The Rise of Small Farms

Oregon leads by example
By Lauren Morency DePhillips
Lauren Morency DePhillips
Lauren Morency DePhillips
August 22, 2013 Updated: August 22, 2013

A desire for sustainable and healthy alternatives to mass-produced food is sweeping the nation, and it’s a notion that Oregon has been immersed in for decades. 

Oregonians eat well—they enjoy fresh, organic cuisine from restaurants and grocers who carry products, produce, and meat from farms within a relatively short drive from residents. 

For over 40 years, the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, has sought solutions for environmental challenges in an effort to continue Oregon’s prerogative for sustainable advancement, while bolstering regional economy for farmers. For the OEC, Oregon’s emergence as a recognized national leader in regional food production is a focus, as well as farming using sustainable methods—a vision already in practice among numerous farmers.

A Closer Look at Oregon Farmers

Gathering Together Farm, owned by John Eveland and his wife Sally, is in the top 5 percentile of small farms and is able to provide food on a large scale. 

“When we started [farming], organic was very much fringe. Now it’s hip and in, and there’s a lot more people buying it, but also more people farming it,” said Eveland. 

Gathering Together also runs a bakery and restaurant on the premises, and it sells a variety of products from produce to doughnuts, from T-shirts to wine.

Midway Farms, a micro farm established in 1998 that grows for local markets, is owned and operated by Cynthia and Rob Kapple. The couple also runs a community table at the farmers market, allowing for other micro farms to connect and build support. In a community where farmers and community members can meet, “We’re the training wheels,” said Kapple. 

The Kapple’s farm is able to operate efficiently and sustainably, even with one-third of production going back to the farm’s natural wildlife. All spaces of the farm are utilized—grass for chicken feed grows in the shade of the grapevines, and no need to store a tractor means more growth per square yard. 

Farms like Gathering Together and Midway, among many others, are backing Oregon’s Community Supported Agriculture movement, which supports sustainable practices with the idea that Oregonians can know the source of their food. 

A growing number of Oregonians are purchasing their food directly from farms and farmers markets or joining a co-op, thus continuing to grow Oregon’s regional economy. 

“Farmers need to rely on the customers—they have to support each other. That’s how you can be sustainable, be dependable,” said Kapple.

Setbacks for the Small Farm

Though many flock in support of small farms, getting one started—and sustaining it—proves a challenge. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country’s total farm acreage has decreased since 1990, as many farmers have had to sell due to high costs or failure to build clientele.

“A micro farm still has to carve their niche to survive,” said Kapple. In addition, banks are not quick to hand out loans. “Line of credit is really key,” explained Eveland. “You invest before you see anything come back, and over 50 percent is labor costs … Most families have a second source of income.” 

The presence of demand does not ensure that a small farm will make it—obstacles lie around every corner.

For example, amid an increasing demand for raw milk, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has dubbed it unsafe for consumption. However, a recent study published in the Journal of Food Protection deems raw milk a low-risk food. Despite the FDA’s label, over half a million people—and growing—swear by raw milk’s health benefits, which has made raw milk a subject of fierce debate for decades. 

Farmers who speak out against the FDA’s label, in favor of legislation legalizing raw milk sales, are subject to public criticism. An outspoken raw milk farmer can even be dropped by their insurance, even in states such as Oregon where raw milk sales on small farms is legal. 

This controversy has lead many raw milk customers to advocate, pushing for the legalization of raw milk using books, blogs, and articles to voice their support.

The Farmers Market

Farmers markets provide local revenue for farmers as well as a means through which community members can talk directly to the growers of their food. 

Oregon farmers markets took off in the ‘80s and now operate year-round, rain or shine. The Oregon Farmers’ Markets Association is a nonprofit organization that supplies support for Oregon famers and enhances their connections to urban communities. 

Additionally, farmers can sell to local restaurants and grocers, among which New Seasons Market is a popular choice. New Seasons Market is a locally owned and operated grocer that provides an atmosphere similar to that of a farmers market, selling a variety of non-GMO, organic, and local products. 

Despite economic hardships from the strain of a down economy, Oregon’s regional economy is continuing to move in a sustainable direction, with each local farmer garnering more support from community members. In return, farmers will continue to supply their customers with high-quality, sustainably grown products, setting an example the rest of the nation can follow.

Lauren Morency DePhillips
Lauren Morency DePhillips