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Farmland loss is dire, but there are solutions

Southern Oregonians need to know that farmland in our region is being rapidly lost to non-agricultural uses — but that there are solutions. Once land is converted away from agricultural use, it rarely returns, so the best path forward is to provide voluntary tools that help farmers and ranchers keep their working landscapes working. We read last Tuesday’s article “Acreage is down, but number of farms is up” about the recently released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. We applaud the Mail Tribune’s coverage of this important trend and feel that it is important to share policy solutions.

The best available approach to address farmland loss is to fund the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program (OAHP). OAHP was developed through broad input from diverse stakeholder groups such as the Oregon Farm Bureau, the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, and others. The program is designed to conserve Oregon’s working farms and ranches and valuable habitat on those lands. If the Oregon Legislature funds the program this legislative session, landowners will soon be able to apply for grants to fund conservation easements and covenants, succession planning, and conservation management planning.

By funding the program, conservation projects in Oregon will become more competitive for agricultural land conservation grants from the federal government. The amount available for these grants recently doubled to $450 million with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, so Oregon risks leaving millions of federal dollars on the table if it does not provide a state funding source for this important conservation work on private lands.

Even with Oregon’s land use laws, the data clearly shows that our agricultural lands continue to be fragmented and converted to other uses. These changes threaten the viability of agricultural operations and rural economies, fracture habitat and migratory corridors, and remove natural water quality benefits.

Please reach out to your legislators to let them know that continued loss of farmland is an urgent problem and that we cannot wait another legislative session to make these key investments. Urge them to support House Bill 2729 — the funding bill for the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program. In this tight budget environment, your priorities matter to legislators. Together, we can stem the tide of farmland loss and protect the fabric of rural communities in Southern Oregon and beyond.

Cathy Dombi is executive director of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, an organization that protects and enhances land in the Rogue River region. Stu O’Neill is executive director of Rogue Farm Corps, an organization that trains and equips the next generation of farmers and ranchers through hands-on educational programs and the preservation of farmland.