Caleb Howard is young, full of ideas and ready to be a rancher. The only thing standing in his way is land.
Howard was one of a number of panelists who were part of the discussion of issues in Winter Fishtrap’s Young Agrarians event Feb. 16-18.
Some have access to family land and can avoid the cost of having to purchase property. Howard is not one of them.
He painted a frustrating picture for potential ranchers who do not have the luxury of leasing smaller acreage for their agricultural dreams.
“My parents are not going to be ready to release management for another 20-30 years,” he said. “Retirement begins with a six-foot hole in the ground.”
Howard would like to have several hundred acres and a grazing allotment.
“I’ve looked into buying land,” he said. “It’s not hard to get a loan — but it’s hard paying it back,” he said.
In the meantime, he is managing land with a “side hustle” of marketing 1,000 head of cattle per year — for others.
He also keeps 20 cows of his own.
“I probably ought to just sell them — but I enjoy them,” he said.
Despite his success as a manager, his goal is to be ranching his own land.
Nella Parks of Cove, who operates a vegetable production business on half an acre and Mary Hawkins of Wallowa, who operates a small meat processing business, Hawkins Sisters Ranch Chickens, were also panelists.
The trajectory toward sustainable farming included years of education, internships at several different agricultural businesses along the way, the assistance of family and neighboring farmer and ranchers, the volunteer labor of extended family, and numerous “side hustles” or day jobs to raise money to keep the farm going.
The reward was worth the effort, both women said.
Hawkins benefited from access to third generation family farmland and relatively low startup cost, she said. Parks is also on family land she leases and opened her greenhouses with a Natural Resources Conservation Grant.
“My whole story would not have been possible in another place outside this community,” Parks said. “I had so much help in Cove. People who have spent 30-40 years in agriculture just wanted to give me their knowledge. They had no one coming along behind them.”
Hawkins is the only small (under 20,000 birds) chicken farm and processing plant operating in Oregon — but a small operation that feeds nonGMO, locally sourced, custom chicken feed has high costs.
“My chicken costs five times more than meat in the grocery store,” Hawkins said. “But my customers know me and my chickens are healthy and happy. My customers are on a list for chickens. I sell out all the time.”
Breakout sessions that followed the panels allowed for brainstorming of solutions to the problems presented and swapping information. Land trusts, formal lease agreements between private individuals, the possibility of putting philosophically-motivated investors together with young agrarians, new lending models being presented by banks, developing intern programs and developing educational opportunities were considered.
The program sought to answer the questions: Who are the new generation of farmers? What are the barriers to begin farming today? And How has farming and ranching changed over the past 30 years?
Turns out three days was not enough to solve all the problems, including the issue of succession –– who will be tomorrow’s farmers?
In Oregon, agricultural land makes up 25 percent of the state –– 16.3 million acres –– but in the next 20 years, 64 percent of those lands will change hands.
By one estimate, 80 percent of farmers do not have a succession plan: no one in the family is willing to continue the farm and they know of no one who can purchase the farm and continue operation.
Oregon’s farmland is in danger of fragmentation, and once land is subdivided, it soon becomes lost to agriculture, permanently.
There are significant financial barriers.
“Student debt crushes the ability to get started at anything,” said Kate Greenberg of National Young Farmers Coalition, one of the Winter Fishtrap speakers. Studies have shown that student loan debt is the second greatest obstacle to land ownership.
“You probably aren’t going to own land for a long time. None of us are going to have the same trajectory that the generation before us had,” Greenberg said.
Fishtrap leadership declared the event a resounding success.
“Everyone who attended walked away with something new,” executive director Shannon McNerney. “This is just what we hoped for.”
Presenters came from a variety of fiends and backgrounds.
“We’ve got people from the full spectrum here in Wallowa County. Ranchers who have been here for generations and newcomers,” McNerney said. “That diversity of experience and knowledge is what we wanted (to present) when we brought back Winter Fishtrap.”
Around 75 mostly from Washington and Oregon attended.