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Keeping family farms afloat


COURTESY: FRIENDS OF FAMILY FARMS - Turkeys mingle on a farm owned by a Friends of Family Farms member. When most people go out to enjoy a meal at their favorite restaurant, they don’t give much thought to where the food comes from. But if advocacy groups like Friends of Family Farmers are successful, they will change that, and it might benefit both the diner and the farmer alike.

The group has emerged in recent years as an alternative voice for smaller Oregon farmers focused on more sustainable practices, working in tandem with consumers who share common goals.

One of the ways they do that is community outreach programs and events, like Portland Fill Your Pantry, held Nov. 6 in Northeast Portland. Designed to connect Metro-area residents directly with local farm producers, such events enable participants to order bulk quantities of staple and storage crops directly from farmers, and then meet producers at a central location to pick them up.

The advocacy group also hosts InFarmation, a monthly meet-up that focuses on “the larger picture of the connection between food and farms in the state,” says Ivan Maluski, Friends of Family Farms public policy director.

Maluski, who formerly lobbied for the Oregon Sierra Club, joined Friends of Family Farmers after he and his wife started farming 70 acres near Scio and experienced their own farming challenges.

Friends of Family Farmers, also known as FoFF, was formed in 2005 by small farmers and their allies who were alarmed by the impacts of new “factory farms” in Oregon — such as Threemile Canyon Farm, a 55,000-head dairy outside of Boardman. The group recently has been mobilizing opposition to another proposed factory farm, Lost Valley Ranch, a 30,000-head mega-dairy planned in north-central Oregon near Boardman.

Oregon’s farm sector has historically been dominated by family-owned farms, but some see that way of life threatened.

“Oregon is now experiencing the same sort of ‘get big or get out’ dynamic that decimated family farms across the Midwest, where farm ownership and food production has increasingly become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, including large corporations," Maluski says.

COURTESY: FRIENDS OF FAMILY FARMS - Pasture-raised sheep at a Friends of Family Farms member's operation. The USDA Census of Agriculture in 2012 found Oregon lost more than 10 percent of its farms in the prior decade, down to more than just over 35,000 farms from more than 40,000. There also was a declining proportion of farms owned and run by individuals and families over that period. 

Digging deeper into the census data, The East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District found there were 8 percent fewer farmers in Oregon just in the prior five years. The number of Oregon farmers younger than 44 plummeted 22 percent from 2007 to 2012, and the number of new farmers fell 25 percent.

FoFF is now supported by 6,000 members — of which 1,500 oversee or belong to family-owned and run independent farms and ranches.

Linking independent farmers with consumers can benefit all people concerned about sustainable agricultural practices, Maluski says. “It makes our food web stronger and makes real changes in our local food system possible.”

FoFF is providing a more nuanced voice for smaller, sustainability-minded farmers that’s sometimes distinct from the Oregon Farm Bureau.

FoFF conducts “listening tours,” Maluski explains, and learns directly about the issues family-scale farmers face across the state.

One of those has been small farmers' lack of access to meat-processing facilities in rural areas of the state.

FoFF also has lobbied for the development of GMO-free zones, pesticide or herbicide trespass, water resources management, and additional funding sources for farmers who want to preserve their farms through land trusts.

While FoFF focuses on family-scale independent farms and ranches, the older and better-known Oregon Farm Bureau represents all types of farms and ranches. These include small independents all the way to larger corporate farms, says Anne Marie Moss, the Oregon Farm Bureau communications manager. “As Oregon’s largest general farm organization, OFB works to find solutions that will benefit all of the state’s agriculture producers,” Moss says. This includes promoting “educational improvement, economic opportunity, and social advancement for its members and the farming, ranching and natural resources industry as a whole.”

In its listening tours, FoFF has heard frequent feedback that the Oregon Department of Agriculture and other farm groups in the state are not working hard enough to address the loss of small and midsize family farms in Oregon, Maluski says. “This is why beginning farmer issues and issues important to small and midsize producers are so much a part of our policy agenda and educational efforts.”

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