Oregon nursery

It’s an old cliché that farmers are never happy about the weather, but their complaints to the Oregon Farm Bureau often have nothing to do with the elements.

As public policy counsel for the organization, Mary Anne Cooper regularly hears about the growing burden of government restrictions on farm businesses.

“We’ve never spent so much time on paperwork,” she said, summarizing the sentiment. “We’ve never spent so much time figuring out what’s expected of us.”

Oregon’s farmers and rancher sell roughly $5 billion of crops and livestock a year and the agriculture industry contributes about $23 billion, or 10.6 percent, to the state’s net product — the amount of value-added income generated in-state.

After expenses, Oregon’s 34,200 farmers and ranchers earn a total net income of roughly $800 million, which averages out to about $23,000 per operation.

More than 326,000 jobs are linked to farming and ranching, representing nearly 14 percent of Oregon’s total employment, even after the industry has mechanized tremendously over the past century.

While farmers are generally proud to employ fellow Oregonians, a steady procession of new labor requirements — such as paid sick time — are spurring further automation, farm advocates say.

“The costs associated with having a workforce are astronomical,” said Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “The cost of regulation imposed by legislation is huge.”

As new rules make it tougher to earn a return on investment in agriculture and timber production, fewer people are finding reasons to stay on the family farm or woodlot, he said.

The effect tends to compound over time, as people can’t remain in rural areas due to the lack of doctors and other critical service providers, Bushue said.

“Rural towns are getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said.

It’s not only farmers who are seeking ways to cut labor costs — so are the food processing and wood products facilities that are the economic lifeblood of many small towns.

“As we’ve become more efficient, we’ve seen these rural communities hollowed out to a great degree,” said Bruce Sorte, a retired economist at Oregon State University who studied Oregon’s agriculture industry.

The jobs still available in agriculture and affiliated industries are becoming more skilled and better-compensated, but there are fewer of them, he said.

In the past, the jobs lost in rural areas haven’t been readily replaced, effectively meaning that people had to move away and switch careers, Sorte said.

Realistically, that means state government should plan to invest in education, training and otherwise “cushioning” dislocated rural workers, he said.

“It will challenge policy makers and businesses to pick up the slack of those jobs when they’re not needed,” Sorte said.

The average Oregon farm is less than 500 acres, with about 97 percent of the operations family owned and operated.

Environmental enforcement that makes farming more challenging and expensive is disruptive to the small farms that Oregon ostensibly values, since they often can’t afford to keep up with the multiplying rules, said Cooper of the Farm Bureau.

“That is really frustrating. It creates a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

However, the outlook for Oregon agriculture isn’t all doom and gloom.

More than 220 agricultural commodities are produced in the state, which leads the country in growing such crops as hazelnuts, blackberries, Christmas trees and multiple kinds of grass and clover seed.

“We’re very competitive with other parts of the country,” said Bryan Ostlund, an administrator for several commodity commissions that collect money from growers for crop research and promotion.

As more permanent crops such as hazelnuts and grapevines are planted, that creates a healthy competition for acreage with grass seed and other row crops, Ostlund said. Such competition gives growers options when certain commodities are oversupplied and prices fall.

The popularity of cover crop seeds, including radish and turnip seeds, have increasingly given farmers an alternative to traditional grass seed crops, he said. “It provides an excellent opportunity for growers.”

Oregon’s close proximity to the Pacific Ocean also makes the Asian export market accessible for growers, which helped a lot when they faced a surplus of grass seed during the most recent recession, Ostlund said.

About 40 percent of Oregon’s agricultural production leaves the country and 80 percent leaves the state.

Shipping the seed to China helped reduce the domestic inventory, making way for the strong grass seed prices growers are seeing today, he said.

“International export is critical,” Ostlund said.

The risk, of course, is that agriculture is vulnerable to trade disputes and dependent on transportation infrastructure that needs modernizing, he said.

Water infrastructure is also a key concern, since nearly two-thirds of harvest crop acres are irrigated, and irrigated farmland produces more than three-quarters of Oregon’s crop value.

Irrigation depends on canals, pipes and storage reservoirs that were often built 75 to 100 years ago, said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress.

“All of it is in need of repair,” she said. “They were built in an era when the federal government heavily invested in water infrastructure, as well as roads and bridges.”

Notwithstanding vows by the current presidential administration to invest in infrastructure, farmers can’t depend on the federal government fully funding an upgrade of irrigation systems, she said.

“For them to be able to pay for that individually is very difficult,” Snell said.

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