By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Report says farmland loss still a live issue

“Agricultural land can’t be viewed as an idle resource waiting to be converted to homes, office buildings, retail outlets or other types of development,” concludes Director Katy Coba. “Agriculture’s survival and sustainability depend, in large part, on protecting important farmland needed for production.”

Between 1982 and 1987, the state lost 394,000 acres of cropland, an average of almost 79,000 acres per year. Between 2007 and 2010, it lost 59,300 acres, an average of less than 20,000 acres per year. The report credits implementation of tougher standards for development.

However, the state still lost 1.66 percent of its 3.5 million acres of remaining cropland in that one three-year period alone, the authors note.

During both periods, the amount of pasture and range increased. That led agency land use specialist Jim Johnson to observe, “The land that we are losing the most is in crop production, which generally takes place on prime land – the best of the best.”

Most of the loss is in the Willamette Valley, Johnson said. “Past inventories show that more than half the agricultural land lost was converted to urban uses. The vast majority is still being lost to development.”

The numbers come from the National Resource Inventory, compiled by the U.S. Department of Agricultural’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Originally conducted every five years, it is now being conducted every three years.

“You can easily see when our statewide land use planning program kicked in, because that’s when the slowdown of ag land loss became noticeable,” Johnson said.

The study shines a spotlight on tensions arising most clearly to the forefront when cities attempt to expand their urban growth boundaries into surrounding farmland. And two Yamhill County cities, McMinnville and Newberg, have been subject to some of the more intense and protracted sparring.

McMinnville began in 1995 trying to expand its UGB by 800 acres. Not long afterward, Newberg began trying to increase its boundary as well.

Led by 1000 Friends of Oregon and its Friends of Yamhill County offshoot, conservation interests immediately set about mounting an opposition campaign. And so far, they have been able to stave off both expansion bids.

State law says cities can expand onto prime farmland only as a last resort — something the cities and land use groups have come to define very differently.

Locally, opponents accuse McMinnville of seeking to expand onto prime farmland simply because it’s largely free of hills, trees and buildings, and it comes in large, contiguous and close-in chunks. All of that serves to make it easier and cheaper to develop, they say. They contend the city should instead concentrate on small parcels lying inside the current boundary, many of them abutting industrial areas.

City officials maintain they did everything possible to pare down the amount of farmland earmarked for inclusion on an expanded boundary designed to meet development needs of a growing community. They label the opposition counter as unworkable and unrealistic.

But in 2012, the city put its expansion attempt on hold, pending clarification from the state Legislature.

In June, Newberg won approval from the county board of commissioners to add 260 acres. However, as Commissioner Mary Stern observed, “I think we all know this is going to end up in court.”

In some cases, landowners have taken matters into their own hands, one of the most prominent being local farmer Charlie Chegwyn.

In 2007, Chegwyn cut a deal with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District to place a permanent conservation easement on his 124-acre family farm. That served to keep it from being absorbed into the city of McMinnville.

Located at the northwest corner of the city’s urban growth boundary, the property had long been earmarked by the city for eventual development. In fact, many of Chegwyn’s neighboring farms have already been turned into subdivisions.

Chegwyn was determined to keep that from happening to his own land.

“I’m not against this development at all,” he said at the time. “But if you’re going to build, build where it’s no good for farming.”

According to the state Department of Agriculture, 700,000 acres of agricultural land in Oregon has been converted to other uses since 1982. The rate works out to 4.4 percent.

California has lost 2.6 million acres since 1982, a rate of nearly 8.5 percent. Washington has lost 551,900, a rate of 3.65 percent, but has been losing farmland at an accelerated pace since 2007. The rate for the nation as a whole is 5.5 percent.

Johnson said the figures led him to the following conclusion:

“While we are doing a great job of protecting farmland, we can do better… The takehome message for Oregonians and policymakers is this: We need to support the land use planning program in place, because it really has slowed the loss of ag lands. But we still should be concerned about losing our best farmland and need to look at some of our policies as they relate directly to protection of that land base.”

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