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A farm-fresh debate

Recent changes have made agritourism more popular, but the rules for recreational use of farmland are still murky


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Cat Sabitino and Terry Grover of Salem stop at Out in the Garden Nursery during a recent tour of the Molalla Country Farm Loop.Oregonians love their farmers.

Grocers tout their local cherry farmer cred on freeway billboards. Dairy farmers assure us of their family farm status on the radio. Every week, farmers markets are swarmed with fans.

Increasingly, Oregonians even want to visit the birthplaces of their food. Many farmers are responding by opening their gates wide with farm-to-table outdoor dinners, farm stays, harvest festivals, drive-in concerts, tastings and other special events and activities.

But as much enthusiasm as there is on both sides of the agritourism equation, regulations on what sort of events are allowed, and where, are often confusing and sometimes contradictory.

“It’s very complex,” says Clackamas County agritourism champion Mary Stewart. by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Mary Stewart (right), an agritourism consultant, walks with Carol Westergreen on the grounds of Westergreens Out in the Garden Nursery in Molalla.The nursery welcomes guests as part of the Molalla Country Farm Loop.

Stewart has pioneered the Oregon Farm Loop program, which currently includes the Canby (CanbyFarmLoop.com), Molalla Country (MolallaFarmLoop.com) and — new this month — Farmlandia loops (FarmlandiaFarmLoop.com).

The program connects farms throughout Clackamas County that are open to the public, and Stewart says half a million visitors have already toured the farms since the loops began. The new Farmlandia loop, which runs from Sherwood through Wilsonville and West Linn to Milwaukie, opens July 11.

Jim Johnson, a land use expert at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, says recent laws have created a legal framework for agritourism businesses, but the issue is far from settled.

“I understand people wanting to be out where the food is being produced,” Johnson says, “but producing food is much more of an industrial activity — there’s dust and pesticides. That doesn’t always mix with recreational use. It’s important to be able to balance the two interests.”

Farm and Forest Lands Specialist Katherine Daniels from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development says state land-use legislation remains oriented to the interests of full-time farmers. This means, among other things, that events are limited to a maximum of 25 percent of a farm’s revenue and that most of the time the event has to be related to what the farm produces.

“All farms must be farms first and events second,” says Daniels.

The land use expert says she sees a lot of interest in reforming state land use laws to allow more agritourism.

“It’s definitely an issue with a lot of strong feelings,” Daniels says. “The issue will continue to evolve.”by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - Carol Westergreen, who co-owns Out in the Garden Nursery in Molalla, says hello to her goat, Gypsy.

State representatives passed the Comprehensive Winery Land Use Bill (S.B. 841) last year, which carved out a niche for wineries to host up to 18 paid venue events per year and the ability to make food to sell to customers.

A state agritourism bill (S.B. 960) passed in 2011 also allowed for many more events on farm property, but each county can choose which parts to implement.

Finally, an Oregon Court of Appeals case last December outlined rules about what sort of things can and can’t be done at a farm stand.

Birthday parties? That’s OK.

Weddings? No way.

For now, it’s up to county planners to approve permits on a case-by-case basis. Stewart, who has been instrumental in developing Clackamas County’s extensive agritourism plan, says when she started in 2006, there were huge gray areas about what was allowed. She says most farmers were either too scared of breaking the law to consider hosting events, or they were doing it anyway without asking.

“Neither of those are things I want to see happen,” Stewart says. Through the new legislation and two agritourism summits in 2012, she says small farmers are feeling a lot more comfortable about the idea these days.

But Stewart and others feel more work is needed to allow for more varied and extensive activities on farmland. This could include “farm stays,” a popular concept in Europe where tourists live on a farm and can even help with a few chores. Or it could mean a new zone for farms open to the public who want to clump together, or even large “agritainment”-type theme parks.

“Agritourism comes in so many different flavors,” says Nellie McAdams, staff attorney for Molalla-based Friends of Family Farmers. “I do think it’s a really fine line and a balancing act.”

McAdams adds that the event fees and direct sales that agritourism farms get can make a big difference in the farm’s bottom line.

“Farming is a very low-margin business, so being able to diversify in this way is great,” she says.

Stewart agrees: “The most important thing we’re doing here is we’re making agriculture more successful. I’m all about keeping farms more viable.”

“Land use?” she says. “That’s a whole other thing.”



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