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Russian immigrant farms on S.E. 39th Avenue

by: Merry MacKinnon, This half-acre facing S.E. 39th Avenue in Woodstock is enrolled in Mercy Corps Northwest’s inventory of land available to immigrants and refugees for small-scale farming. A Russiam immigrant found out about the charity’s New American Agriculture Project, and he is currently raising vegetables on the plot.

When property owners allow immigrants and refugees to farm their land, through a program run by Mercy Corps Northwest, often the only incentive is the knowledge that they've done a good deed.

'A lot of our landowners donate because they know about Mercy Corps, and they want to help by hosting a farmer on their land,' explains Drew Katz, coordinator of Mercy Corps Northwest's New American Agriculture Project.

Generally known for its international charitable work, Mercy Corps also has a Northwest branch that focuses on improving the lives of low-income individuals in Oregon and Washington through small business development and self-employment.

One of the charity's initiatives is its New American Agriculture Project, which encourages small-scale farming by refugees and immigrants within metropolitan Portland and across the Columbia River in Vancouver. Not only are the newcomers able to grow their own food for their families, but they also get tools, seeds and advice on selling produce.

This year, a half-acre plot off S.E. 39th Avenue in Woodstock is part of Mercy Corps Northwest's inventory of land available to immigrants for farming. Located on the east side of 39th between Woodstock Boulevard and S.E. Steele, the plot is owned by an adjacent neighbor - and it's now being farmed by a Russian immigrant whose name is Alexander Velikoretskikh.

Since the land is not zoned for agricultural use, the woman who owns the land isn't getting any agricultural-use tax benefit, explains Katz. But, he adds, Mercy Corps is trying to devise some incentives to convince landowners to let their land be farmed.

'Right now, certain tax laws are not applicable when it comes to incentives,' Katz says. 'But we are bringing people together - land trusts, Metro, and tax law attorneys - to provide guidance.'

While Mercy Corps Northwest acts as a facilitator, the landowners set the terms when they sign onto the agriculture project's inventory.

'It's between the farmer and the landowner. Sometimes, landowners want a contract; sometimes it's verbal. Often, they want a part of the profits or some of the fruit and vegetables,' says Katz, adding that the minimum-size plot is one half acre.

Currently, Velikoretskikh, who lives with his wife and eight children about 30 blocks east of 39th, has learned enough about farming now to cultivate additional land on Sauvie Island. When harvest comes, he will sell his vegetables through a community-supported agriculture program sponsored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon Interfaith Food and Farms Partnership.

'And Velikoretskikh will probably be selling produce at Lents Farmers Market and at People's Food Co-op,' Katz predicts.

In the meantime, the property owner who owns the plot on S.E. 39th can peer out her picture window and see a tidy plot of land she owns that she doesn't have to mow.

'All Velikoretskikh has to do is maintain the land, and make sure it looks good,' Katz says.