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Clark County eyes Oregon incubator program as model for Heritage Farm’s future

As discussions on the best potential uses of the 78th Street Heritage Farm continue, another farm across the Columbia River might serve as a model.

The Clark County Food Council held a panel discussion Feb. 27 at the Clark County Historical Museum with several local agriculture professionals. The council organized the forum in light of the discussions on Heritage Farm. On Tuesday, the Clark County Council is expected to adopt a master plan for the farm and, after that, a more specific business strategy.

One of the panelists was a program manager at Headwaters Farm, located on a 60-acre plot outside of Gresham, Ore., and owned by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. For the past several years, it has served as an incubator farm — a five-year program that teaches farmers how to manage their own businesses.

“I think of it as a launch pad for farm businesses,” said Rowan Steele, the program’s manager. “In essence, we are generating more farm businesses to generate more farm businesses.”

The program seeks to lower four barriers for fledgling farmers: capital, education, networking and marketing. Farmers in the program can rent land and supplies for a fraction of market rate, complete training on how to develop and execute a business plan, connect with other farmers — sometimes just by peeking over their shoulders — and receive help marketing their products.

Steele listed a number of benefits to incubator programs, including that they strengthen communities’ food sources, increase knowledge of food consumption and promote ecologically responsible practices. But perhaps the most striking benefit he mentioned is the ability to cultivate a new generation to take over an aging profession.

“Who is going to grow our food? Who is going to produce our fiber? Who’s going to produce the fuel, all the things that come from farms, if we don’t have a prepared, skilled, knowledgeable base of the next generation of farmers?” Steele asked.

Rachel Reister, of Reister Farms in Washougal, said the lamb farm’s clientele includes restaurants and grocery stores including New Seasons. She recalls searching the internet for various resources that a new farm operation would need when the farm re-focused on selling lamb several years ago.

“The biggest problem for us in Clark County when we started was the infrastructure to know where those were,” Reister said.

Reister, who grew up on a farm in the Midwest, had already gathered some of that knowledge throughout her life. But she imagined the difficulty for brand-new farmers locally.

“Truly, it is the partnerships we gain as we farm in an urban fringe that are super vital to what we do,” Reister said. “The kind of infrastructure you have at Headwaters that gives them the training to do that would have been (invaluable) for us.”

‘That is what we want to do’

Additionally, opportunities in Clark County are less fruitful due in part to land-use laws, said Justin O’Dea, a regional agricultural specialist with WSU Extension. During his presentation, O’Dea displayed a photo of an empty barn in an open field with a sign that read “zoned commercial.”

Clark County has some of the best soil in the state — essentially the same as the nearby Willamette Valley in Oregon — and has the third highest number of farms in Washington, O’Dea said. But he said the per-acre returns from agricultural products is a relatively meager $522.

“It’s not what you would call a very strong economic argument,” O’Dea said.

In 1949, Washington State University founded a research station at Heritage Farm, where agricultural scientists developed and tested crops. The farm now houses the WSU Clark County Extension Office after the farm was returned to the county in 2008.

Trials at the site in recent years have included one-cut lettuce, cover crops and hops, O’Dea said.

In order to promote agriculture at Heritage Farm –a tenet of both the current and proposed master plan — several ideas have been discussed, including a farmers market and agritourism opportunities. Incubator programs have arisen across the country, and a handful exist in Washington and Oregon.

But that’s where a major political variation between Clark and Multnomah counties comes into play: taxes.

In 2004, East Multnomah conservation district voters approved a permanent property tax rate limited to 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The tax revenue has allowed the conservation district to spend $4 million at Headwaters to purchase the property, build new structures and cover other costs, Steele said. The farm’s annual budget runs around $300,000.

“We’ve resourced the farmers pretty well, and that definitely comes at a cost,” Steele said.

During the panel discussion — featuring Steele, O’Dea and Reister — Clark Conservation District manager Zorah Oppenheimer commented from the audience. Oppenheimer confirmed that the local district doesn’t collect taxes, something she characterized as the key difference.

The Clark County district staffs the equivalent of more than two full-time employees, about the same number for Headwaters alone.

“The work you guys do is incredible. That is what we want to do,” Oppenheimer said. “Believe me, if we could buy a farm and do this, holy moly, I would jump on that right now.”


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