Oregon continues to lose farmland, some advocates say that raises red flags

By Alejandro Figueroa (OPB)
Feb. 15, 2024 1:54 a.m. Updated: Feb. 15, 2024 6:49 p.m.

Farmland conservation advocates say Oregon’s land use planning program has historically done a good job at protecting farmland. But they say it’s concerning to see continued decrease of farmland, especially compared to other states.

From 2017 to 2022, Oregon lost 4% of its farmland. The state is the second highest among western states with the most decrease in farmland behind Washington, which raises red flags for some agricultural land conservation advocates.

In Oregon, there are now more than 35,000 farms and ranches — a decrease of 5.5% — on 15.2 million acres of farmland, which is down 4% from 2017. That’s according to the newly released 2022 Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years.

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Within those five years, Oregon lost over 660,000 acres of farmland despite land use laws that restrict development unrelated to agriculture on land zoned for farming.

Golden fields and storm clouds, over a farm in Dayton, Ore., July 17, 2023.

Golden fields and storm clouds, over a farm in Dayton, Ore., July 17, 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon’s land protection laws are enshrined in Senate Bill 100, which passed in 1973. The foundation of the law is a set of 19 statewide land use planning goals. One of them, goal three, requires counties to identify farmland, designate it as such, and zone it as exclusive farm use, or EFU.

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Greg Holmes, the working lands program director for 1000 Friends of Oregon, said the reasons Oregon is losing farmland are varied. He notes not all Oregon exclusive farm use zoned land is farmed and not all land being farmed is zoned as EFU, so the USDA’s census of how much Oregon farmland has been lost can be different than the state’s.

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Still, whichever way it’s counted, Holmes said, the rate at which Oregon is losing its farmland is concerning.

One of the reasons for the loss is EFU land being rezoned for urban use — though it’s not much. Since 1989, about 28,000 acres of farmland have been rezoned, according to the latest farm forest report from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

A bigger reason is that Oregon has increasingly permitted more non-farm uses on EFU land without changing the zoning, putting farmland out of production. Holmes said that has allowed landowners and developers to misinterpret the law to develop golf courses, dog kennels or wedding venues — none of which are related to farming, according to Holmes.

“There are people out there that are taking advantage of the different interpretations to do things that are taking farmland out of production,” Holmes said. “That’s concerning.”

Jim Johnson, the land use and planning coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said farmland loss also could be due to more utility-scale solar developments on farmland and a yearslong drought that has forced some farmers, especially in central Oregon, to cease production on their land due to a lack of water.

Still, Johnson said, non-farm uses of farmland are by far the biggest factor for the loss, which can add up over time.

“Oregon has a very good land use system in place to protect agricultural land, and historically overall it’s done a good job,” Johnson said. “But what the numbers show is that there’s been a weakening of the program from a lot of different angles.”

Holmes said it might be time to revisit the state’s land use planning program and tighten laws surrounding what can and cannot be developed on farmland.

Correction: A previous version of this story had an incorrect title for Greg Holmes. He is the working lands program director for 1000 Friends of Oregon.

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