Small farms link agriculture to the metro area

July 10, 2002

OREGON CITY - The countryside is changing.

Where once there were berry fields and sheep pastures, now there are backyard vineyards and alpacas. Small acreages, from one to 10 acres, ripple out from the cities in the Portland metropolitan area. In Clackamas County alone, there are more than 5,000 small farms. Their presence defines the countryside outside the urban boundary.

"From Forest Grove to Corbett down to Woodburn, the land is chopped up as small as the law will allow," said Michael Robotham.

Robotham is the Oregon State University Extension faculty specialist for small farms and small acreages in the northern Willamette Valley. He and his south valley counterpart, Garry Stephenson, offer advice to this growing sector of Oregon's agriculture.

A generation ago, farms were valued for their soil, water rights and potential to raise a particular crop. Now, small farms scattered across the foothills of Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties are valued more for their view and accessibility to the city than for the productivity of the land.

Emerging is a new demographic group with important ties to both urban and rural life.

"These landowners are highly educated people who, for the most part, want to do the right thing," Robotham said. "They bring new questions, and new perspective to land use and agriculture in Oregon."

In the Portland metro area, most of the people who live on these small acreages do not make their sole living from the land. They have sought out a rural lifestyle, but many still commute into the city to work.

"For this majority, their first concern is: now what do I do with this place?" said Robotham. "They may be successful entrepreneurs, savvy in business management or high technology, but they need help understanding how to keep thistles out of the pasture or manure out of the stream."

Robotham helps these lifestyle farmers with problems of land management.

About one-quarter of small acreages in the Metro area are working farms with a different set of problems.

"Most of these are specialty farms, almost all are organic, selling locally through farmers' markets, subscriptions, or local grocers," Robotham said. "In general, these farmers are highly motivated, working hard to connect people with high quality food.

"The biggest issue for these small farmers is marketing," he added. "They know how to grow crops, and they do it well. But they need help developing and expanding markets."

"These growers stay on the leading edge by developing specialty crops and heirloom vegetables, and marketing them in a completely new way, without wholesalers or distributors," said Stephenson, whose Extension Service work has helped connect small farmers directly with consumers.

Cindy Leung and Jim Lewinson are among those who rely on information from OSU for help, as they work to establish a small farm on the west side of Portland.

"We are new to farming, we didn't grow up knowing how to do this," said Leung. "We are a small operation, but we are growing thanks to all the help we have received from Mike (Robotham)."

Robotham sees the land of both the lifestyle farmer and the small-scale grower as an important part of the metro landscape, and a way to connect people with agriculture.

"There is room for everyone in Oregon agriculture today," he said. "Small farms, farmers markets, even the commuting lifestyle farmer, bring an awareness of agriculture and land management to urban life."

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Michael Robotham