We need to play to our strengths in Washington County.

The economic future of Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove depends on our success in balancing our successful agricultural past with the promise of our technological future.

This balance will take careful planning and real commitment from statewide and local officials. Without the farmland, open space, farmer’s markets and local foods, it will be hard to maintain the natural amenities that high-tech employees crave. If farmland is replaced with industrial plots, the agricultural infrastructure needed for a full farm economy will slowly disappear.

Many recent tax incentives and land use rulings have helped high-tech thrive here. That’s a good thing. Now, we need equal enthusiasm for farm job -– which means real policy and state investment in Washington County agriculture. Luckily, we start with a strong foundation –- amazing farmland, decent infrastructure and farmers’ markets that are expanding opportunities for a new generation of farmers.

Here are three things we should do right away to promote the agricultural community in Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove:

1. Protect the world-class farmland in western Washington County. Our ability to grow the best produce in the world depends on us protecting the best farmland in the world. This is the easiest and most important piece of our long term plans. If we lose the best farmland in the state, we can never re-create what we’ve lost. The best agricultural land should be preserved, long term so farmers can be confident that investments on their land will be returned.

2. Prioritize FFA, 4-H and vocational skills training at high schools and community colleges. We will not have a farm economy without farmers, and we’ll only have farmers if our high schools and community colleges are providing programs for students to learn the basic skills they need to grow, breed and harvest.

3. Strategically invest in Extension Services to give area farmers more access to cutting-edge technology. Oregon State University’s Extension Services should have the ability to support new farmers as they get started and long-time farmers as they adapt their business to meet new industries and new economic realities.

If we want our economy to grow, we need to invest in the strengths of our community, invest in our heritage and invest in a diverse system that can feed all the appetites of our future economy.

Ben Unger is the Democratic candidate for Oregon House District 29, which includes most of western Washington County.

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