Generational shifts, rising land prices and changing market bode ill for family farms

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - A horse grazes at rural property in Scappoose. In tough economic times, some farms have had to let less necessary livestock, such as horses, go.Farming has never been easy — from the dawn-to-dusk days to investing money and sweat into a harvest that could be a total loss.

Several Columbia County farmers say it’s getting harder to make a living by farming full-time.

They’re facing an uncertain future, one where land is getting more expensive to buy, labor costs more and the next generation of potential farmers has seen its family struggle and isn’t ready to work the land themselves.

Sauvie Island berry farmer Brian Parson, 56, has four adult sons, and none want to follow in his path. Parson is also president of the Columbia County Farm Bureau.

“They all see how hard I work,” Parson said. He farms about 110 acres of Marionberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, and finds it increasingly difficult to break even. He’s picked up driving jobs in addition to farming, and his wife is a massage therapist.

“It’s tough for farmers,” Parson said.

It isn’t all bad news, however. The slowly improving economy has handed farmers some good news in the last few years, said Chip Bubl, Oregon State University’s Agricultural Extension agent based in St. Helens.

Bubl is “cautiously optimistic” about what he sees happening for farms in Columbia County.

Looking back a decade, commodities prices for things like beef and wheat and the relatively low value of the dollar on the world market have helped some farmers get decent prices recently for their products, he said.

Some numbers encourage,

others discourage

Over the past decade — and especially in the last two years — as the economy has improved, some farmers have been able to get better prices for their products, Bubl said.

Comparing 2001 with 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, gross income for farms that harvest grain, wheat, silage, seed crops and hay has more than tripled from $600,000 to $2.1 million in 2011, Bubl said, pointing to OSU’s data.

The value of the county’s horticultural crops — a category that includes tree fruit, berries, nursery stock, vegetables, Christmas trees and other crops — went from $8 million in 2001 to $11 million in 2011.

The value of the county’s livestock — mostly beef cattle but also including some sheep, goats, horses and pigs — has seen a considerable uptick in the past decade, jumping from $2.6 million in 2001 to $4.6 million in 2011.

“Prices for calves and steers have been well supported over the past few years,” Bubl said.

The price can’t necessarily be attributed to more production, instead prices have gone up in the past 10 years.

Blueberries, especially, have flourished in the county, and in Clatskanie a handful of farm ownerships that grow for fresh markets and processors are increasing production.

Parson cultivates two acres of organic blueberries that he sells directly to customers as u-pick.

Growing organic is a trend that has gained traction in the state, and Columbia County is no exception, said Dan Heibel, the Oregon Farm Bureau’s regional coordinator for Western Oregon.

“It’s a valuable segment of the mainstream market,” Heibel said.

Going organic, however, means accepting the higher labor costs involved with weeding and other labor-intensive tasks.

“Studies have shown there is a productivity loss,” he said.

Parson is thrilled with the response he gets from people who come from Portland to pick his blueberries. His workers take the time to weed them by hand, and that translates to a higher price than conventionally farmed berries.

“Labor is what kills me,” he said.

For some berry farmers, however, the overseas competition drives prices here down, Parson said. When berry buyers can purchase cheaper fruit from Chile, for example, it’s a quandary for him.

“I can match the Chile price or I keep my fruit. What do I do?”

Future of family farms

Bubl sees the future of family farms in Columbia County as a “mixed bag” — some younger folks have returned to work on family farms but others have left for good.

The average age of farmers in the U.S. continues to inch higher, he said, and he suspects Columbia County is no different.

Smaller farms are often run by younger people who are able to supplement income with one family member who works a non-farm job to keep finances steady, Bubl said. While hard to track, the number of small farms in the county has increased in the last decade, and several are innovating by selling direct to their customers at farmers markets, restaurants and through Community Supported Agriculture operations, he said.

But larger farms are harder to run cost-effectively, said Craig Ellis, who farms 760 acres in Scappoose. The Ellis family ran a dairy for many years, on property they bought in 1978.

But now, Ellis and his brothers raise dairy heifers to sell to other farms. He’s thankful that their farm is paid off, allowing them to stay in the black.

“I enjoy what I do and I’m good at it,” he said.

Still, in 2011 the Ellis family entered talks with a Mexico-based aggregate company, called Cemex, for its possible purchase of the farm, which would be mined for the rich deposits of rock it holds. Talking to the Spotlight in 2011, Ellis said disinterest in farming from the younger generation who has seen the toil needed to make it a successful operation contributed to the decision to put the farm up for sale.

Cemex is still working through the regulatory process.

Ellis said he doesn’t see a future where others will be able to do what his family has done — too many things have changed.

“I don’t see a lot of people going into farming,” Ellis said. Land is very expensive, and land use laws prevent parcels from being split up, he explained. “They make it so people have to buy so big.”

Ellis said he doesn’t know what the future holds for farming in Columbia County.

“The only way you make your money is to sell your farm,” Ellis said.

Facing pressure from the city

Because Columbia County is adjacent to Portland, the nearby city brings challenges as well, Heibel said.

There are fewer opportunities for young people since land prices go up past farmers’ ability to pay, something he’s seeing in other parts of Oregon, he explained.

“Columbia County is no different than other areas of the state that are close to metropolitan areas,” Heibel said. Despite the downturn in the economy, people still want to buy land for development and other purposes, he added.

Parson sees the urban creep into land values as yet another challenge that makes farming harder to do successfully. Sometimes, there’s more money in developing land than using it to grow food — bringing up consumer’s values around the true cost of cheap food in this country, he said.

“I’m a real proponent of saving land for agriculture,” Parson said. “It’s a crime to see it paved over.”

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