REBUILDING THE LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM: The Future of Agriculture in the Willamette Valley Through the Lens of Food Security
by Dan Armstrong

What will agriculture in the Willamette Valley look like ten or twenty years from now? Will the valley still be called the “grass seed capital of the world?” Will changes in the climate impact what we grow? Will the climbing cost of petroleum cause a spike in the price of food and the number of the hungry? Or will these same elements and economic pressures stimulate more local food production and reinvigorate our local food system?

There is no crystal ball; however, we do know what Willamette Valley agriculture looks like today, and that “food security” in Oregon is an issue of great concern to many. One way to address our opening questions would be to envision a best-case scenario based on the imperatives of food security, then use that scenario as our lens with which to evaluate current practices and decide how we may better shape the agricultural future of our valley.

What is Food Security?

Being food-secure within a region would mean there was “universal access to food that is healthful, nutritious, safe and culturally acceptable. In addition, in a food-secure community, the growing, processing and distribution of food is regionally-based, socially just and environmentally sustainable,” according to the Community Social Planning Council. To evaluate the food security of the Willamette Valley we can look at three factors: immediate issues, long-term trends and systemic maintenance.

Food security’s most immediate issue is to feed the hungry. This is what most people think of when we talk about food security. But there are also immediate concerns for safe food (free of chemicals and disease-causing bacteria) and healthy food (nutritious and good for you). And then there is the ever-present need to have food available during an emergency or a natural disaster.

Long-term food security trends include a changing climate, peaking oil production and an unstable agricultural workforce.

Systemic maintenance addresses farming practices and food system viability. Food security depends on farming practices that are sustainable over the long term. This means using practices that conserve or improve the soil, protect the groundwater and the environment in general and produce food that does not contain chemical residues. Food security also depends on functional local food systems that can handle production, processing, storage, transportation and marketing.

Willamette Valley Agriculture: Then and Now

The Willamette Valley is a two-million acre stretch of prime farmland, bordered by a dense, eco-rich coniferous forest. The climate is mild, which makes it ideal for farming and raising livestock of all kinds. The soil is fertile and, in all, more than two hundred edible crops can be grown in the Willamette Valley. This tremendous flexibility can also contribute to the vitality of the soil by allowing for the rotation of various field crops.

As recently as 1970, Willamette Valley farmers produced a wide array of grains, fruits, and vegetables. Wheat was the largest crop by acreage. Barley, oats, snap peas and sweet corn were also significant crops. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, apples, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts and squash filled out the mix.

In the 1950s the mid-valley was the world’s most productive fruit and vegetable processing region in the world, with as many as thirty canneries in the Salem area alone. The region had a working food system, including grain storage and milling, and the populace was consuming in excess of 50 percent locally grown food.

This image of Willamette Valley agriculture has changed considerably in the last 30 years due to the evolution and maturation of the global marketplace. The expansion of world markets, the liberalization of trade agreements and the globalization of international economies has changed the way we buy and sell all things, but the greatest change is seen in the way we buy and sell food. Labor costs and comparative advantage have more to say about how we tend the land than the land itself, and the agricultural trend has been toward less regional diversity and an increased focus on special markets and monoculture.

Since 1980, Willamette Valley farmers have turned to growing rye grass, bentgrass and fescue to produce seed because they were the most profitable to grow for the global market. By 2005, nearly 60 percent of the cropland was planted with grass seed varieties, local fruit and vegetable canneries had dropped from nearly fifty in number to less than five, grain storage and milling had all but disappeared and the local populace was importing more than 95 percent of its food. What was once a well-balanced and diversified agricultural region with all the necessary infrastructure for a working food system had become the “grass seed capital of the world,” and one of the most fertile and well-balanced agricultural regions in the United States could no longer feed itself.

Due to the recent economic downturn and vastly reduced housing starts, the Oregon grass seed industry has fallen on hard times, and Willamette Valley agriculture is in the throes of a transition. Exactly where we are headed is still an unanswered question, but wheat acreage has increased substantially since 2008 and many grass seed farmers are now looking for other alternatives. Perhaps there is no better time than the present to evaluate new directions with increased food security and self-reliance as our target.

Immediate Issues

Most of us are aware of the world hunger problem – the 1.5 billion people who live on less than $1.50 a day and the 30,000 children who die of starvation daily – yet many don’t know that in 2009 Oregon had the second highest percentage of undernourished children in the United states, at 4.5 percent. Many also don’t know that 10,000 children in Lane County live below the poverty level and that one-third of all free food boxes handed out by Food for Lane County went to people under 18.

While these numbers are certainly nothing like what we see in the developing world, they are especially disturbing for western Oregon because of our enormous potential for growing food.

The Willamette Valley, like all of the United States, is part of the global food system. We eat less than five percent locally grown food and as a result, we eat a lot of overly processed food and have only a general idea where our food comes from. We have almost no idea how it was grown and only in the rarest cases do we have any personal knowledge of the farmer who grew the food.

With the majority of our food brought in by truck, train or ship, we have little defense in case of an emergency or natural disaster. If such an event were to shut down those lines of import we would not have quantities of food on hand to feed our population for more than about three days. After that point we would be at the mercy of federal emergency resources, and, like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, we might find ourselves reliant upon FEMA for assistance. We need a more self-reliant and localized emergency food system.

Long-Term Trends

Our changing climate is a serious concern and could impact seasonal weather dynamics in the Willamette Valley. Impacts of climate change could include an increased number of catastrophic weather events and a reduction in the availability of water.

We rarely think about it, but our food supply is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels and petrochemical inputs. Conventional farm production includes fertilizers made from natural gas, petrochemical herbicides and pesticides and the use of diesel-powered machinery. Whether the crops are conventionally or organically-grown, diesel is used to transport the harvests to processors, distributors, wholesalers and retail grocery stores. By the time it reaches the consumer’s home, thousands of miles may have been covered. In fact, 15 percent of the cost of food today is energy related—energy to produce, energy to process, energy to transport and energy to prepare.

As part of the global food system, we rely on cheap fuel to freight in food at reasonable prices. Escalating petroleum prices add to the cost of transport, production and retail prices while also adding pressure to our already stressed economic situation—thus more people unemployed and homeless. This takes us back to food security’s first concern—feeding the hungry.

Farm labor is arguably the most understated of the long-term food security issues. The average age of today’s Oregon farmer is 56. For the most part, the children of these farmers do not intend to take over running the family farm when their parents retire. Additionally, 75 percent of U.S. farm laborers are Hispanic, and over half of those are undocumented immigrants. Like the rest of the United States, western Oregon farmers have come to depend on undocumented workers for cheap farm labor, and, considering the political turmoil around this issue, there is no immediate solution on the horizon. These factors beg the question: Who will be Oregon’s farmers and farm workers of the future?

Systemic Maintenance

Large-scale monoculture combined with chemical fertilizers and extensive irrigation systems are not sustainable farming practices. Over the long term, they wear out the soil and introduce chemicals to our groundwater. Minimizing chemical inputs and adding diversity to what we grow must be part of our long-term strategy for creating food security.

In the last 25 years we have seen local food systems throughout the United States gradually give way to the global system. It is a system run by large multinational food distributors and is based on long-range transportation. This global system brought us many new products from all over the world and created new markets to sell what we produce, but it has two critical flaws: 1) The global system came into being during an age of cheap oil, which is rapidly drawing to a close; and 2) this system actually lends itself to the gradual dismantling of local food systems, because both American and international consumers have come to rely so heavily on distant markets and long-range freight.

A Vision for the Future

Currently, food security in the Willamette Valley is dependent on the global food system, government response to catastrophic events, undocumented Hispanic farm labor and petroleum-based fuels and farm inputs. The key to increasing our future food security is creating a higher level of self-reliance. Ideally, the future Willamette Valley agricultural model would be based on rebuilding our own local food system and using sustainable farming practices to do it.

What would this look like? First, it is likely that in the foreseeable future grass seed production will continue to be a significant part of Willamette Valley agriculture. But grass seed farming should exist only as part of a more balanced program that prioritizes growing all the various food crops the valley has already produced with a successful track record. Local demand for these diverse crops should be met before selling the excess on the global market. This conversion would necessitate no less than a 40 to 50 percent reduction of grass seed acreage, including a considerable portion of land that food crops cannot be grown on. For these less fertile lands and wetter soils we would need to incorporate additional non-edible field crops like flax, hemp and other oilseed crops. It would also be necessary to grow a balanced variety of edible field crops on the more fertile farmland opened by reduced grass seed production. Wheat is already heading in this direction, but other dry-stored commodities would be important for diversity and proper crop rotation. Barley, oats, rye, millet, buckwheat, and a variety of dry-land beans would be key staples to add to the foundation of our rebuilt local food system.

Along with this increased food production—and the clear necessity of having willing local buyers, we would need the infrastructure to support it.

New grain mills and storage facilities should be located near the major population centers in the valley. Fruit and vegetable distribution hubs would also be needed in these same population areas, as well as value-added processing facilities. Infrastructure for local processing of hemp, flax and other oilseeds would be a non-food related bonus to this reinvigorated, localized economy.

In the end, the idea is not to go 100 percent local. That is impossible. We are talking about a reasonable balance between imported and locally grown food. Instead of importing 95 percent of our food, we should strive to reduce that to at least 70 to 75 percent so that we are eating at least 25 percent locally grown and processed food. This is enough to have a complete and working local food system.

With such a system in place, we would be responding to nearly every facet of food security. A sizeable portion of our produce would come from farmers we could actually meet and talk to about farming practices. We would also have healthier food choices, with plenty of excess and gleaning opportunities for local food banks. With storage and distribution centers up and down the valley, food would be close at hand (with diminished transport costs) and readily available during food-distribution emergencies. Though labor would remain a question our nation must face, rebuilding our food system would come with the benefit of stimulating economic development and manufacturing jobs in a sector that is based on one of our greatest and most sustainable natural resources—our farmlands.

Dan Armstrong lives in Eugene, Oregon and is a member of the Lane County Food Policy Council and the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project. He is also the editor of the website where all of his writing on food security and the environment are available.
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