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Urban Farmer

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Agriculture in the 21st century is a research-based industry in the heart of Oregon's fastest growing urban area.

In the shadow of the state’s largest city, Oregon agriculture offers a backdrop of picture-postcard scenery. There are orchards climbing the flanks of Mt. Hood, vineyards in the Dundee foothills, fields of fresh vegetables along the Willamette River.

Intermixed with this pastoral beauty are scenes of a modern urban landscape … nurseries located under the flight path of Portland International Airport; trucks of beans and corn caught in commuter traffic; tractors plowing fields at the edge of suburban neighborhoods.

In the Portland area, urban and agricultural communities live side-by-side, sharing a work force, water and roads and contributing to a shared community, environment and regional economy. This is part of the legacy of Oregon’s famous land-use laws. As lawyers and policy analysts hash out recent challenges to those laws, farmers continue to sow a billion-dollar industry at the edge of Portland’s metro area.

Farms in the northern Willamette Valley provide more than a scenic backdrop for city high-rises. Metro area agriculture includes businesses contributing products and commerce to the metro economy, open spaces free of pavement and congestion, and families deeply rooted and invested in their communities.

“The picture of agriculture is no longer the lone farmer on a tractor, plowing his field at sunset,” said Chip Bubl, OSU Extension horticulturist and chair of the OSU Extension office in Columbia County, northwest of Portland. “Agriculture in the 21st century, especially at the urban edge, has transformed into a rapidly changing, knowledge-based industry that contributes considerably to the economy of the metro area.”

Twenty-first century agriculture demands that farmers understand ever-changing local and global markets in order to be profitable. They must understand the complex life of soil, water and plant pathologies to grow the best product with the least environmental impact. And they must understand how to invest in a business for a long-term, sustainable future.

These are challenges faced by farmers throughout the United States. But statistics confirm that things look different in Oregon. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census indicates a national trend toward fewer and larger farms as corporate agriculture replaces family farms. However, Oregon’s mix of farms shows a fairly constant number and a slight decrease in average size.

“The idea of large corporate agriculture in Oregon is simply not the case,” said Oregon Department of Agriculture director Katy Coba. ODA estimates that 97 percent of operations in the state are considered family farms or family-based farm corporations.

One of those farms is run by the Montecucco family, now in their fourth generation growing vegetables on the outskirts of Portland. The Montecuccos farm a total of 500 acres, growing rhubarb, beans, rutabagas, turnips, beets and parsnips on more than a dozen scattered parcels of land in Clackamas County. Sitting in his office in a corner of the farm’s central warehouse, Ed Montecucco described his family’s farm.

photo of Ed Montecucco photo of boxes of rhubarb

Ed Montecucco closes the deal by phone while overseeing his vegetable harvest for the fresh market. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

 

Many Willamette Valley growers pool their produce in cooperatives so they can fill large orders from supermarket chains. The Montecuccos help run the area's rhubarb cooperative. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

“My grandfather started farming in Oregon in 1926, shortly after he arrived here from Italy,” Ed explained over the rumble of machinery preparing a fresh crop of rhubarb for shipping. “His first farm was in Parkrose near Troutdale, where he raised fresh vegetables for the city market.”

But following World War II, Portland’s bustling urban growth put the squeeze on farmland. With no place to expand their business, the Montecuccos sold their farm in Parkrose and moved south of Portland to farm the sandy bottom land of the Willamette River near Canby. Ed’s father and uncle joined the family business in the 1950s, then Ed and his brother Paul bought into the business in the 1970s. Their cousin Steve joined the partnership in the 1980s. Ed’s sons Brian and Jason represent the fourth generation at Montecucco Farms, which is now one of the metro area’s largest producers of fresh market vegetables.

“It takes a lot of know-how to run a business like this,” Ed said. He, his cousin and both his sons graduated from Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences. Jason, at twenty-something the youngest member of the Montecucco partnership, explained what each family member brings to the business.

“My uncle is interested in the mechanical side; he develops harvesting and packing equipment to keep the farm competitive and the business efficient. My cousin Steve is a great personnel manager; he oversees the crew and all issues of labor relations. My brother handles everything in the field, from planting the seed to harvesting the product. My dad is like the captain of the ship, making sure the business is steered in the right direction.”

However, with degrees in horticulture and business administration, Jason Montecucco had interests beyond the farm. Following graduate school, he worked as a stock analyst for a large investment company in Portland. “I enjoyed it at first,” Jason said, “but after a year, I missed the life of the farm.” Now Jason is part of the family business, applying his skill in market analysis to help keep this family in business for another generation.

But being part of a family-run farm requires more than just showing up. Jason had to buy a share of the business, just as others in the family have done.

“It’s money out of my pocket,” he told me, as we walked past pallets of fresh, boxed rhubarb ready for shipment. As an investment analyst, Jason is keenly aware of the risks of his investment and the challenges of agriculture at the city’s edge.

“The future of fresh-market vegetable farming is that the small farms will be weeded out,” he said. “Our customers are supermarkets, and they want to deal with a limited number of large vendors, not a lot of small vendors. We’re big for our area, but we’re small compared to California vegetable growers, so it will be increasingly hard for us to find markets.”

For Jason Montecucco’s great-grandfather, proximity to the city meant proximity to markets. Today, getting products to market may mean shipping out of state. Roughly 80 percent of Oregon’s agricultural production is marketed out of the state, with half of it shipped overseas. This means jobs and dollars for rural communities as well as for the metro area. More than 60 percent of the volume of exports through the Port of Portland are agricultural products.

“Agriculture is a big part of the metro economy,” said Del Hemphill, superintendent of OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora.

photo of Peter Kenagy in field photo of rutabagas awaiting shipment

Willamette Valley grower Peter Kenagy walks the edge of his vegetable field, where houses sprout adjacent to agricultural land. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

 

Rutabagas await shipment from Montecucco's refrigerated storage. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Numbers tell the story. In its 2004 report of state and county agricultural estimates, the OSU Extension Service calculated the value of Oregon’s agricultural production at $3.8 billion. As agricultural products move from farm to consumer, another $2 billion in value is added through processing. In addition, Oregon producers purchase more than $3 billion worth of seed, feed, supplies and services from local companies — a significant contribution to rural and urban businesses throughout the state. Add in transportation, marketing and related services, and nearly 10 percent of the state’s economy is related to agriculture.

Drive across Oregon and it’s obvious that agriculture is a major industry. But few people realize that four of the state’s five top producing agricultural counties are in the northern Willamette Valley. Even Multnomah County, the state’s smallest and most populated county, brought in more than $75 million in farm sales in 2004. Agriculture in Marion, Clackamas, Washington and Yamhill counties tallied sales of more than $1.3 billion.

Part of the health of Oregon agriculture is its diversity, and agriculture in the northern Willamette Valley is the most diversified in the state. High-value specialty crops such as vegetables, berries, hazelnuts, hops, wine and nursery products contribute to the region’s economy and to its scenic landscapes.

Unlike large-scale commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, there are relatively few growers producing each of these specialty crops and relatively less is known about what is required to grow each of them profitably and sustainably.

So when federal regulations recently banned a widely used pesticide, vegetable growers in the northern Willamette Valley called on OSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station to help them find alternative pest control methods that were safe and effective.

What does “safe and effective” mean when you’re talking about pesticides?

That question guides the work of Bob McReynolds, OSU Extension vegetable production specialist, at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center. McReynold’s goal is nothing less than to replace a generation of powerful chemical agents related to World War II nerve gas with less environmentally harsh pesticides.

photo of Steve Montecucco photo of Amy Dreves

Vegetable grower Steve Montecucco takes a hands-on approach to pest control in his turnip fields near Canby, Oregon. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

 

OSU entomologist Amy Dreves is one of many OSU scientists who work with growers in the northern Willamette Valley to support an urban agricultural industry worth $1.3 billion.

Pesticides used to target lots of pests on lots of crops. Not anymore. New pesticides are very specific to a particular pest on a particular crop at a particular time. It’s better for the environment, but it can be tough for business. The potential sale of a pesticide to protect, say, rhubarb from rhubarb curculio, may not cover the costs of testing for safety and effectiveness required by U.S. law. McReynolds helps provide government-required research to label pesticides for specialty crops that are generally too limited in scale to be profitable for pesticide manufacturers to research.

But safer chemicals are just one tool in an expanding toolbox of safer and more effective technologies being used by agriculture in the metro area. Amy Dreves, OSU Extension entomologist, adds to that toolbox and helps growers fight unwanted insect pests by asking, how can we make a farm less desirable for pests?

A few years ago, vegetable growers in the northern Willamette Valley became concerned about cabbage maggots. These tiny maggots infest cabbage and broccoli as well as root crops such as turnips and rutabagas. For more than a generation, growers had controlled maggots with the chemical chlorpyrifos, one of many broad-spectrum pesticides that are now being phased out. Growers needed a new technology that would target maggots with minimal impact on human health and the environment, and with economic savings to the grower.

Dreves took up the problem, and for the past four years she has been visiting vegetable growers in the metro area, monitoring the activity level of insects in their fields and testing alternative farming practices. Based on what she has learned, she has developed an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy that she is now testing on growers’ farms, including the Montecuccos’.

“This program is not simply a website, where people passively look up information,” Dreves said. “I’m out in the field every week, talking to growers, reworking ideas with them and helping monitor insect activity in their fields.” As a result, these farms have become gathering places for others to come and see and learn. In April 2005, Dreves and the Montecuccos helped to host IPM coordinators from six western states for a two-day field workshop on integrated pest management.

“There are always lots of problems in farming, and a farmer has to consider all the ways to solve them,” Ed Montecucco said. “Instead of spraying on a regular schedule, we now monitor pests and spray only when and where we need to.”

Instead of blanketing fields with herbicides and fertilizers, the Montecuccos now apply a narrow band of chemicals just in the furrow where they plant seed. In between rows, the land is mulched or mechanically cultivated to keep weeds down. After harvest, they till under the leftovers and plant a cover crop to control soil erosion and runoff and to absorb any extra fertilizer that might be in the soil. Such integrated methods have helped the Montecuccos reduce their use of chemicals.

“People have an image of farms as something simple and slow-paced,” Ed said. “They drive by and see scenic rows of crops, but they don’t see the time, effort, money and risk behind the scenery. Most people don’t understand how much it takes to run a farm.”

photo of rhubarb harvest

Colorful stalks of rhubarb fly during spring harvest at Montecucco Farms. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Published in: Food Systems, People