Business of Agriculture

The Business of Agriculture (2014)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

The March 26th forum was on The Business of Agriculture.

Stephanie Page, Oregon Department of Agriculture, explained that the Department’s main efforts are

  • Promote and support the marketing of Oregon’s agricultural products
  • Food safety, including inspecting processing facilities and checking that measurement devices (such as scales and gasoline pumps) are accurate
  • Protection of natural resources, including that chemicals are used correctly

Agriculture is 15% of Oregon’s economy. 80% of Oregon’s agricultural products are shipped out of state–half to U.S. markets and half to international markets.

Invasive species and pesticides–Farmers look for invasive plants and insects because it’s easier to eradicate them if they are detected early, before they become widespread. Some tools are crop rotation, biological controls (for example, introducing an insect predator to eat scotch broom), weeding and similar mechanical methods. Chemicals are expensive and hold risk for the farm workers who apply them. Eradicating an invader is complex; each possible method has advantages and disadvantages. Thus, research is imperative to find the best eradication methods with the least use of chemicals.

Jim Bernau, founder and president of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said that wine, which is the 12th most valuable Oregon agricultural product–adding $2½ billion to the state’s economy–is probably the most capital-intensive crop in Oregon. Wine sales continued to increase even during the Recession. There is still a lot of land suitable for growing grapes with many microclimates beneficial to various types of grapes, so wine can continue to increase as a share of Oregon’s agricultural production.

Public policy issues–Mr. Bernau seconded Ms. Page’s emphasis on the need for increased research to improve crops and deal with invasive plants and insects that will be an increasing problem as climate changes. The Agricultural Extension Program has a small-farm program to help new and small farms through classes as well as hands-on help. Extension Agents each have skills in specific areas; their knowledge is a great asset to agriculture. However, reduced funding in recent years has eroded that useful program. There are plans to put a measure on the ballot in a couple of years to establish stable funding for the Agricultural Extension Program.

  • More research into herbicides is needed because they are endocrine disruptors; perhaps herbicides may be the reason for increased autism.
  • State governmental regulations of agriculture are excessive. Mr. Bernau cited an instance in which the Bureau of Labor used the “hot goods” law to prevent a berry farmer from selling his crop during a labor dispute over wages paid to workers.
  • There is much pressure to change land-use laws that protect farmland from development, including pressure to allow rural housing. Land that is changed from farmland cannot be returned to farmland, so it’s critical to protect the land to grow food in the future.
  • Mr. Bernau said that wineries are over-taxed, which can destroy an industry. The inheritance tax can cause the next generation to have to sell part of a farm to pay the taxes, and it’s important to maintain farm size.

Karla Chambers, agricultural economist and co-owner with her husband of Stahlbush Island Farms, which produces a variety of products, some of which they market under their label and some of which they sell for use as ingredients in products. Ms. Chambers’ presentation was given at an agricultural forum by the LWV of Portland, recorded by MetroEast Community Media from Gresham, and projected on a screen during our forum.

Ms. Chambers said they take all their agricultural waste and use it to produce electricity and fertilizer. They have pushed packagers to make bpa-free liners for their canned foods and biodegradable packaging for their frozen foods.

Technology must be the future for agriculture. Drones with sensors can tell farmers where more/less water is needed. Young people today don’t want to pick crops and farmers can’t import enough workers, so machinery has been developed that can do much of the work. Weeders work on pattern recognition. Harvesters gently shake berry vines so ripe fruit will fall; a harvester can work 24/7.

Q & A–Mr. Bernau said his winery uses natural cork because it is cut from the bark of cork trees and grows back in 9 years, so natural cork is sustainable. He also cleans equipment with ozone, which he mixes; it lasts only about 15 minutes, but in that time it kills bacteria and then it’s gone, so it doesn’t go into the groundwater.

Bees–There is much research going into how to protect both native bees and honey bees from pesticides. Fortunately, Oregon has suffered less decline in bees than have other parts of the U.S.; one reason is that we grow so many different crops. Young people should be encouraged to go into beekeeping to help expand the numbers of bees.

Animal feeding operations–Ms. Page said that animals are often confined during the winter to protect soggy pastures. However, a permit is needed; the permit requires a waste-management plan. Horse owners are required to manage their manure, too.

Each speaker made a closing statement:

Trade policy–Mr. Bernau pointed out that people buy cheaper products that are imported from countries that don’t have to follow the environmental-protection rules that U.S. farmers follow. Buying American products helps increase the agricultural segment of our economy.

Research–Ms. Page re-emphasized the importance of publicly-funded research, which has experienced reduced funding in recent years. For every $1 in research, we get $20 in value. She urged League members to ask Governor Kitzhaber to emphasize in his next budget the state’s Agricultural Extension Program and agricultural research.

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