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So you want to be a farmer?

New program in Troutdale teaches people to farm in the urban area
by: Jaime Valdez Dan Bravin, a project manager at Multnomah County’s farm parcel in Troutdale, prepares the ground with a tiller.

Call it 'Green Acres,' Portland style.

On a 2-acre parcel in Troutdale, a new Multnomah County program is teaching former computer engineers and other city slickers how to become farmers.

They're not going back to the farm, like rich New Yorkers Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in the TV spoof 'Green Acres.' They're learning how to bring farming back to the urban area.

During eight months of study in the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticement Program, 13 students are learning the rudiments of organic farming. They get down in the dirt twice a week at the county's Troutdale farm and the Learning Gardens Laboratory in Southeast Portland, led by veteran instructor Weston Miller. Then they switch out of their overalls for twice-a-month lectures at the county commissioners' boardroom in inner Southeast Portland, where they study marketing, how to do a business plan and other technical subjects.

The idea for the program grew out of the county's Food Action Plan, a 15-year strategy by the county Office of Sustainability to promote locally grown and healthy food, among other goals.

Fewer local farmers

Multnomah County lost 21 percent of its farms in the five years prior to 2007, and 17 percent of its cultivated farm acreage, according to the most recent federal data.

The average Multnomah County farmer is 58 years old, and many family farms have nobody willing to carry on the family business.

County leaders hope to reverse some of those trends, especially given the growing 'locavore' appetite for fresh, locally produced food.

'This is an amazing program,' says Matt Phillips, taking a break as the class plants red peppers at the Troutdale site.

Phillips, 35, a former Intel engineer, hopes to make a living by doing small-scale organic farming in urban backyards, selling to a regular corps of subscribers via a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Kazunori 'Kaz' Otomo, 37, a former software engineer, grew up in Japan, where his grandmother was a rice farmer. Otomo's dream is to open a business growing specialty Asian vegetables.

'I'm using this program to see if I'm really up to what I think I want to do,' he says, while dropping fertilizer into holes before the red pepper starts are replanted.

One of Phillips' and Otomo's classmates has already planted hundreds of blueberries on a plot of land. Another classmate is an herbalist who hopes to grow specialty herbs.

Multnomah County is joining with Oregon State University Extension Service on the internship program, and using a curriculum pioneered by the University of California at Santa Cruz farm program.

Dan Bravin, who worked in small-scale farming for five years, is coordinating the county program.

The county saw a gap in training for people to do the type of small-scale intensive farming that is well suited for organic and urban farming, Bravin says.

Not surprisingly, a program devised by the county sustainability office preaches organic farming.

'We don't use herbicides and pesticides, and we only use organic fertilizers,' Bravin says.

Someone working just 1 acre can gross as much as $100,000 raising organic fruits and vegetables, he says.

He sees the price gap between organic and traditionally grown food narrowing in coming years, as the supply of oil drops and oil prices rise. Petroleum is used to make many farm chemicals and for shipping produce around the world.

Though Bravin admits the nutritional value of organic foods isn't noticeably different, he's concerned about the environmental impact of all the chemicals used in modern agriculture.

'We do a lot of damage to aquifers, our underground water, by pouring herbicides and pesticides on the fields,' Bravin says. 'When I say pouring, I'm not exaggerating; they pour it on.'

Mainstream farmers feed plants, he says, while organic farmers learn to feed the soil.

The ultimate goal is to get more people farming in Multnomah County, Bravin says, and the program hopes to encourage participants to acquire land or gain jobs on farms to continue their education.

Learning to be a farmer can easily take three years or more, he says.

Culture gap

Like Eddie Albert and folks in his adoptive home of Hooterville, there's a bit of a culture gap between the new urban farmers being trained by Multnomah County and mainstream farmers. But that gap may be narrowing, as mainstream farmers see a profitable - and growing - niche for local organic foods.

'We're fine with all this,' says Barry Bushue, a third-generation farmer in Boring, and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

However, he says, it would have been nice, if Multnomah County wanted to land more jobs for local farmers, if they talked to the Farm Bureau before launching their program.

And it would be helpful, Bushue says, if the county really wants to promote access to locally grown food, if it wouldn't put up so many regulatory and costly barriers to farmers doing roadside produce stands.

Yet Bushue, 61, whose family owns Bushue's Family Farm in Boring, lauds the county for doing the internship program. Finding the next generation to run farms is a concern to many in the field, he says, including his own family.

While many mainstream farm groups aren't purists when it comes to using chemicals, many see the value in local farmers' markets, U-pick operations and other ways to connect urbanites to their nearby food source.

And Bushue's son is experimenting with growing organic food on part of his farm. All farmers are trying to adopt more sustainable practices, he says.

Brent Searle, special assistant to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba, says there are fewer training programs these days for young farmers. He laments the loss of Future Farmers of America programs in high schools, and budget cuts to OSU Extension over the years.

Searle cautions, though, that many idealistic people enter farming with unrealistic ideas of what it takes.

'It's a tough way to make a living, and it's very risky,' he says.

As Searle writes in a brochure for people considering the field, you need to be an entrepreneur.

'Throw on top of this passion and business responsibility, the unpredictability of weather, the constant appetite of insects, the threat of disease and fungus, the temperamental nature of soil, the intricacies and fickleness of mechanized equipment, the tedious long days of physical hard labor, and the vacillating preferences of consumers about food, and you have the need for a person with a very high tolerance for risk, dirt and manure!'

County farming in decline?

• Number of farmers in Multnomah County, 2002: 710

• Number in 2007: 563

• Acres farmed in Multnomah County, 2002: 34,329

• Acres farmed in 2007: 28,506

• Average age of Multnomah County farmer, 2007: 58.2 years old

• County farm and ranch sales, 2005: $78 million, 14th highest among Oregon counties

• In 2010: $57 million, 23rd highest

• In 2007, Multnomah County had the 11th-highest nursery sales of any county in the nation and ranked 35th-highest in acreage planted in berries

• In 2007, 424 of Multnomah County's farmers were male; 139 were female

• For 254 of them, farming was their primary occupation

• 369 of the county farms had sales less than $10,000

• 38 had sales of $100,000 to $249,000

• 18 had sales of $250,000 to $499,000

• 28 had sales of more than $500,000

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture; Oregon Agricultural Information Network, OSU Extension; Oregon Department of Agriculture