It’s Thanksgiving time, so like most of us I’m thinking about food and family. My own family grew this year when I got married this summer, and it’s gotten me thinking about how family shapes us and what we leave behind.

We all have legacies and traditions our families pass down through the years, and I’m especially proud and lucky to be a part of the agricultural tradition my family created at our family farm in Cornelius. I learned about community, about hard work, and about the essentials that make Oregon great. Now that I serve in the Oregon Legislature and I’ve seen how difficult it is to protect the Oregon spirit — I’m grateful this holiday for all those that came before me to keep Oregon the way we love it.

We have public beaches, open spaces, farmland and real neighborhood communities where people actually want to live. Heck, Portland even has its own television show. We’re a destination because we’ve done a bunch of things right.

But it won’t stay this way without work. The easy money is made through short term fixes — building a strip mall tomorrow is more lucrative than saving a strawberry farm forever. As you sit down with loved ones this holiday season, take one of your thanks and give it to those who took the long way approach. They’re making Oregon successful.

Agriculture is the state’s second largest economy. Its impact is even more potent when you think of the annual draw of tourists and the myriad of value-added products that start growing in Oregon’s fields (I hope your dinner table has a bottle of Oregon wine this Thanksgiving). Oregon’s Department of Agriculture pegs Washington County’s gross farm and ranch sales for 2012 at more than $290 million.

The value of our farms goes far beyond the price per pound of their crops. Farms make Oregon livable and desirable — and if we want to continue Oregon’s winning streak, we need to do more to protect and promote Oregon farmers. There are two policies we should implement right away.

First, the state should do more to create an “Oregon brand” that we can use as a mark of the high quality products our state produces. We should use the brand to attract food-centric industries, food processing and agri-tourism that can significantly expand the market for Oregon products. We start with such a strong reputation — a little planning and investment can go a long way to make Oregon elite in food production.

At the same time we promote the brand, we have to give more farmers a chance to thrive — which means we need to continue to invest in agricultural infrastructure such as water, farmland protection, basic processing, port access and the like. We do that with careful planning as well as programs in the state like the newly formed Aggie Bonds that give small loans to farm families for expansion, and the Farm-to-School program that makes sure we have local markets for local foods.

When you sit down with your family at Thanksgiving this year, I hope you get a chance to relax and have fun, but I also hope you get a chance to reflect. We are making and re-making this state every day, and if we want our kids to host Thanksgivings with our local food in our wonderful local neighborhoods, we need to do all we can to protect and promote the farm families that made us what we are today.

State Rep. Ben Unger represents the 29th Legislative District, which includes Forest Grove, Cornelius and parts of Hillsboro.

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