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Can the Way We Eat Change Metropolitan Agriculture? The Portland Example.

by Martha Works and Thomas Harvey

Hillside development.
  Metropolitan Portland hillside development adjacent to productive farmland.
Photo by Martha Works.

Portland, Oregon, is the kind of city where a “greener-than-thou” restaurateur’s dilemma over what to do when Monsanto executives make a dinner reservation is a lead story in the local ‘newsmakers’ column, where local chefs are celebrities and have their own cooking shows, and where a neighborhood BBQ joint feels the need to advertise its vegetarian fare. It’s a city where food and eating and increasingly agriculture are taken seriously and form an important part of the cultural scene and landscape. A growing interest in regional food and agriculture has resulted in efforts to enhance rural-urban linkages through creation of farmers markets, community supported agriculture, farmer-chef collaborations, and promotion of local food products. The interest has also resulted in political efforts at scales from the household to the state to foster a regionally-based community food system.

Agriculture and urbanization have traditionally been linked in discussions of loss of agricultural land to urban growth. However, there are regional variations in patterns of urban growth and in the adaptive transformation of farms. The cultural and economic context of agricultural change around Portland suggests that population increase and cultural change can provide opportunities for farming by creating markets for locally grown products. Changing food preferences and local food politics can affect land use and landscape and help shape a regional dynamic where agriculture connects rather than divides urban and rural residents.

Hoffman Farms at Lolich's: Fresh berries and produce outlet.
A local farm provides both a roadside stand and u-pick opportunities.
Photo by Martha Works.

Changes in Farmland at National, State, and Regional Scales

At the national level there has been a continual decrease in farmland over many decades, with a loss of over 80 million acres and 185,000 farms since 1974. During this same time period, however, there has been an increase in the number of farms under 50 acres, reflecting an increase in the number of small and/or hobby farms surrounding urban areas. This is supported by the dramatic increase in the number of farms at the low end of the income spectrum (that is, less than $2,500) by almost 400,000 between 1974 and 2002, and by the number of farms at both the larger sizes and higher incomes, reflecting in this case a significant loss of the “ag in the middle” or the traditional family farm.

In Oregon there is a similar pattern of overall losses (6% decline in number of farms between 1974 and 2002 compared to 8% national decline), but a significantly greater increase in the number of small farms (131% vs. 37%) and a gain—albeit small—rather than a loss in middle income farms.

'74 - '02
% Change
'74 - '02
Land in Farms (Acres)
Average Size of Farm (Acres)
Farms by Size:
   1 - 49 acres
   50 - 999 acres
   1,000 acres or more
Farms by Value of Sales:
   Less than $2,500
   $2,500 - $99,999
   $100,000 or more
Changes in Oregon Agriculture, 1974-2002.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Changes in Oregon’s agricultural picture need to be considered in the context of state land use planning regulations that date from 1973. These regulations have contained urban sprawl through the establishment of urban growth boundaries around all towns and cities in the state and provided specific protections for ‘prime agricultural land’ and areas zoned for ‘exclusive farm use.’ Despite rapid population growth in Oregon’s ‘Eden’— the Willamette Valley—particularly over the last 15 years, farmland has not been converted as rapidly as it might have been without the land use planning regulations.

Farm along UGB.Urban Growth Management
in Oregon

Oregon’s urban growth management policies date from 1973, when Senate Bill 100 passed with support from both political parties and Republican governor Tom McCall. The law set a number of statewide planning goals that addressed, among others, urbanization and the preservation of resource lands. The legislature paid particular attention to farmland protection with Goal 3:

The preservation of a maximum amount of the limited supply of agricultural land is necessary to the conservation of the state’s economic resources and the preservation of land in large blocks is necessary in maintaining the agricultural economy of the state and for the assurance of adequate, healthful and nutritious food for the people of this state and the nation.

Read Full Article   > >


In the Portland metropolitan area—five Oregon counties and Clark County, Washington— patterns of farmland change challenge the conventional wisdom about farmland loss, especially considering that the area’s population increased from 1.3 to 2 million people between 1980 and 2003. Not only did the number of farms increase, so did land in farms, due in part to the fact that Christmas tree farms were counted as agricultural land in the 2002 agricultural census, but not in previous censuses. The number of small farms increased, but so did the number of farms larger than 1,000 acres and farms in all value categories increased.

This suggests that generalities about farmland loss mask profound regional variation. To understand agricultural change we need to look more closely at forces affecting land use and landscape change at various scales of analysis.

Oregon and Portland Metropolitan Area Agriculture

Oregon agriculture is remarkably diverse and reflects the dramatic regional variation found in the state. Eastern Oregon is high desert country with an economic landscape of wheat, cattle, hay, mining and timber extraction—the classic extractive economy of the intermountain West. The lush Willamette Valley forms the core of western Oregon. It is the paradise that Oregon Trail pioneers sought as they headed out on wagon trains for the six-month journey from Missouri and toward which modern pioneers—Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’—still come in search of the good life.

  Stapleton outlined over airport.
  Metropolitan counties in Oregon. Click map for larger view.
Graphic by David Banis.

The state of Oregon grows over 225 commercial crops, more than any other state except California and Florida, and the greatest diversity of production occurs in the Willamette Valley. Most of the production is exported and 40% leaves the country.

Despite economic changes over the last 50 years, agriculture remains an important part of the state’s economy, first in terms of volume and second only to high tech in terms of export value.

While it might not be surprising that agriculture is important to the state of Oregon, the concentration and importance of agriculture in Portland’s metropolitan counties is contrary to popular notions about the coexistence of agriculture and urbanization. Three of the metropolitan area counties—Clackamas, Yamhill, Washington—are among the top five agricultural counties in the state. Multnomah County, where Portland is located, is Oregon’s most urban county, yet still ranks 14th in value of agricultural production. Four of the five counties—Clackamas, Washington, Yamhill, Multnomah—are in the top five counties for greenhouse and nursery products; four—Washington, Clackamas, Multnomah, Yamhill—are among the top five producers of cane berries; and two—Yamhill and Washington—are leading producers of wine grapes. Nine of the most productive agricultural counties in Oregon are in the heavily populated Willamette Valley.

West Union Gardens garlic.
West Union Gardens garlic is offered throughout the region.
Photo by Thomas Harvey.

Factors Affecting Portland Metropolitan Agriculture

This agricultural bounty began attracting chefs, cooks, gardeners, and sophisticated eaters in the early 1990s, when a number of new restaurants began touting ‘regional Northwest cuisine’ that drew on locally produced and regionally distinctive food stuff such as salmon, wild mushrooms, game, pears, and berries. This attention to local and regional foods captivated the general public, which in turn began demanding more readily available fresh and local food, driving an increase in direct marketing of agricultural products through many different channels.

In recent years there has been a politicization of the local food system idea with a variety of organizations such as Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council and Ecotrust working to both promote local agriculture and provide alternatives to the corporate food structure through their support of ‘buy local’ food procurement strategies.

Red clover fields.
  Willamette Valley's fertile soil makes it highly productive.
Photo by Martha Works.

The combination of demand for a more diverse array of food, fed by globalization and immigration, and the political emphasis on sustainability and living in your region (ironically, a kind of response to the globalization of food) has had an impact across the United States, mirroring trends that are well established in parts of Europe. Portland provides a model for investigation of these trends because of the diversity of agricultural production, the physical setting, the concentration of a foodie culture, a tradition of political activism, and the existence of an urban growth boundary that provides some controls over sprawl.

What factors shape this distinctive food culture and what is the impact on agriculture in the region?

Farm along UGB.West Union Gardens:
We Grow Everything
We Sell

Urban-oriented agriculture has found its place in the protected rural landscape of metropolitan Portland. West Union Gardens, located in the urban-rural fringe just three-quarters of a mile from the urban growth boundary (UGB), epitomizes the trend. Jeff and Cheryl Boden started farming on a 50-acre former dairy in 1987. They chose an easily accessed location on NW Cornelius Pass Road, a major rural route close to suburban populations. At that time, the UGB was in place but development had barely pressed against it. Today the boundary is highly visible, the result of housing subdivisions built since 1990.

Read Full Article   > >


The Role of Chefs

In the Portland area, and more generally in the Pacific Northwest, chefs were instrumental in drawing attention to the amazing array of local foodstuffs; they have played an important role in creating a local food culture and in promoting local agriculture. As visible public citizens they actively promoted support for local farmers and seasonal produce. A Portland Chapter of Chefs Collaborative was formed in 1998 and has developed, in partnership with Ecotrust (a local non-profit dedicated to fostering a sustainable regional economy), the Farmer-Chef Connection, a direct marketing model that promotes long-term business relationships between chefs and farmers. This is accomplished by an online directory that helps farmers find chefs and chefs find farmers, a set of guidelines for both, and what one participant has called a kind of “speed-dating” conference where farmers and restaurateurs briefly interview each other to establish compatibility.

Farmers Markets

Chefs were early supporters of a Portland farmers market which began in 1992. The official Portland Farmers Market has grown from a handful of vendors in a parking lot in an industrial area to three sprawling markets a week in downtown Portland with over 200 vendors. At its inception, market organizers had a hard time finding enough vendors. Now there is a waiting list for the downtown markets and 24 additional farmers markets in the Portland area plus one in Vancouver, Clark County. Two of the Portland area markets have year-round operations, extending income opportunities for farmers, and several markets are extending their seasons of operation.

Portland Farmers Market.
  The Portland Farmers Market remains the regions largest, and is a successful outlet for local produce.
Photo by Martha Works.

Farm Stands

Another venue for direct marketing and sales that has grown dramatically in the last several years, both in number and in publicity about them, is the farm stand operation. Five-thousand copies of a flyer with the charming title Sunset Trails to Country Fresh Foods were distributed in 1977, listing 25 farm stands near Portland. Now, 100,000 copies of the more prosaic Tri-county Farm Fresh Produce Guide are distributed through the local paper and other outlets, listing 80 farm stands in the greater Portland area. While some might consider this merely agri-entertainment for urban dwellers, it also provides a form of direct income for urban area farmers.

Community Supported Agriculture

Increase in community supported agriculture (CSA), whereby subscribers buy shares or invest in a farm at the beginning of the season and in exchange receive weekly supplies of fresh produce, is also a national and local trend. In 1985 there was one CSA in the United States; now there are over 2,000. Over the last ten years, the number of CSAs in the Portland area has increased from zero to 18. About a third of them offer year-round options for produce.

Oregon's wine industry has seen dramatic growth, even with its proximity to a major metropolitan area.
Photo by Martha Works.

Growth in the Wine Industry

Another culturally driven change in agriculture is the dramatic growth of Oregon’s wine industry, which is due to the character of the physical environment and is part of a broader context of cultural change. It is not driven exclusively by local food preferences, but has a significant effect on metropolitan agriculture since two of the counties—Yamhill and Washington—are leading producers of wine grapes in the state. The industry’s success has led to the conversion of what might have otherwise been considered marginal land to grape production, resulting in a significant agri-tourism focus for the region and a visible and vocal lobby for the preservation of agricultural infrastructure and landscapes.

West Union Gardens at Portland Farmers Market.
  West Union Gardens at the Portland Farmers Market.
Photo by Thomas Harvey.

Demand for Organic Food

Demand for organic produce, also part of a national trend, has helped shape the character of urban area agriculture. Oregon Tilth has certified organic farmers in Oregon and elsewhere since 1974. Because of variation in certification criteria it is difficult to gauge absolute change in organic production in the state of Oregon, although it clearly is increasing. Oregon Tilth records an increase from 180 to 220 organic farms in Oregon between 1998 and 2001 and an increase of over 5,000 acres, from 12,000 to over 17,000 over the same time period. The 2002 Census of Agriculture, which lists organic farms for the first time under the new USDA criteria, tabulates 515 organic farms in Oregon, 144 of which are in the Portland area. If we look more broadly at the other urban areas of the Willamette Valley, over 50%—or 266—organic farms are in metropolitan counties.

Sauvie Island Organics, sign and red barn.
Smaller farms can also find a niche selling organic produce.
Photo by Martha Works.

Political Efforts to Transform Agriculture

More explicit political efforts are also having an impact on agriculture and land use. Efforts to establish food policy councils at state, county, and city levels are present in over 20 states. Oregon is one of several states with efforts underway to establish a statewide Food Policy Council and is second only to California in the number of local or county-wide councils (there are five in Oregon, eight in California). According to organizers, food policy councils are “joint citizen and government advisory bodies that review and recommend policies that strengthen the local food economy and improve access to healthy and nutritious food’ and to combat hunger. “Council members represent the diversity of stakeholders involved in the food system, from farmers and processors to retailers, anti-hunger advocates, nutritionists, planners and community members.”

Among the impacts that the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council has had on local food production is a commitment from the county corrections facility to increase purchases from local suppliers. In the 2004 growing season, the county bought $57,000 in fresh food from Portland area farmers, including those in southwest Washington. Another effort involved a direct marketing workshop for immigrant farmers to help with developing marketing opportunities, community gardens, and access to land.

Sign: Entering Agricultural Zone. Drive carefully.
  Agricultural zones at the edge of metropolitan areas are marked.
Photo by Martha Works.

Ecotrust’s Food and Farms Program, for example, has the following goals:

  • Promote the seasonal products of local farmers
  • Reduce the environmental impact of agriculture on healthy watersheds
  • Improve public understanding of local agriculture
  • Increase the market share of locally grown food

Food Purveyors and the Role of Entrepreneurs

Burgerville, a locally owned fast-food outlet with locations in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon, has a corporate policy to feature local food and to source as much of its menu as possible from local purveyors. From hazelnut, raspberry, strawberry, huckleberry, or pumpkin milkshakes, to Walla Walla onion rings, sweet potato fries, Oregon Country Natural Beef, buns made from local wheat, and Tillamook cheese, Burgerville has built a loyal customer base on its support of local agriculture.

New Seasons Market, a chain of locally owned grocery stores, markets itself as “a company [with] a true commitment to its community, to promoting sustainable agriculture and to maintaining a progressive workplace.…When you shop at [this] locally owned business your money stays in your neighborhood, creates local jobs, and nourishes the unique character of your community.” With a motto of “Think Local, Buy Local, Be Local,” New Seasons’ success has prompted other area grocers to feature local and organic produce.

Burgerville sign.
Burgerville has a corporate policy to feature local food and purchase from local farmers.
Photo by Martha Works.

The Food Innovation Center, a branch of Oregon State University’s agricultural extension service, is based in Portland. Its mission is to help local producers and entrepreneurs develop food products that support Oregon agriculture. The center provides assistance with packaging, preparation and processing of food items, and marketing, and has worked to develop or improve a range of signature Oregon food items that find their way to regional, national, and international markets.

Impacts on Rural Land Use

How do efforts such as farmer-chef cooperatives, farmers markets, community supported agriculture, increases in organic production, a vibrant wine producing region, local companies with emphasis on sourcing local products, and political structures promoting local agriculture affect land use and support for farmland near cities? What are the impacts of these efforts on agricultural production and the agricultural landscape?

Agricultural census data provides a basis for addressing impacts of changes in urban food preferences and food policies on rural land use. With respect to land in farms, acreage decreased in three area counties—Washington, Columbia, and Clark—but increased in Clackamas, where Christmas tree and nursery and greenhouse production are particularly strong, and in Yamhill County with its booming winery and vineyard industry, and even increased marginally in Multnomah County. Harvested cropland, which some researchers suggest is the best measure of agricultural production, shows increases in Yamhill, Clackamas, and Columbia, decreases in Washington and Clark, and little change in Multnomah County between 1987 and 2002.

Sherwood Saturday Maket sign.
  The Sherwood Saturday Market is one of two dozen now operating in the Portland metropolitan region.
Photo by Martha Works.

To better understand how food preferences and cultural and political factors affect agriculture, we can look at agricultural census figures for direct marketing, which includes value and acreage of farmers market vendors, farm stands, community supported agriculture, and U-pick or farm stand operations. There are overall increases in value of production in all area counties between 1992 and 2002, with the exception of Clark County, Washington, which has less restrictive land use regulations, rapid population growth, and serves, in part, as a bedroom community for Portland. Local observers of the agricultural scene are unsure why Multnomah County’s value of direct marketing products spiked in 1997. There is general agreement, however, that figures for direct marketing in Oregon and elsewhere are undercounted. Direct marketing in the Portland area by number of farms shows an increase in all counties except Clark County. These figures suggest that cultural preferences—which would be reflected most clearly in the figures for direct marketing—along with land use planning regulations, have combined to provide an avenue of opportunity and a measure of protection for urban-oriented agriculture.

Regional and National Implications

Does the growth of demand for local food and the increasing number of farms devoted to direct marketing have an impact on metropolitan agriculture in Portland? Can changing attitudes about food consumption have an impact on agriculture overall, particularly agriculture around cities? A preliminary look at two other cities—Kansas City, Kansas and Charlotte, North Carolina—which have very different physical and cultural geographies, and different patterns of urban growth, indicates that those metropolitan areas have also experienced increases in land in farms over the last 15 years.

Blackberries and raspberries signs.
West Union Gardens advertises that blackberries and raspberries are now ready.
Photo by Thomas Harvey.

The cities further suggest that these changes are occurring on a national scale in metropolitan areas. The number of farmers markets at the national level, for example, more than doubled between 1994 and 2004, from 1,755 to 3,706. The number of farms or farmers involved in selling products or produce to farmers markets increased from 86,432 in 1987 to 116,733 in 2002.

The ‘buy local’ trend, increasing attention to regional identity, and the role of food and agriculture in shaping places are apparent in the cultural, economic, and political landscapes of metropolitan regions. These changes in the way people think about and purchase food make a political statement and are a way of supporting the regional agricultural economy; they also are a way of buying landscapes, of supporting viable rural land uses and livelihoods, and in voting through your food choices to create a regional dynamic that links the rural and the urban.


Martha Works' teaching and research interests are in cultural geography and Latin America. More information is available at http://web.pdx.edu/~mworks.
Thomas Harvey has research and teaching interests in American regions and landscapes, urban geography, and landscape photography. More information is available at http://web.pdx.edu/~harveyt.
Information about previous research by Martha Works and Thomas Harvey on the urban-rural interface can be found at www.rlua.pdx.edu.
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Census of Agriculture

Chefs Collaborative, Portland Chapter


Ecotrust Food and Farms Program

Farmer-Chef Connection

Food Policy Council

Oregon Farmers Markets Association

Oregon Tilth

Oregon State University's Food Innovation Center

Portland Farmers Market

Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council

Tri-county Farm Fresh Produce Guide





Agricultural Marketing Service/USDA. [accessed: 12 May 2005].

Chefs Collaborative [accessed: 19 May 2005].

Drake University, Agricultural Law Center. 2005. State and Local Food Policy Councils. [accessed: 17 May 2005].

Ecotrust. [accessed: 19 May 2002].

Florida, Richard. 2004. Cities and the Creative Class. Routledge.

Halweil, Brian. 2005. "America’s Freshest Fast Food," The Snail. Spring 2005. p. 24.

Kirschenmann, Frederick. 2003. "Can we save ‘agriculture of the middle’?" Leopold Letter, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Spring, Vol. 15, No. 1. [accessed: 16 May 2005]

Nicholas, Jonathan. March 3, 2005. "Case of Raging Hormones." The Oregonian. p. 1, Living section.

U. S. Bureau of the Census. 2000. Maps of Metropolitan Areas, Counties, and Central Cities. [accessed: 17 May 2005]

USDA. 2002. Census of Agriculture — U.S., State, and County Data. Table 1. Historical Highlights: 2002 and Earlier Census Years, and other data tables.

Oregon Department of Agriculture. 2004. Oregon Facts and Figures.



Oregon's Top 20 Agricultural Commodities

1. Greenhouse and nursery
2. Cattle and calves
3. Hay
4. Grass seed
5. Milk
6. Wheat
7. Christmas trees
8. Onions
9. Potatoes
10. Pears
11. Eggs
12. Cherries
13. Hazelnuts
14. Grapes
15. Sweet corn
16. Mint for oil
17. Blackberries
18. Grass and grain straw
19. Blueberries
20. Hops

Source: Oregon Department of Agriculture

Oregon ranks No. 1 in production of:

•  Blackberries*
•  Hazelnuts*
•  Loganberries*
•  Black raspberries*
•  Crimson clover, seed
•  Grass seed (fescue,
•  Boysenberries
•  Potted florist azaleas
•  Christmas trees
•  Dried herbs
•  Sugarbeets (for seed)

* 100% of U.S. production.

Oregon ranks No. 2 in production of:

•  Peppermint
•  Dungeness crab
•  Onions
•  Hops
•  Snap beans for
•  Red raspberries
•  Spearmint
•  Prunes and plums

Oregon ranks No. 3 in production of:

•  Pears
•  Kentucky bluegrass seed
•  Sweet cherries
•  Blueberries
•  Nursery crops
•  Winter peas
•  Strawberries

Source: Oregon Department of Agriculture


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