What is the Future of Oregon Farmland?

Over the past year, I’ve worked with a group of colleagues from Portland State University, Oregon State University and Rogue Farm Corps to pull together some information about the future of farmland in Oregon. The report has just been issued, and you can find it here.

Anne Berblinger, a friend, board member, and owner of Gales Meadow Farm, raised the question a couple of years ago. Anne has been working with Rogue Farm Corps for several years as a host farmer. Among the aspiring farmers that she has hosted on her farm, one issue is common to all of them: they struggle to find land for farming. Facing rising land prices and high startup costs, young farmers struggle to get started building their careers.

At the same time, more Oregon farmers are older and nearing retirement. They’ve been farming longer, have larger farms, and are holding onto farms longer. Sixty is the new 50, at least for Oregon’s farmers, whose average age has risen from 50 in 1982 to 55 in 2002 and to 60 by 2012. As these farmers retire, up to 10 million acres of farmland—over sixty percent of all the farmland in Oregon— could be transferred over the next two to three decades. And very few farmers have farm succession plans in place.

How that land is transferred might have a big impact on our future. Agriculture is an important part of Oregon’s economy and is particularly important for rural communities.  Agriculture also provides environmental benefits and strengthens Oregon’s resilience to economic and climactic shocks. While Oregon’s land use program protects much of Oregon’s farmland from urban development, the coming transfer of farmland could impact the extent to which farmland continues to bring these important benefits to our state. Stakeholders fear that farmland may be acquired by investors interested simply in holding the land speculatively or by those interested in a rural lifestyle but not in farming as a business.

To gain a sense of to whom farmland has recently been transferred, my colleague Megan Horst examined five years of farmland transfers (2010 to 2015) across four of Oregon’s counties—Washington, Clackamas, Benton and Polk. She found that a relatively small percentage of the transfers in each county (five to ten percent) were to owners that retained out-of-state addresses, and that 25 to 40 percent of those sales were to business entities, including LLCs, partnerships, and corporations.  While this doesn’t tell us what these new owners might do with the land, it does tell suggest that it might be important to  monitor them and to assess whether Oregon’s land use laws will continue to suppot a productive agricultural sector.

Ideally, we could help aspiring and retiring farmers find each other. A number of tools exist to help farmers develop succession plans and to help beginning farmers find land. Land-sharing models, such as farm conservation easements, working lands easements, and creative leasing arrangements may lead to better outcomes for retiring and aspiring farmers. Programs like Oregon Farm Link can help connect beginning farmers with experienced ones, allowing them to explore innovative land access arrangements. Nonprofit farm incubators also offer low cost access to land, and enable beginning farmers to gain experience.

Understanding farmers’ needs and identifying effective ways to support beneficial succession of thousands of acres of Oregon’s farmland will require additional research. We hope to gain a better understanding of how these transfers will affect Oregon’s agricultural future.


Wages and job growth: recreating the middle


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This past week we held our economic forecast event: Future Fortune: What’s Ahead for the Regional Economy. Lynn Valenter kicked off the event by announcing IMS’s new data tool, Neighborhood Pulse. Then I provided a quick snapshot of the state of the regional economy (you can find the powerpoint here). Jason Jurjevich discussed migration trends, and Christian Kaylor discussed wage and employment trends. Tom Potiowsky provided us a summary of his regional economic forecast.

One of the most interesting trends I took from the event was the distribution of job growth by wages. This chart, provided by Christian, shows that over the past ten years, jobs in industries whose wages fall in the middle of the wage distribution have barely grown, while those at the top of the wage distribution, which typically require greater amounts of education and experience, have grown much more quickly. But the fastest growing occupations are the low wage jobs that require little or no post-secondary education. Thus, while low-skill workers have plenty of job opportunities, their average annual wages are quite low—too low, in many cases, to meet the region’s self sufficiency standardwageslide

This ties to another trend that we just recently started tracking on Greater Portland Pulse, wage distribution. It shows the ratio of the 90 percentile wage (the wage at which 90 percent of jobs pay less) to the 10 percentile age (the wage at which 10 percent of the jobs pay less). A higher ratio indicates a greater wage divergence between lowest and highest paid workers. The ratio has been rising over the past ten years, and although the ratio for the Portland region is lower than that of the nation, we are closing the gap. And the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse showed us over the weekend that stagnating wages are a national trend for the typical American worker.

Our challenge in the future, then, is threefold:

  1. Expand the middle wage jobs that have traditionally provided a self-sufficient wage, even for workers without a great deal of formal education by expanding markets for our manufactured goods. Greater Portland Inc’s Global Trade and Investment Plan is one example of a strategy for doing that.
  2. Offer more opportunities to upgrade low-skill jobs to increase worker productivity while providing a skill and career ladder for lower wage workers. Portland Community College has a number of career pathways programs that lead from lower-wage positions such as retail sales clerk and entry-level maintenance worker, to higher paid positions in customer service and facilities management. Ensuring that employers recognized and reward these credentials is also critical.
  3. Ensure that more workers complete the secondary education required to enter higher wage occupations. This requires that we stay focused on keeping kids on track for an on-time graduation from high school, making secondary education affordable, and ensuring that kids are aware of the careers available to them with post-secondary education. The All Hands Raised Partnership’s High School to College and Career Collaborative is gathering data and developing strategies related to this issue.

The truth is, we need to keep working this issue of low and stagnant wages from all of these angles. No one approach can work for all of our workers currently earning salaries that are too low to support themselves or their families.

Learning from National Neighborhood Indicators Partners


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This week, several IMS staff members attended the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership meeting in Dallas. NNIP is a collaboration of the Urban Institute and local partners in 35 cities to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems for community building and local decision-making. IMS is the Portland partner.

The conference always includes at least one tour of a neighborhood or community development project. I chose the tour of the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, an innovative Housing First community that will serve chronically homeless individuals with a criminal background and history of mental illness. The Cottages community includes 50 400 square foot single-occupancy housing units with on-site integrated health and social services. Rather than transitional housing, these residents will live here forever, with few rules, other than being a good neighbor. Each unit includes a front porch with an Adirondack chair to build community, and everyone gets a key to their home. The folks at The Cottages estimate that permanent housing will reduce the cost of services for each resident from an average of $40,000 per year to about $15,000 per year. They will be using evidence-based services and will follow a rigorous evaluation program to measure the results. Wow. With the high rate of homelessness in the Portland region, I wonder if these ambitious ideas can translate to Portland?nnip pic

One of my favorite sessions was about Civic Tech and data ecosystems. Several NNIP partners are participating in a project in partnership with Living Cities and Code for America, to explore how civic technologists, data specialists, and local government leaders can work more effectively together to address pressing problems affecting low-income residents. They are testing the idea that data and tech can only be used to their full potential when an ecosystem of relevant players pool their talents intentionally, in a sustained way, to deepen their collective impact.

One great example comes from our partner in St. Louis. Rise, Open Data STL, the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County will collaborate to implement technology solutions to help people navigate the local criminal justice system, including traffic ticket resolution, appearing in court and resolving warrants. Better collection and analysis of data will improve the operations of these systems and help people avoid fines. The partners will also collect stories about people’s interactions with the justice system in order to identify and push for additional solutions.

The session leaders challenged us to pick an issue and map the civic and data technology ecosystem of that issue for our region. I can think of many issues in the Portland region that could benefit from a data and technology ecosystem mapping. For each of these issues many players collect, process, and use data. The question is whether they are working together to ensure that different players are working together over time, combining their efforts rather than competing for data, talent, and resources. What should we map: Workforce training? Child poverty? School success? I’m hoping to invite one of these partners to Portland to help us with one of these mappings.

I always return from these meetings full of ideas about how IMS can better serve our community with information that informs important policy debates. I’m looking forward to discussing these ideas with my Portland partners!