East County conservation district buys land to help new farmers
The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District has acquired 14 acres next to its Headwaters Incubator Farm on the outskirts of Gresham, enabling the district to serve more would-be farmers.
The Headwaters Incubator Farm is land leased out to farmers who are just starting out and may not otherwise have the means to obtain acreage.
"Whether you're here in Multnomah or anywhere in the state of Oregon or even across the country, it's hard to start a new farm business," said Alex Woolery, marketing and media manager for the conservation district. "There's pressures on land. There's all of the capital costs. There's all the normal overhead of launching a new business. So this program really helps farmers get on their feet."
With growing development in the area, farmland is at risk of being turned into housing plots, while new and established farmers in the area struggle to find affordable land. The conservation district is trying to help with that. By purchasing land, it is ensuring its future use for agriculture, while working to keep it in good condition for future farmers.
"Farmland values in Multnomah County are the highest of anywhere in the state of Oregon, so it's a real challenge to acquire property," said Matt Shipkey, the district's Land Legacy Program manager.
Soil and water conservation districts are local special districts that originated after the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s to help farmers learn how to care for their land and water through grant programs, restoration projects, conservation education and more.
The district's Working Farmland Protection Program aims to ensure working land stays in production, while also keeping natural areas natural. Farmers can sell their land outright to the district, or they can get a working farmland easement, which ensures it remains in agricultural use.
Farmer Hank Mishima was retiring and no one in his family was interested in continuing to work the land. The 60-acre Headwaters farm was right next door, so Mishima approached the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. The conservation district saw a good opportunity, and now the land, which has Johnson Creek running through it, is part of the Working Farmland Protection Program.
"I was excited to have an opportunity to ensure farming would continue on the property, and that the transaction could help grow the next generation of farmers," Mishima said.
The conservation district isn't sure yet what the land will be used for, but it has the potential to be a landing spot for farmers graduating from the Headwaters program.
Currently, the land — previously used for a nursery — is being enhanced with cover crops and getting imrpovements to the riparian area near Johnson Creek.
Farmers at Headwaters are encouraged to use conservation farming practices, like field rotation and buffer strips. All the farms are organic, though they aren't required to be certified organic. The district provides free water as an incentive to use drip irrigation, and vegetation that attracts pollinator insects is planted in strips along the fields.
The district also is working to expand the native vegetation along Johnson Creek, where there already is a stream care program in place with restoration of salmon habitat.
According to Woolery, use of the Headwaters land is becoming more diverse. A few years ago, farmers mainly grew vegetables. Later, crops specifically grown for canning were added, and soon bees were being kept on the edge of the property. This year saw the start of a livestock operation, with rabbits and chickens. Now there's even a medicinal herb operation onsite. Products grown by the incubator farmers often are sold to farmers markets or directly to local restaurants.
According to Woolery, about 60 percent of farmland in Oregon will be changing hands in the next 20 years, since the majority of farmers will reach retirement age soon and don't have a succession plan.
"If folks are in agriculture and they're trying to figure out a future for their farm, they should reach out to us because we can help with providing some cash for a working farmland easement," Woolery said, "We potentially could purchase a property; we could provide succession planning resources."
A previous version of this article stated Headwaters was home to a medicinal cannabis operation, which is incorrect – there are medicinal herbs being farmed; they don't allow cannabis to be grown on the farm. It also stated the district was a taxing unit, which was changed to special district