Bright and early on a recent Saturday morning, I found myself surrounded by farmers, market managers, farm advocates, and more, in a jam-packed auditorium in Corvallis, OR. I was in town for Oregon State University's annual Small Farms Conference, an event that draws people from all over the state-we're talking standing-room-only at 9 AM on a Saturday, for folks used to getting up early and working on their feet.
The theme for the keynote was "Greenhorns and Greyhorns", bringing together the old and the new generations of farmers to share their experiences and advice. I listened to the panelists talk about how quickly the realities of farming brought their head-in-the-clouds visions back down to earth; how, like any small business owners, beginning farmers get bogged down and lost in the bureaucracies of bank lending and tax filing; how despite the frustrations and pains of trying to "lose a little less money each year", the farmers onstage and in the audience agreed that they had the best job in the world.
It's no wonder so many young people in Oregon are turning back to the land and becoming farmers, here where they can mingle with fifth-generation family farmers, with the early pioneers of organic farming, with nationally-renowned specialty seed growers still amazed at their own success. Here where, for every crop they said couldn't be grown well in the Pacific Northwest, you find three or four farmers of all ages lining up to prove them wrong.
It's days like these that remind me why it's so important for all of us to stay informed about local legislation and to take action when the livelihoods of so many in the rural parts of our state are threatened. As we gathered in the heart of the Willamette Valley, the bread basket of Oregon, hundreds of us from all parts of the local food system, I couldn't help but think of the invisible threads that connected us to each other and to consumers in rural towns and urban areas, the health and success of each individual linked to the health of the food system as a whole.
Last month, the Oregon Department of Agriculture adopted a permanent rule that would permit canola production in the Willamette Valley, a development that could devastate in mere months what the thousands of farmers across Oregon have spent years building. The Willamette Valley is one of the last places in the world with the climate, clean environment, and GMO-free fields that specialty seed growers need to survive, and also hosts the bulk of Oregon's fresh vegetable production. Canola has a tendency to cross-pollinate with a whole host of cousins in the brassica family (this includes cabbages, kale, mustards, broccoli, and others), with several potentially devastating results:
- Canola bred to withstand certain diseases or herbicides can cross with wild brassicas to create superweeds.
- Canola cross-pollination threatens the purity of specialty seeds and nursery stock.
- Producers of organic and heirloom vegetables are at risk to lose their certifications and their customers if genetically-modified canola crosses with their product.
- Attempts to introduce 'clean' (non-GMO) canola are largely futile due to its propensity to cross-pollinate-meaning it is likely that all canola eventually becomes genetically-modified.
During that keynote speech, one of the greenhorn panelists was asked for the best advice she'd gotten from her greyhorn mentors. She had a neighboring rancher, she said, who described his work in this way: "I'm just here for a little while, taking care of this bit of land."
But the responsibility of caring for our agricultural land doesn't just fall on the shoulders of the farmer or rancher who grows there; all of the citizens of Oregon need to tell Salem that we won't stand for them putting our small farmers, our food security, and our ecosystems at risk in such an irreversible way.
Gabbi Haber has been a volunteer and board member at Hollywood Farmers Market for the past three years. On Saturdays June-March you can find her working Persephone Farm's booth at the market. She also blogs about food and farms at More Than We Eat.