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Peak Soil

Keeping the best farmland viable

Peak Soil

By Alissa Bohling

When it comes to production potential, Oregon’s farmland is in a class of its own.

“The Willamette Valley is very exceptional in that the climate and the soils we have allow us to potentially be self-sufficient in food, fuel, and fiber. There’s just a handful of places like that in the United States,” said Lane County Farm Bureau Treasurer George Grier.

Despite its unique wealth, Northwest farmland is not immune to development pressures, or any of the economic and political forces that threaten farms across the country. And Oregon’s landbase isn’t just steadily shrinking—it’s disappearing faster all the time. Between 2002 and 2007, land in farms in the state fell by four percent, twice the amount during the previous five-year period. North of the Columbia River, things don’t look much better. About 23,000 acres of Washington farmland vanish each year.  

To complicate matters, the price per acre of farm real estate has soared in the last ten years—by 69 percent in Washington and by 53 percent in Oregon. Can the region find a way to hold onto its production advantage as topsoil disappears under pavement like ocean life under a spreading oil slick?

Most farm advocates acknowledge there’s no silver bullet that can slow or reverse an intensifying land shortage. Even so, one solution has become increasingly popular. According to a survey by the Land Trust Alliance, between 2000 and 2005 the total number of acres protected by conservation easements in the Northwest shot up 74 percent and climbed 148 percent nationwide. Not all of that land was designated for farming, but the apparent success of the easement tool was certainly not lost on farmland advocates or the organics community. 

Land under an agricultural conservation easement is protected as farmland in perpetuity, which is a fancy way of saying for as long as human beings will need to grow food to eat—forever. But while farmers and ag advocates rack up acreage under easements—and landowners cash in on tidy tax breaks—questions remain about how the tool will hold up in the long run.

Seattle-based PCC Farmland Trust is the only land trust in the country dedicated to preserving farmland specifically for organic production. In its earlier years, the Trust focused on buying up Washington acreage, until they decided they needed more dirt for their dollar. Two years ago they decided to focus instead on the purchase of agricultural conservation easements, taking the process a step further by building an organic requirement into the easement document. The Trust’s most recent success saved 100 acres in the Puyallup Valley.

Nash Huber farms 74 of the first 97 acres PCC purchased back in 2001. Huber, who has been recognized nationally as a land steward, has conservation easements on about half of the 400 acres he farms. “That’s a real active part of our strategy,” said Huber. 

But the trend to conserve land this way is relatively new, and some critics of the easement model assert that forever is a long time to trust to a mere legal document. 

“You can get a lot more acreage under easement than you can by holding title; that’s why it’s so tempting. But it’s a temporary fix,” said Will Newman, cofounder of the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust, or OSALT, which acquires land only by donation. Monitoring and defending easements takes time and money, and Newman is concerned about what could happen several successions down the line if a new landowner takes the easement holder to court over development rights. 

“As a society, we have to say, ‘This is valuable to us. We’re going to pay these farmers to continue to farm this land.’”  

Even if the ag interest prevails, says Newman, “There’s no benefit to me except the moral victory of keeping the land pristine.” Meanwhile, the financial incentive to develop remains, and, says Newman, a deep-pocketed landowner could wage a legal battle of attrition.  Eventually, “I’ve got to balance whether losing that site is worth not being able to defend the other sites.”  

PCC Farmland Trust’s Executive Director Kathryn Gardow acknowledges that the system is not perfect. “Perhaps we’re young enough that we haven’t gotten to the point where we’ve had to have enforcement problems,” she said, acknowledging that enforcement “could become more challenging as properties turn over.” On top of succession concerns are questions about other future legal challenges such as eminent domain claims.  

Don Stuart, Northwest States Director for American Farmland Trust (AFT), remains optimistic. Stuart cited the experience of Salem-area farmers Diana Gardener and Judson Parsons, who in 2000 took on the Bonneville Power Administration’s proposal to erect towers on Gardener’s and Parsons’s land, which is under an agricultural conservation easement held by AFT. In response to the threat to the farm, the AFT didn’t mince words in a letter to the energy agency, explaining that the BPA would be forced to condemn the property if they wanted to go forward. The BPA backed down. 

Energy interests may be the most obvious challenge, but it’s not the only one. Farmland preservation is just one arm of a land protection movement that is increasingly leveraging easements to meet all kinds of conservation goals, many of which have little to do with food security. The same survey that charted the rapid growth of lands conserved under easements found that 39 percent of the respondent land trusts focused primarily on saving natural areas and wildlife habitat.

Gardow observed that when federal tax authorities review conservation easements, “The IRS regulations are definitely geared toward protecting wildlife and habitat areas and scenic areas, rather than food production.” And while Huber believes “being organic agriculture gives us kind of a leg up” on working with other environmental groups, conflicts still surface on occasion. “There are the people . . . who view any impact other than just ‘take the land and leave it alone’ as the wrong course,” said Huber. 

Ironically, conservation easements’ long-term viability might hinge more on what goes on in the courts than what comes up in the fields.  Under fire recently are the tax incentives that make donating conservation easements attractive to landowners. More than a few land donors have found themselves facing off in court against the IRS, which began aggressively scrutinizing easements as donations spiked, often claiming easements had little or no value and effectively invalidating deductions that can reach into the multi-millions. Nonetheless, a 2009 review of several cases found that “the courts generally have rejected” the IRS’s argument. The study’s authors concluded that landowners should be “encouraged” by their findings.

Threats to farms from energy interests aren’t going away yet, either. After keeping BPA’s new towers off their crops in 2000, Gardener and Parsons are facing another challenge, this time from Portland General Electric (PGE), which wants to run a wind energy line through their land “I think PGE will be a lot more difficult to deal with than BPA was,” said Gardener. But when she and Parsons met with PGE, “They did ask if there were other farmers with easements,” said Gardener. “From that, I gathered that if there were several of us with this protection, that that would make an impact.”

Gardener’s comment points to an important question heard in advocacy circles within and beyond the farming community—can a legal framework effect change on its own, or does it need to be part of a broader shift in the culture itself?

“As a society, we have to say, ‘This is valuable to us. We’re going to pay these farmers to continue to farm this land.’” 

While financial obstacles certainly stand in the way of farmland preservation efforts, says Huber, “The other issue is convincing people that you need to do this.” Grier agrees: “As a society, we have to say, ‘This is valuable to us. We’re going to pay these farmers to continue to farm this land.’”  

At least one key shift may already be in motion. Although the USDA’s Agricultural Censuses continue to return dire numbers about the aging of farmers, by some measures it seems as if the human resources for food production are growing almost as quickly as the landbase is shrinking. Huber, for one, was thrilled by the turnout at an ecological farming conference he attended this year. “When I walked into the main hall the first night there, I thought I was at a college gathering. The average age was probably about 35,” he said. 

Newman is similarly positive. He thinks the emerging generation has the strengths of both the money-conscious Reagan generation and the collective-minded 1960s Berkeley crowd he started out in. “We’re seeing an influx again of young people who understand community . . and, they understand money,” said Newman. “They understand that we’re all in this together. They understand that we live on a finite planet.”
Like Huber and Newman, organic growers Clayton Burrows and Andrew Stout are already harnessing that potential. 

“There’s a whole new generation that I think has an interest and appreciation for farming, but none of them have any practical skills,” said Burrows, whose community-based nonprofit, Growing Washington, farms about 100 acres. Burrows is proud of the partnerships the organization has formed between new growers in their twenties and experienced Latino farmers. The young crowd is “tech savvy, good at marketing, and in touch with social networking,” said Burrows, who is excited “to see that combined with the thriftiness and hard work ethic of the Latino farmers.”

Stout’s intern program at his farm outside of Seattle fills a gap he’s noticed in business training opportunities for farmers outside of the commodity world. Stout’s interns learn as much about forecasting and employee management as they do about growing food.  

New leaders are needed in other areas, too, perhaps especially in Oregon, where, says Grier, “Our land use laws are really broken. It just becomes very, very difficult to see how farmland can continue to be protected.” Grier believes that, “At the moment, it’s not practical” to use agricultural conservation easements to protect the state’s farmland, citing control of urban growth boundaries as the most promising strategy. 

So although she won’t be farming when she graduates, perhaps University of Oregon Masters degree candidate Elizabeth Weigand should be counted among the ranks of “sea-changing” young farmers. Weigand is one of the first people to apply a rural perspective to the use of form-based code, a cutting edge alternative to conventional zoning that is popular in ag savvy design circles. As a planning intern for the newly incorporated city of Damascus—arguably ground zero in Oregon’s urban growth debate—Weigand is developing guidelines that are expected to become part of the city’s development code. 

Numbers released by the USDA’s first ever organic production survey in 2008 reveal a long road ahead if farmland is going to be not only protected, but managed sustainably. Just 105,605 of Oregon’s 16.4 million acres of farmland are managed organically; Washington’s organic acreage accounts for 82,216 of its 15 million total acres. And of the 923 million acres of land being used to grow food nationwide, a mere 4 million are organic. 

Debates around imperfect solutions continue against a backdrop of mounting urgency. As OSALT’s Newman observed, “We need to get this right, probably within my lifetime. We don’t have much time left.”

Alissa Bohling is a Portland-based freelance journalist.


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