Small farms have big impact in Oregon communities

Jeannie Berg, with vegetable starts in her Independence, OR, green house. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum
Jeannie Berg, with vegetable starts in her Independence, OR, green house. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum
OSU senior faculty research assistant Brian Yorgey prepares frozen strawberries for a taste test. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
OSU senior faculty research assistant Brian Yorgey prepares frozen strawberries for a taste test. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
OSU metro small farm agent Nick Andrews and Scott Latham identifying a leaf pea weevil. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
OSU metro small farm agent Nick Andrews and Scott Latham identifying a leaf pea weevil. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
Blackberry and raspberry taste test at Oregon State University. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
Blackberry and raspberry taste test at Oregon State University. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
You-pick harvest at the Oregon State University’s Woodhall vineyard near Alpine, Oregon. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
You-pick harvest at the Oregon State University’s Woodhall vineyard near Alpine, Oregon. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
Tyler and Alicia Jones, owners of Afton Field Farm. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.
Tyler and Alicia Jones, owners of Afton Field Farm. Photograph by Lynn Ketchum.

Small farming is no small thing in Oregon. In the space of a generation, farmers and food advocates in Oregon have changed how we nourish our bodies, the land, and the economies of communities from Portland's downtown to the Rogue River.
 
More than 120 farmers markets bring the sights, smells, and tastes of the state's bounty to urban settings in big cities and small towns – a tenfold increase since 1987. Names of small Oregon farms now appear on restaurant menus, families "subscribe" to weekly boxes of produce from community supported agriculture (CSA), and small farms sell through local online networks.

Although the number of small farms in Oregon as defined by gross sales has not changed much in recent years, the value of  farm-direct sales – the primary market channel for small farmers – exploded by 144 percent to $56 million from 2002 to 2007 as reported in the Census of Agriculture. This is more than four times the national growth rate, according to Larry Lev, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University. Farm-direct sales include sales to consumers, such as farmers markets, and sales to institutions without any intermediaries involved. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers a farm small if it grosses $250,000 or less per year.

The OSU Extension Service's Small Farms program has played a key role in building Oregon's small farms since the late 1990s and has an eclectic staff whose backgrounds include anthropology, soil science, economics, and entrepreneurial small farming.

Small farms, back to the future

OSU Extension always has worked with small farmers, since its beginnings a hundred years ago. "Everyone was a small farmer at one time. Even merchants in town did a little farming," said OSU's Garry Stephenson, who piloted the Small Farms program in 1996.

On sabbatical in France, Lev was taken with the traditions of local agriculture that filled French markets with locally produced wine, cheese, meat, and bread. Soon he turned his professional attention away from international commodity markets and toward the economics of small farms, joining Stephenson’s research.

Since Stephenson and Lev began researching farm-direct marketing in the late 1990s, there has been marked change in the number and variety of farm-direct channels and the types of products marketed directly to consumers in Oregon. Beyond every conceivable fruit or vegetable that can be coaxed from Oregon soils, for increasingly longer seasons, there is now a full range of meat products, grains, and farmstead cheeses that draw Oregonians to farmers markets across the state.

Even as modern agriculture became more global, consolidated, and ruled by commodity markets, Stephenson, an anthropologist, recognized the makings of a local food system that connects small farmers to communities and economies. Now he sees a growing consumer expectation that at least part of our food supply can and should be local.

Stephenson looks back and realizes that he was watching a revolution in progress. Although a tradition of support for locally grown food has carried on in venues such as roadside markets, by the mid-1990s the fledgling efforts of the prior decade really took off, with farmers markets and CSA leading the way. As the number of farmers markets increased rapidly, the USDA took note and conducted its first inventory of farmers markets since the 1970s. Farmers, who had largely given up hope that consumers might care where their food came from, now could see a small but significant base willing to pay a bit extra for great food and the opportunity to know a farmer on a first-name basis.

As Lev walked the markets and stayed on farms called "fermes auberges," he saw that French families recognized many different qualities of chicken from supermarket-style to birds with "a story, a tradition," Lev said. "In France they had government programs to ensure the quality," he said. "Geographic origin would be known. You would know what it ate, how it was produced, where it was produced. In 1997, it would have been difficult for someone in Oregon to find that level of diversity in chicken. Now we can."

Bringing ideas to market

"Oregon consumers now have greater access to outstanding food," Lev added. "You can see that from the growth of farmers markets and restaurants that are sourcing locally, plus the growth of retailers and institutions also buying locally."

When Stephenson first sat down with growers in 1996, he learned that marketing, not production,  was their greatest educational need. Changes in food markets that began in the 1950s had left small farmers without access to wholesale markets, and local marketing channels were hard to find, despite a rise in Extension attention to small farms in the 1970s.  

Joined by Linda Brewer, a soil scientist and OSU-trained Master Gardener, Lev and Stephenson began to study how farmers markets support surrounding business districts and what factors lead to market success or failure. They organized the first Farm Direct Marketing conference in 2001, which has grown steadily over the years as the Small Farms Conference.

By 2004, OSU Extension faculty all over Oregon were getting calls for help from would-be or current small farmers. It was time to expand into other regions. Today there are small farms faculty in southern Oregon, central Oregon, the coast and both ends of the Willamette Valley, plus an informal group of other faculty interested in boosting the fortunes of Oregon's small farmers. Faculty such as meat marketing adviser Lauren Gwin and dairy specialist Lisbeth Goddik help small farmers understand niche markets. Gwin collaborates with Cory Carman, whose Carman Ranch was founded by a member of the Weinhard brewing family, to build a viable supply chain for her Wallowa Valley grass-fed beef. Goddik’s outreach program helps small dairy farms convert to farmstead dairy operations.

It's easy to see how small farms can thrive in parts of Oregon where the climate is mild and precipitation adequate. But what about the people in other parts of Oregon, where cold, heat, or drought can be a constraint? The program has evolved to serve the needs of small farmers of all kinds across Oregon. So-called "lifestyle" farmers with a few animals and a garden, can take a class, “Living on the Land,” aimed at protecting soil and water as much as the cash flow of rural residents. New commercial farmers can enroll in a multisession program called “Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management” program that includes on-farm instruction in a variety of skills, such as composting or constructing and maintaining structures to extend the growing season. And the program can assist highly entrepreneurial commercial operations seeking help with the latest advances in nitrogen measurement and cover crop management to enhance sustainable practices and reduce fertilization costs.

Growing a community of farmers

A small farmer in southern Oregon, Kahty Chen Milstead, moved from Los Angeles to the Rogue Valley, where she found a community of small, ecologically minded farmers with roots in the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. Milstead engaged with OSU Extension faculty Melissa Matthewson and Maud Powell in several small farms programs and eventually started her own microgreens business called Salad Days. Her highly nutritious greens and edible flowers serve a local food bank, the Salvation Army, an Ashland restaurant, and a local online marketplace. But the business also meets Milstead's goals of water and soil conservation, plus her personal need for aesthetic beauty in her product and the dry forest she loves.

Stephenson sees the Growing Farms program as critical to developing the next generation of commercial farmers as the average age of farmers climbs to 57 and beyond. “We’re looking at perhaps the largest land transfer in the history of the county,” he said. “Growing Farms is growing replacement farmers by helping them integrate farm and family resources with the business and financial aspects of farming.”

Small farms faculty help this emerging community with workshops on balancing farm and family, learning to safely use and maintain a tractor, tackling on-farm welding and carpentry to keep essential equipment in use, and pruning fruit and nut trees. The Small Farms program has formed a partnership with organic certifier Oregon Tilth to support instruction and technical assistance on cover crops and organic agriculture research.

Powell taught a series of six classes on small-scale grain production. The classes looked at grains from every angle: pricing, marketing, varietal selection, soil preparation, integration into farm systems, harvesting and threshing, and grains for animal feed and homestead-scale operation. "Our hope is that we will form a working group of people who will form an equipment-sharing cooperative for small-scale grain production," Powell said.
 
Bend farmers Jim and Debbie Fields, who received OSU Extension Association Cooperator awards in 2010, do on-farm tours for OSU Extension's Growing Farms program in central Oregon. In addition to teaching tips for production in their challenging climate, Jim also tries to help participants understand the decision to farm. This type of farming has many valuable rewards, but “you'll never have the energy and desire if money is your only concern," Fields said.

Research large and small

Becoming a small farmer is not for everyone, and participants sometimes learn that they are not cut out for farm life.  Melissa Fery, Benton County small farms faculty member, says helping someone avoid failure due to lack of research or soul-searching is a good program outcome, too.

While the small farms program is not limited to organic production, some methods used by organic farmers are useful to other farmers who are not certified as organic and might never choose to certify. Nick Andrews, a small farms faculty member at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center, teaches and conducts research with farmers who use a wide range of production methods. Andrews has developed a spreadsheet-based calculator that allows farmers determine the amount of nitrogen sourced from organic fertilizers or from cover crops and available for plants to use. Andrews samples nitrogen levels in the soil, irrigation water, and cover crops and adds that information to the calculator. This knowledge can help farmers reduce costs and protect groundwater against nitrogen runoff. In addition, the calculator allows farmers to weigh the costs of added fertilizer against the costs of managing a cover crop, which can aid fertility and also keep soils in place through winter rains.

Each season, OSU’s Extension's Small Farms program puts knowledge into farmers' hands. At the farmers market, the exchange of knowledge is simple, as a farmer offers an apple to a child and they share a smile. And nearby, an anthropologist who packs a notepad with his shopping bags is smiling too as he records the moment.

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