Impacts of fast-paced Oregon ag land sales not yet clear
"A recent article has once again highlighted a trend across Oregon of rising farmland prices and significant land ownership changes that risk the loss of family farms and access to land for beginning farmers. In response to these trends, in 2009 we created www.oregonfarmlink.org to help match up land owners and beginning farmers, and more recently we worked to create Oregon's Beginning Farmer Loan Program (Aggie Bonds) to help with farm financing issues.
But much more needs to be done: the future of our local and regional food systems and family scale agriculture is at stake. Portland State University researcher Megan Horst has been looking into recent Oregon land sale patterns, noting that 'sales figures compiled so far raise issues Oregonians ought to be discussing. Among them: Who has access to agricultural land, and what happens if food production is concentrated in the hands of the few who can afford to buy large swaths of land?'
What do you think Oregon could be doing to better address these big questions?" - Friends of Family Farmers
Diane Daggett remembers the conversation with the woman who had just purchased the Daggett family's 440-acre cattle ranch in Northeast Oregon's Wallowa County, land that had been in the family for four generations.
The buyer said she had called her husband, who was aboard their yacht in the Cayman Islands, to share the news. "Honey," the woman said she'd told him, "I just bought the most amazing birthday gift for you."
And the land, sold by Daggett's step-mother for what Daggett figures was three times what it could generate as a cattle ranch, slipped from the family's grasp. Now it lies behind a locked gate.
Variations of that story are playing out across Oregon and other states as farm and ranch land changes hands, sometimes by thousands of acres at a time. Some buyers are fellow farmers who are expanding their operations under the mantra of "get big or get out." But other buyers include investment firms, wind energy developers, conservation organizations, companies that fit the description of "Big Ag" and wealthy individuals looking to establish private hunting reserves or vacation retreats.
The impact is unclear at this point, but the primary worry is about ag land being taken out of production. Jim Johnson, the Oregon Department of Agriculture's land-use and water planning coordinator, said ag land conversion is a concern especially in areas with "amenity values." Daggett's scenic Wallowa County is an example, "Where the primary reason to live out there is to be there, and the secondary reason is to farm," Johnson said.
Ag property purchased to be a recreational site, he said, inflates land values and makes it more expensive for farmers and ranchers to buy or rent.
New owners who aren't interested in farming themselves might gain more revenue by enrolling land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, in which they receive payments for taking it out of production, rather than leasing crop land to other farmers, said Walter Powell, a Condon, Ore., wheat farmer. In that case, there's a reduction to the farming infrastructure: the seed and fertilizer dealer, the equipment store, local employment and more, Powell said.
Jim Wood, a cattle rancher near Post, in Central Oregon, said the biggest threat to high-desert cattle ranching is the fragmentation of grazing ground. Ranching in his area requires big acreage to be ecologically and economically sustainable, and segmentation or development for other uses cuts into that and increases land prices, Wood said.
"If you overgraze, this landscape is quick to be unforgiving, and you're going to be out of business," he said.
Oregon's land-use laws — adopted to preserve farm and forest land from urban sprawl — generally preclude rapid, wholesale development of agricultural land.
Statewide, counties approved 473 houses on farmland in 2014 and 522 in 2015, the most current figures provided by the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.
Daggett, whose Wallowa County property was sold, acknowledges an argument could be made that the "highest and best use" of her family land could be as a "view property."
But ownership changes can ripple deep in rural communities.
"This is very personal for me," said Daggett, who was Wallowa County's planning director in the late 1990s and, ironically, now sells real estate. She said her son had hoped to run cattle on the family land, but now leases land from others. "Like a sharecropper," Daggett said.
The giddy buyer who called her husband in the Caymans has yet to build a dream home on the property. It appears someone is leasing the pastures.
"There's an impact to the historic social fabric, there's this disruption socially," Daggett said.
"It's more than a question of who's buying," she said. "It's who's buying, and then what?"