The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded Oregon nearly $7 million to help landowners protect working farmland. Farmers work with regional land trusts to conserve land from development. Sarahlee Lawrence is the founder of Rainshadow Organics, a “full diet” farm that offers certified organic fruits, vegetables, grains and meats. Lawrence has applied to have land she works on protected with the Deschutes Land Trust. She tells us more about the importance of protecting Oregon’s farmland.

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Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Geoff Norcross. With Oregon being one of the fastest growing states in the country, land that could be turned into housing is becoming more and more valuable. That’s putting pressure on farmers and ranchers that use that land for food production. A program to keep the land the way it is just got a major infusion of money. The US Department of Agriculture is putting up $7 million dollars to help Oregon farmers and ranchers protect working land. Sarahlee Lawrence has applied for some of that money. She’s the founder of a farm and ranch in Central Oregon called Rainshadow Organics, and she joins us on the line. Sarahlee, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Sarahlee Lawrence: Thank you.

Norcross: I’d first like to know about Rainshadow Organics. Where is it? And what do you raise there?

Lawrence: Rainshadow Organics is a full diet farm outside of Bend, Oregon, between Terrebonne and Sisters. We’re in the high desert, so we’re east of the Cascades. We raise meat, grains, and vegetables, all certified organic. This is my family’s land, we’ve been here since the early 70′s And I took over managing the ground in 2010. So this is our 13th season raising organic food.

Norcross: You grew up on this farm, didn’t you?

Lawrence: Yeah.

Norcross: Did you want to be a farmer?

Lawrence: No! No, I really didn’t want to be a farmer. Growing up here, I was an only child, and it was pretty lonely, and a lot of work. And I was really inspired by an essay by Michael Pollan back in maybe 2008. I have a Masters in Environmental Science, and when I read about food being our greatest environmental impact, as an environmental scientist, I was really floored by that, and also quite amazed at the time that no one had mentioned that to me in all of my studies. That was a little bit disappointing.

I really felt like I could make a difference. That’s really what I wanted to do. I care a lot about this Earth.

Norcross: Rainshadow is in a fast growing part of the state, between Terrebonne and Sisters, as you said. Can you talk about the interest developers might have in your land?

Lawrence: Yeah, there’s a lot of interest in development in Central Oregon in general. This is a beautiful place, there’s a lot of tourism here, as well as just people wanting the quality of life that comes from living near the mountains and whatnot. There’s a lot of proposals for different kinds of developments, whether they be resort-style around a golf course, or just small lots, like a little ranchette type of things. The Central Oregon LandWatch does a lot of work keeping track of those, and it keeps them and their lawyers busy full time, seems like.

Norcross: Have you actually had a developer knock on your door and say will you sell to me?

Lawrence: No, thank God. I don’t know what I would say, I’d probably say something rude.

Norcross: Well, you’re a farmer, and so you have farmer’s language.

There is this state program called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and it’s being funded to the tune of nearly $7 million dollars by the federal government. It basically walls off some agricultural land in the state from development, and you’ve applied for some of this money. Why are you doing that?

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Lawrence: That’s right. We really want to protect our land for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. And that is really the reason why we’re doing that. The exclusive farm use zone of Deschutes County specifically is pretty solid. People aren’t breaking up the land too badly out here in less than 80 acre parcels. But there is always a possibility for that to change. And the planning department is under a lot of pressure all the time for development for all the people coming here. So for us, I want to make sure that no matter what happens, this is going to be preserved for agriculture and raising food, and specifically organic food in my case.

Also, we expanded our ranching operation. We have a large grass fed grass finished beef operation. And we bought the next door ranch when it came up for sale, we got the first right of refusal, and it was a really big opportunity, and it was a lot of money. And so the conservation easement is a really great way to be able to buy that land, and offset some of the value of that land that is essentially for the possibility of development, taking that away, reduces the value of the land, and makes it more possible to service a mortgage with an agricultural operation.

Norcross: If you are approved for this agricultural easement, can you tell me how much money you’ll get?

Lawrence: I’m still waiting to know for sure, but it might be upwards of between $200,000 and $400,000.

Norcross: Can you give me a sense of how much that will help to keep the land the way it is?

Lawrence: It will reduce our mortgage on that land from over $15,000 a month to less than $9,000 a month.

Norcross: Will you have to give up any control over your land?

Lawrence: We have a really great relationship with the land trust. And that’s part of these conservation easements, they’re held by a land trust in perpetuity. So someone has to be that third party that makes sure that you’re doing what you’re saying you’re going to do. And we have a good relationship with them. And honestly, you design your conservation easement. And in our case, we’ll be able to farm our land and have our cattle and have our hay barns and shops and all of our things, so everything for us will stay the same, I believe.

Norcross: It seems like it won’t be a whole lot different, there will just be a few more people involved in the running of your operation. Is that fair to say?

Lawrence: I think the main thing is that it takes value out of the land. I mean yes, I would not be able to subdivide the land essentially, which is not what we want to do. Say we wanted to sell the farm, the farm would be worth less because of the conservation easement, probably.

It helps with estate planning, land transition. People that have spent their lives on the land and they can’t farm it anymore and they need to sell it. It helps keep it in agriculture. It helps them either give it to their kids, or sell it to some young farmer, and then are able to still make money to be able to retire. Farmers do need to retire. I don’t know if you got the memo, but they’re kind of getting old.

Norcross: Sarahlee, preserving farmland sounds good until you consider the fact that some farms aren’t like you, they don’t operate sustainably or in ways that are very good for the community. So why is preserving your land for agriculture a good thing for everybody?

Lawrence: Man, the work that we do on our soil here, and the food that we produce for our community, is an incredible effort, an incredible benefit, I believe, both environmentally and socially. And I think that having farms like this in our communities is extremely important.

The conservation easements may or may not be just for farms like mine. And I think that the open space and preserving agricultural land that can always shift into more sustainable and regenerative practices is more important than only preserving farms that are already doing those practices.

Norcross: Many parts of Oregon, including yours, are in a severe drought right now. How has that affected things?

Lawrence: We have an incredible irrigation district that we draw from. Our water comes from surface water out of Whychus Creek. It’s the Three Sisters irrigation district. And it’s fully pipelined and pressurized, which was a decade long process, maybe almost 20 years actually. And so our water is incredibly efficient, the delivery of it. 70% of the water that was lost to evaporation and seepage has been conserved in our pipelining efforts. And then, on our farm, our soil’s water holding capacity and efficiency with water, as well as our super efficient irrigation infrastructure, we only use about 25% of our allotment here. So on a year like this, when we’re at 25%, we’re going to be able to water pretty much as much as we usually do to cultivate our cover crops and vegetables, as well as pasture for our animals.

Norcross: This whole discussion kicks up a lot of questions about where our food comes from and who produces it, and value of land, and what the best use of the land is, and who wins and who loses. And I’m wondering what your experience through this agricultural easement program, and your whole experience as a small family farmer, tells us about where our food comes from and what our responsibilities to the land in the community is?

Lawrence: That’s a big question. Our food comes from a long way away, and it is raised both socially and environmentally in an unsustainable and very depleting way. And every time you go to the store, every time you put something in your mouth, you’re making a choice, and you’re having an effect on this planet that we live on. And you’re having an effect on probably people not in your community. Which makes it a little further afield and easier to put out of mind.

Finding local farmers is an incredible thing to do. It’s an incredible step in the right direction. We have a full diet program where people eat exclusively from this farm year round, all their meats, grains, vegetables, honey, dairy, eggs, and it’s pretty affordable. There aren’t very many farms like that, but we are actively teaching young farmers how to farm like this so that they can go to their communities, back to wherever they’re from, and start farms like this that truly feed a community.

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