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In Oregon, Columbia County saw the second highest percent decrease in farmland in 2012-2017

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - From the Crown Zellerbach Trail in Scappoose, visitors can see farming operations, wetlands and construction. The amount of farmland in Columbia County has decreased in recent years, but the number of farms has gone up.

Columbia County saw a 23.45% reduction in farmland between 2012 and 2017, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, released in April, shows that Columbia County had the second highest percent loss of farmland among Oregon counties.

"We've got to face it, Columbia County is not really an (agriculture) county anymore," said Don Mehlhoff, Columbia County district conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "We're a forest county. There's probably only a handful of people farming more than 100 acres."

Despite the loss of total farmland in the county, the number of farms grew from 751 to 789 over the five-year span.

"Even though agriculture acreage has dropped, the interest in small market operations... has taken a surge in Columbia County," Mehlhoff said.

"We have more and more interest from small operations that are wanting our assistance," on soil health, water quality and resource issues, Mehlhoff said.

In 2017, more than a third of Columbia County farms were smaller than 10 acres. Less than 13% were larger than 100 acres.

The loss of farmland isn't a new trend, but it is speeding up. Between 2012 and 2017, Oregon's total acreage in agricultural production decreased by 330,000 acres. That amount is more than triple the 98,000 acres Oregon lost from 2007-2012, according to the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts.

The average age of farm owners and managers is just under 60 years old. Statistics about the age of farmers show "that there's not a large population looking to step in, to take over farming," said Doug Hayes, executive director of the Port of Columbia County.

"We're going to continue to grow as the [Portland] metro area expands to the north here," Mehlhoff said.

Gravel mining and wetland mitigation efforts also "take farmland out of production — I'm not saying if that's good or bad," Mehlhoff said. One example is the 2012 sale of the Columbia Stock Ranch to Columbia Land Trust. The 898-acre "floodplain-turned-cattle operation will become floodplain again," according to the Columbia Land Trust website.

Growing industry and housing needs have been viewed by many as a threat to farmland, but "that hasn't been a really big impact yet," Mehlhoff said.

The Port of Columbia County and environmental groups have tangled over the port's effort to rezone 837 acres at Port Westward from farmland to rural industrial land. But if the rezone effort succeeds, it won't immediately eliminate active farms.

The land up for rezone "hasn't been in use for 30 years," Hayes said, "[and] no one has been knocking at the door."

"To have one doesn't mean you can't have the other," he added about the compatibility of farming and other industries. "There can be a balance between both. It depends on the [specific] farming and industry."

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