Ag Industry

Ag Industry’s Strengths & Challenges (2013)

Roz Shirack and Adrienne Pauly

At the Agricultural Forum on Oct. 23, 2013, four panelists gave attendees an overview of Oregon’ s agricultural industry today, emphasizing its unique qualities and its current challenges.

Bruce Pokarney, Director of Communications at the Department of Agriculture, set the scene. Based on 2012 figures, agriculture represents 15% of Oregon’s total economy, provides 12% of its jobs, and is the state’s largest export sector by volume and second largest by value. Oregon absorbs 20% of its own agricultural production and exports 40% to other U.S. markets. The remaining 40% is exported to international markets, mostly Asian.

Despite its vibrant economy, three major concerns were cited by all the panelists.

1. The average age of Oregon farmers is 58 years. It is unclear who the next generation of farmers will be or where they will come from. Brenda Kirsch Frketich solved that dilemma for Krisch Family Farms. After enrolling at U.C.L.A. “to get away from the small-town environment of her youth,” she realized by the time she earned her degree in business that what she had left behind was a true asset. After graduation she returned home and is now Business Manager of Kirsch Family Farms, Inc.

2. There is an urban-rural divide, each side not able to understand the needs of the other. Marie Bowers, a fifth-generation grass seed grower from Harrisburg, Oregon, tells of one illustrative incident. Her company had a grass-seed field that abutted a golf course on university land. To harvest grass seed, the land must be dry and this activity raises a lot of dust. “The golfers complained because they just didn’t understand the need for harvesting during the dry season,” Bowers said.

3. Another major concern is the uncertainty of a labor supply. Oregon must compete with neighboring states for seasonal farm workers. Some Oregon strawberry growers have dropped that crop because they cannot always get the labor they need during the short harvest season. The Hood River Company has found a solution to this problem. By providing housing, they attract and keep farm workers and has them rotate between crops rather than between states. However, a broad solution to an adequate labor supply will require immigration reform at the federal level.

The diversity of Oregon crops–the state produces 220 different agricultural crops–is positive in every way. If a farm is reliant on one crop and for whatever reason that crop fails or produces poorly for one year, that can be a serious financial hardship. But if a farm produces a variety of crops, one crop’s failure can be balanced with other profitable ones.

Ivan Maluski, a director of the nonprofit Friends of Family Farms, explained “we are pro-pasture farmers,” meaning these farmers resist the “industrialization of agriculture.” The group’s Agricultural Reclamation Project lists a number of “priority items” including: Working with farmers and producers for effective food safety policies and enacting simple, clear product labeling guidelines. They advocate for socially responsible agriculture, Ivan said.

Oregon Women for Agriculture is another nonprofit organization that promotes agricultural interests in education and legislative issues. President Marie Bowers said the organization maintains a public relations program to distribute its messages through the media.

Audience questions brought up the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Bruce answered that generally U.S.D.A. testing and review is thorough and reliable. “We’ve had one accidental incident of GMO exposure in Oregon,” he said. “The State is looking at the issue, looking at all sides of it. But it is not a state issue, it’s a national issue.” Marie noted that she felt that federal regulations involving the use of sprays were fairly safe. Brenda said, “I agree with that.” Marie then added that if people are worried about the use of sprays or pesticides, “Go talk to the farmers. We have nothing to hide.”

Bruce concluded, “I’m an optimist. Having forums like this, and seeing the interest of the audience, I see the beginning of the dialogue we need.”

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