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.