Small Farms Have Big Impact in Oregon Communities

greenhouse in front of hill

Small farming is no small thing in Oregon. In the space of a generation, farmers and food advocates in Oregon have changed how we nourish our bodies, the land, and the economies of communities from Portland's downtown to the Rogue River.

More than 120 farmers markets bring the sights, smells, and tastes of the state's bounty to urban settings in big cities and small towns – a tenfold increase since 1987. Names of small Oregon farms now appear on restaurant menus, families "subscribe" to weekly boxes of produce from community supported agriculture (CSA), and small farms sell through local online networks.

Although the number of small farms in Oregon as defined by gross sales has not changed much in recent years, the value of farm-direct sales – the primary market channel for small farmers – exploded by 144 percent to $56 million from 2002 to 2007 as reported in the Census of Agriculture. This is more than four times the national growth rate, according to Larry Lev, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University. Farm-direct sales include sales to consumers, such as farmers markets, and sales to institutions without any intermediaries involved. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers a farm small if it grosses $250,000 or less per year.

The OSU Extension Service's Small Farms program has played a key role in building Oregon's small farms since the late 1990s and has an eclectic staff whose backgrounds include anthropology, soil science, economics, and entrepreneurial small farming.

Small farms, back to the future

OSU Extension always has worked with small farmers, since its beginnings a hundred years ago. "Everyone was a small farmer at one time. Even merchants in town did a little farming," said OSU's Garry Stephenson, who piloted the Small Farms program in 1996.

On sabbatical in France, OSU agricultural economist , Larry Lev,  was taken with the traditions of local agriculture that filled French markets with locally produced wine, cheese, meat, and bread. Soon he turned his professional attention away from international commodity markets and toward the economics of small farms, joining Stephenson’s research.

Since Stephenson and Lev began researching farm-direct marketing in the late 1990s, there has been marked change in the number and variety of farm-direct channels and the types of products marketed directly to consumers in Oregon. Beyond every conceivable fruit or vegetable that can be coaxed from Oregon soils, for increasingly longer seasons, there is now a full range of meat products, grains, and farmstead cheeses that draw Oregonians to farmers markets across the state.

Even as modern agriculture became more global, consolidated, and ruled by commodity markets, Stephenson, an anthropologist, recognized the makings of a local food system that connects small farmers to communities and economies. Now he sees a growing consumer expectation that at least part of our food supply can and should be local.

Stephenson looks back and realizes that he was watching a revolution in progress. Although a tradition of support for locally grown food has carried on in venues such as roadside markets, by the mid-1990s the fledgling efforts of the prior decade really took off, with farmers markets and CSA leading the way. As the number of farmers markets increased rapidly, the USDA took note and conducted its first inventory of farmers markets since the 1970s. Farmers, who had largely given up hope that consumers might care where their food came from, now could see a small but significant base willing to pay a bit extra for great food and the opportunity to know a farmer on a first-name basis.

As Lev walked the markets and stayed on farms called "fermes auberges," he saw that French families recognized many different qualities of chicken from supermarket-style to birds with "a story, a tradition," Lev said. "In France they had government programs to ensure the quality," he said. "Geographic origin would be known. You would know what it ate, how it was produced, where it was produced. In 1997, it would have been difficult for someone in Oregon to find that level of diversity in chicken. Now we can."