Bringing Ideas to Market

"Oregon consumers now have greater access to outstanding food," states OSU economist Larry Lev. "You can see that from the growth of farmers markets and restaurants that are sourcing locally, plus the growth of retailers and institutions also buying locally."

When OSU anthropologist, Garry Stephenson, first sat down with growers in 1996, he learned that marketing, not production, was their greatest educational need. Changes in food markets that began in the 1950s had left small farmers without access to wholesale markets, and local marketing channels were hard to find, despite a rise in Extension attention to small farms in the 1970s. 

Joined by Linda Brewer, a soil scientist and OSU-trained Master Gardener, Lev and Stephenson began to study how farmers markets support surrounding business districts and what factors lead to market success or failure. They organized the first Farm Direct Marketing conference in 2001, which has grown steadily over the years as the Small Farms Conference.

By 2004, OSU Extension faculty all over Oregon were getting calls for help from would-be or current small farmers. It was time to expand into other regions. Today there are small farms faculty in southern Oregon, central Oregon, the coast and both ends of the Willamette Valley, plus an informal group of other faculty interested in boosting the fortunes of Oregon's small farmers. Faculty such as meat marketing adviser Lauren Gwin and dairy specialist Lisbeth Goddik help small farmers understand niche markets. Gwin collaborates with Cory Carman, whose Carman Ranch was founded by a member of the Weinhard brewing family, to build a viable supply chain for her Wallowa Valley grass-fed beef. Goddik’s outreach program helps small dairy farms convert to farmstead dairy operations.

It's easy to see how small farms can thrive in parts of Oregon where the climate is mild and precipitation adequate. But what about the people in other parts of Oregon, where cold, heat, or drought can be a constraint? The program has evolved to serve the needs of small farmers of all kinds across Oregon. So-called "lifestyle" farmers with a few animals and a garden, can take a class, “Living on the Land,” aimed at protecting soil and water as much as the cash flow of rural residents. New commercial farmers can enroll in a multisession program called “Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management” program that includes on-farm instruction in a variety of skills, such as composting or constructing and maintaining structures to extend the growing season. And the program can assist highly entrepreneurial commercial operations seeking help with the latest advances in nitrogen measurement and cover crop management to enhance sustainable practices and reduce fertilization costs.