Green For Acres

Oregon's small farmers want subsidies, too.

Four years ago, Florence Jessup spent a small fortune to start her Hillsboro farm, Artisan Organics: more than $70,000 from an inheritance and her retirement accounts.

Since then, Jessup, farming on rented land, has joined the Portland area's burgeoning local food movement—selling at three farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture, the subscription-based buying system where consumers purchase shares of local crops.

If she hadn't had the cash, Jessup says, she could never have got her 6-acre operation up and running.

"What does this mean for the future of food in the United States when the only people who can afford to grow it [on small farms] are already retired or trustafarians?" Jessup asks. "That's a very limited population."

In the Portland area, the popularity of farmers markets and local agriculture continues to grow, fueled by small-scale farms that emphasize sustainability.

But taxpayers may soon be asked to step up and help out this local food base.

Federal support for agriculture nationwide is nothing new, with multibillion-dollar annual subsidies for large growers of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. The largest farms get the lion's share of government payments.

The area's small farming operations now say they want in as well.

Small farms are vital to the sustainable local food system that urban Oregonians celebrate every week by crowding into highly priced farmers markets.

The Oregon Farmers' Markets Association estimates the number of farmers markets in the state has grown from 12 to 158 since 1987. For the first time, the Portland and Hollywood farmers markets will have winter markets. (The former is open Saturdays through February, the latter on the first and third Saturdays of each month through April.)

But advocates say this trend is not financially sustainable without state help.

John Eveland says his family maxed out its credit cards and needed cash it received from an insurance settlement following an auto accident to keep Gathering Together Farm in Philomath 23 years ago. It took more than two decades—and hitting $750,000 in annual sales—before the family could qualify for credit from banks.

“There have to be better ways to help farmers access the capital they need,” says Jared Gardner of Oregon Banks Local. 

The push for assistance to small-scale farming comes as state lawmakers draft legislation for next month's session to create the Oregon Growth Board, an entity with the power to invest in businesses and projects without having to wait for the Legislature.

The plan is aimed at helping businesses in general, but advocates of small, family farmers want it to contain strong language supportive of that group.

Steve Hughes, state director of the Oregon Working Families Party, says his organization is eager to avoid legislation aimed at luring that "one big company" promising jobs with millions in tax giveaways.

There doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm at the state's Department of Agriculture. Brent Searle, special assistant to the department's director, says federal programs are already available.

The state has 38,500 farms—of those, about 7 percent produce 85 percent of Oregon's agricultural output. The majority of the remaining farms are often those that sell produce at farmers markets, and most of them—often organic operations—have sales of less than $10,000 a year.

Other states do far more to help small-scale farming.

Two years ago, Massachusetts responded to the growing popularity of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture by providing up to $10,000 in matching grants for new farmers even if they don't own the land.

Massachusetts also provides grants up to $100,000 for farmers who keep their land in production. Program director Craig Richov says the state assists 20 to 24 farms annually, and only a handful have failed since the program started 15 years ago.

"If you had banks working with businesses and providing loans, and 99.5 percent were successful, you would be a pretty good banker," Richov says.

Chances of gaining any new subsidies this year for Oregon small-scale farming are slim, says Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), who co-chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

But Clem says that could change if small-scale farming advocates can mobilize. Last year, he sponsored House Bill 2336, which exempts small-scale farmers from food-inspection laws when selling their fruits, vegetables and other produce. So many constituents wrote in support, he says, that many lawmakers told him, "I'm not voting against that." The bill passed.

The bottom line, advocates say, is that the state should subsidize small farms as the feds subsidize large ones.

"We have a long history of supporting agriculture because it's our food," Hughes says. If we simply leave agriculture to the whims of the free market, we'd probably be "eating rations of genetically modified corn chips from Monsanto” every day.