Agricultural Goldilocks

By Renata Geraldo

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Oregon has a little bit of everything when it comes to agriculture: from berries, peaches, kale, and green beans to meat, eggs, and honey. With so many options to choose from that are planted in local soil, it is only natural that Oregonians crave local food.

The love for local produce is apparent when walking down a farmers market, a place where melodic sounds, flavors, appearances, and smells come together in a delicious and unique Saturday morning compilation. A bit of all this richness exists in the tiny white tents of these events — from vegetables, fruits and meat to Kombucha and ice cream. And for those who can’t make it to the farmers market, supermarket shelves are also stocked with local and organic options, although these products come from predominantly big agricultural businesses — big producers are the kings of the shelves. -

Big or small, the local agricultural market is so substantial that, according to a 2017 report by the Oregon’s State Board of Agriculture (OSBA), the agriculture sector maintained its

stability and no jobs were lost during the last economic recession.So certainly, as consumers, locals love the organic-obsessed state of Oregon and everything it gives. The local and traceable factor is attractive: The food you consume is made by people like you, who are close to you, whose family works hard — you practically know them as your own neighbors.

Afterall, according to OSBA, 96.7 percent of the farms in the state are family-owned. For producers and vendors, however, as beneficial as the love for local may be, the competition for consumers’ pantries isn’t always equivalent. Of course, many of your neighbors plant and harvest their own crops, but the produce in most supermarkets comes from big farmers.

Agriculture in Oregon is responsible for approximately 326,000 jobs, according to Oregon’s State Board of Agriculture, which means that 8 percent of Oregonians currently work in agriculture. Thus, there are 35,439 farms and ranches throughout the 98,466 square miles that the state of Oregon occupies within the United States, and with that, many options.

Usually small producers cannot reach the shelves of big supermarkets such as Whole Foods. It must be noted, though, that New Seasons has online guidelines for small vendors in Oregon. Among them are guarantees that the producers have all licenses, insurance, and permits, as well as vendor profiles and a new item form. It was not possible to find similar forms on the Whole Foods’ or Zupan's websites.

Being in agriculture is not an easy task for any company, but small farms struggle far more. Factors such as weather, market change, and human relations can alter the result of the production for small producers, whereas big producers can afford the luxury to lose some, but not all, of its crops.

According to Sarah Crawford, the Vice President of Oregon Farmers Market Association (OFMA), “Workforce capacity, equipment access and access to land are the biggest barriers for small farms. There's only so much land two people like a husband and wife can farm without mechanical help or hired labor, especially if the farm is run with organic practices.”

She argues it takes many years to learn how to efficiently cultivate and harvest certain crops and farmers hope to sell the produce at a “price worth the effort.” Although the love for local is evident, Oregon’s big producers aim for exportation while small producers fight for customer loyalty and space in local farmers markets.

At the same time, for big producers who have a wider access to big markets, 75 percent of the 225 different commodities planted and harvested in Oregon farms are  exported to other U.S. states and occasionally to other countries, according to the OSBA. The profit can be big, but most of the time, only those farmers who have the appropriate infrastructure have access to this market, while small farmers often face struggles.

Actually, the state of Oregon even uses federal funds to promote the agricultural export market, but it is unclear whether federal funds solely benefit big producers or if they aid small farms as well.

As often as local produce is associated to organic, shockingly only 2 percent of Oregon’s agriculture is organic. According to Crawford, this is because “if a product is to be sold mostly to customers in a supermarket where the farmer isn’t present then the certification makes more sense. At a farmers market a vendor is able to answer questions about production right on the spot and the customer may find out that the farmers' methods even surpass organic standards.”

Ultimately, it depends on where the farmer or vendor is selling and the value they see in the certification. So while big producers profit by reaching supermarket shelves and the export market, small producers, although not always organic, benefit from farmers markets due to the opportunity to network and expose their products to local consumers. According to a Deck Family Farm Representative Beth Topper, the Eugene Saturday farmers market is an extremely important way to share their product.

"We work with the local community and word of mouth in addition to social media and our website.” Topper said. “We also occasionally place advertisements in the local paper Locally Grown and the website ‘Local Harvest.’ We also attend various farmers markets in Eugene and Portland.”

Topper said that the Deck Family Farm prioritizes creating good relationships between farmers and consumers to grow the business.


Food Safety Modernization Act

In 2011, the U.S. Congress passed a legislation called the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which has been a controversy in Oregon’s agriculture. It determines that farmers must have specific infrastructure to prevent product illnesses. The rules of compliance were created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the course of five years and the rules are still in the process of being understood and attended by producers. In fact, the Oregon’s Department of Agriculture (ODA) administered lectures for small producers to comprehensively explain the rules of compliance, which took place in November throughout Oregon.

But for those small producers who struggle with infrastructure, the FSMA may present another challenge that is not only a resource challenge, but one that requires more attention than ever to the process of farming.

According to Crawford, because small producers cannot risk losing crops like big producers can, the process is cautious. With the FSMA, farms are required to have clean harvesting procedures, washing stations, and certified kitchens. There are also labeling requirements, fertilizer regulations, and prohibitions regarding animal proximity to vegetables to ensure clean, attractive, and high quality produce.

“I think [farmers] are very careful as they have devoted their entire lives to their venture and cannot afford a mistake like big corporations may be able to,” Crawford said. “A food safety mistake would be devastating for a small farmer and farmers market managers take the safety very seriously.”

Christine Deck, who sells organic eggs and beef, said the USDA presents a big challenge for small local producers. She believes it is important to have certified organic products, but the guidelines for such status are difficult to get. Not only is physical work needed to comply with USDA rules, but the bureaucracy takes "hours of work doing paperwork.” Deck claims that it would become even harder to comply with more FSMA rules as the existing guidelines are already demanding as it is.

"I don't know what else they can ask from us,” Deck says.

Maybe a middle ground between big and small business needs to be found.