett, as well as many areas in between, Multnomah County is still dotted with small- and mid-size farms producing a wide variety of food crops. Some of these farming opportunities would be lost, were it not for Oregon’s powerful regional planning and farmland protection laws. For instance, Sauvie Island would long ago have been carved up into suburban lots were it not for the foresight and action of 1000 Friends and other partners to protect it under Exclusive Farm Use zoning in the 1970s. Minimizing the Urban Growth Boundary’s expansion is the very first action item, reflecting the importance of this tool to protect farmland and provide communities with local food. The plan also proposes the establishment of a agricultural land trust, the reuse of underutilized land within the UGB for food production, and new opportunities for local farmers to reach customers through local purchasing programs, new processing and distribution centers, and new “food hubs”, among other actions.

One item that has received some press is the call to establish “incubator” programs for new farmers. The average age of a farmer in Oregon is 58, according to the plan. Assisting passionate newcomers to food production by providing education and support, as well as linking them to experienced farmers as mentors, is critical to ensuring that our local food system is able to continue into the next generation. Several small regional growers, such as 47th Avenue Farm and Singer Hill Gardens, have demonstrated that young farmers can be successful in this enterprise, even within Portland's city limits, but often need assistance to get started, as well as a consistent customer base to stay viable. The plan identifies the establishment of at least 20% more farms in the county by 2025 as a goal, with as many as possible engaged in organic farming and other means of stewarding the environment.  

Connecting local production to public health, equitable local access, and economic vitality is absolutely essential, and the Food Action Plan makes these links explicit. A future where everyone has access to healthy food, and where local farmers and other food workers are assured of a decent livelihood is indisputably a good thing. What makes this plan groundbreaking is its identification of specific goals and actions throughout the land use system, production, consumption, and economy. It should guide decisions and actions throughout local governance, activism, business, as well as personal consumption, ensuring positive impacts well beyond the limited borders of Multnomah County.

Read the Multnomah Food Action Plan, learn more about why it is needed, and register your support at http://www.multnomahfood.org/.