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The Future of Agriculture: a Panel Discussion

The Future of Agriculture: a Panel Discussion
Five views of the agriculture industry in 2030

Young producers offer their thoughts on the changes we can expect in Oregon’s agriculture industry by 2030. Their conversation was part of the annual College of Agricultural Sciences Administrators Workshop, on November 6, 2017.

Jason Chamberlain

Jason and Mary Chamberlain

(Photo contributed by Jason and Mary Chamberlain.)

The Jersey cows at Dairylain Farms look like part of a storybook farm. But dairy farmer and nutrition consultant Jason Chamberlain and his wife, Mary, are rewriting the dairy story with a state-of-the-art robotic milking system to keep those cows healthy and productive. Jason and Mary run Dairylain with Jason’s parents; they also own their own nutrition consulting business. The robotics and other new technologies they have installed at the Chamberlain’s Vale-area dairy ensure that Dairylain’s milk is the highest quality.

“When I consider the future of agriculture, I see a growing labor shortage. There might be many reasons for this, such as the perception that farming is hard work, relatively low-paying, with no career ladder.

“That might have been true a generation ago, but not now. Agricultural labor is increasingly automated, from GPS-driven tractors to robotic dairies. As today’s farms become more automated, we need highly skilled technologists on the farm and in the support industries that service those technologies. These are not jobs that we typically think of in agriculture, but they are essential to the new high-tech, low-labor industry that agriculture is becoming. There are family-wage jobs available in ag, if people are willing to work hard.

"The future will also bring more pressure on finite natural resources, especially water. We farm in far eastern Oregon, where water is particularly precious. Farmers are now using pivots instead of flood irrigation, and satellite-driven sensors to monitor soil moisture and evaporation at micro scales.

“Certainly by 2030, regulations will likely expand around issues of air quality, water quality, and the use of antibiotics. I expect that GMOs will have a decreasing role in American agriculture, as they have in other parts of the world, so it will be important to get back to natural breeding of plants and animals.

“To feed a growing population, we’ll need precision agriculture to extend the productivity of our finite land. We’ll be double-cropping in some places. And we’ll need more careful management of our public lands for grazing, to control weeds and limit fuel for wildfires.”

Kathy Freeborn Hadley

Kathy Freeborn Hadley

(Photo by Geoff Parks.)

You might recognize Kathy Freeborn Hadley from her eloquent support for the protection of farmland. She is passionate about the value of family farms, and certainly walks the talk. Kathy farms with her dad on their 850-acre Rickreall farm and with her husband, Troy, on his family’s 350-acre farm in the Silverton hills. Besides helping to run two diversified family farms, Kathy has been a leader in the Oregon Farm Bureau and is now the mother of two young future farmers.

“Growers must be knowledgeable about regulations, or they’ll go out of business fast. It’s time-consuming, but critically important to keep up with new and evolving regulations and to navigate them effectively on your farm. One of my degree programs at Oregon State focused on natural resource policy and law, and that education has been very valuable in my understanding regulatory compliance. There are lots of regulations that even the regulatory agencies don’t understand.

“OSU Extension is also instrumental in helping growers comply with rules, such as regulating pesticide use. We need to maintain Extension agents for production agriculture because they serve to disseminate important information to all growers, not just private agronomy firms that serve individuals.

“Education goes both ways. There’s increasing need for consumers to understand how much work, and care, it takes to grow food. When left-overs are tossed out, or a less-than-perfect fruit is rejected, it’s insulting to growers who have put so much work into producing good, nutritious food, the safest in the world. OSU can help educate the public about agriculture, beyond the buzzwords and opinions on social media, to dispel myths about subjects like GE crops and organics. OSU can help market and promote the industry, especially through more industry partnerships.

“And one last point about technology. I love my new GPS-controlled sprayer! It makes the job of pesticide application efficient and precise. But if the control unit goes out, I will have a big piece of unusable junk and a challenge to repair. My advice for the future of the industry: there’s also a place for low-tech, hands-on skills. Remember how to do the basics.”

Dave Takush

Dave Takush

(Photo contributed by Dave Takush.)

Dave Takush makes some of the best cider in the country. A graduate of OSU’s fermentation sciences program, Dave joined two friends (Lee Larsen from OSU and Aaron Sarnoff-Wood from UO) to launch 2 Towns Ciderhouse, named for the two college towns. Since 2010, 2 Towns has grown into one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest makers of old-world-style hard cider, and an official sponsor of the Portland Timbers.

“Our company has grown very fast; in seven years, we’ve expanded from three friends working in a garage to almost 70 employees. As a result, I now see a lot of resumés cross my desk. Many are from people who are competent in their fermentation skills but who are NOT financially literate.

“Making the best cider in the world is still a business, and it’s essential to understand the financial machinery that drives the local and global economy. If you want to be a great brewer, you need to be able to read a profit-loss financial statement. If you run out of money, you’re out of business.

“The best candidates for these jobs are competent in their disciplines, financially literate, and truly experienced with industry-standard equipment and processes. Students need hands-on experience in real-world internships. Their coursework should prepare them for the work at hand, even if it means sanitizing an 80,000-gallon tank.

“Let me emphasize that farming is skilled labor. All our apples are hand-picked, and the pickers are extremely good at what they do. So often we hear, “it’s going to be a record harvest, IF we get the labor.” The entire supply chain is essential to the industry.

“Our business has grown fast. In fact, I heard that the alcohol industry in Oregon has greater economic impact than the tech industry. And the cannabis industry has potential to mirror this rapid growth. Looking to the future, I encourage OSU to jump ahead and become a trusted leader in this field, using existing research facilities and expertise for product safety and quality standards for the cannabis industry.“

Brenda Thomas

Brenda Thomas

(Photo by Andrea Johnson.)

Brenda Thomas grew up playing in the family’s cherry orchards on the slopes of the Columbia River Gorge. Although trained as a doctor of veterinary medicine, Brenda is now president and CEO of the family’s Orchard View Farms, one of the largest cherry producers in the world. Together with her dad, Bob Bailey, and her uncles, her sister, and her cousins, Brenda carries a long family tradition of environmental and community sustainability, as well as growing the world’s best cherries.

“It’s natural for me to think about agriculture in 2030. We’re planning orchards now that we won’t harvest before 2030, so long-term planning is part of what we do.

“I come from a big farming family, with 30 cousins and 6 aunts and uncles. In the 1980s, the family recognized that there’s not room in the business for everyone. That’s a message I don’t want to pass on.

“Farming requires lots of skills. It requires communication, cultural literacy, management, marketing, and business skills beyond the ability to grow the best cherries. It’s a people business.

“We harvest our entire crop in two months; we have 1,200 people working with us for those two months. We ship cherries globally, so we’re impacted by exchange rates, international trends, financial plans, and the fortitude to weather bad years.

“During our two-month harvest, we process 30 tons of cherries an hour. The digital technology we’ve installed to manage that capacity will take us 10 years to pay for, but it’s cut our labor force by two-thirds. We depend on technological developments from the bleeding edge of research to keep us on the cutting edge of our industry.

“I’m frustrated by the U.S. immigration policies that create indentured servitude. We much prefer people to live in their own homes, with their kids in school, and to pick cherries during summer vacation. I’m a true believer in the family farm. We need to encourage more bright minds to become excited about farming, a place where you can really see the results of your labor.”

Jon Iverson

Jon Iverson

(Photo contributed by Jon Iverson.)

Jon Iverson is a third-generation farmer on his family’s farm outside Woodburn. Iverson Family Farms has grown many kinds of crops over the years, most recently grass seed and cereals, but they may be best known for their Wooden Shoe Tulip Company. Each spring, thousands of visitors come to walk through a 30-acre sea of colors and flowers. The Wooden Shoe Tulip Fest has become one of the state’s largest agri-tourism events.

“I, too, come from a large farming family, with 22 cousins and several aunts and uncles. In order to limit the competition among the cousins, we were required first to get a college degree and then to work for at least two years at another farm to gain experience. I did that. And when I returned to my family’s farm, I saw that we were not as financially sound as I had thought.

“For years, the business plan had amounted to, ‘You grow it, you sell it, you make money.’ But I could see that plan was no longer enough. We needed a budget, a record of costs and profits, and data. We diversified, looking for profitability. For the first time in more than a generation, we’re no longer growing corn and beans. Instead, we’re growing grass seed, trying hemp, even an acre of marijuana. We faced the challenge of urban encroachment and turned it into an advantage with the tulip festival and other agri-tourism events throughout the year. And we’re keeping records.

“I agree that we need to help people understand agriculture. Only 2 percent of the U.S. population is involved in agriculture, yet the other 98 percent vote and need to understand ag’s value. To prepare for the future of ag, we should look abroad, to places like Denmark or New Zealand, where growers today are dealing with problems that we will be facing by 2030.

“Recently, I took a team to New Zealand with OSU’s Nicole Anderson to tour their advanced technologies in irrigation and fertilization. Oregon growers will benefit from this technology, and the global perspective, in the coming years.”

See also: The Digital Farm of the (Very) Near Future