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Farming and Agriculture

Agriculture in the Willamette Basin

Changes in agricultural practices are fundamental to the health of the Willamette Basin's economy and ecosystems.

In 1824, the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Vancouver. The Fort, in an effort to be self-sustaining, commenced farming operations that included the planting of grain and orchards, and raising sheep and cattle. Within a year of its establishment, supplies of seed corn, barley, oats, peas, potatoes, and wheat arrived. Pigs, chickens, and other livestock had come in by land from other Hudson's Bay posts, or by sea from California. On Sauvie Island, a complex of dairies was created to supply needed milk, butter, and cheese. As Hudson's Bay employees retired, land was given to them to farm, especially in the French Prairie area of the Willamette Basin.

urban-rural interface

From the early success of Fort Vancouver's farming efforts, thousands of Americans and Europeans arrived in search of land and an unlimited array of farming opportunities. Although most crops and livestock could be successfully raised in the new Oregon Country, it soon became apparent to the pioneer farmer that due to the varied climates of the region, a certain amount of experimentation and adaptation would be necessary.

Today, agriculture has become integral to Oregon's economy with gross profits increasing by about 5% percent per year since 1985 and reaching over $3 billion dollars in 2002. Agriculture employs over 140,000 people in Oregon. Over 1 million acres of the Willamette Basin is devoted to agriculture. Agricultural land also provides important areas of open space and wildlife habitat.

There have been costs to agricultural development. More than half of the bottomland hardwood forests and woodlands had been converted to agriculture uses. Nearly 99 percent of the Basin's wetland prairies are gone, drained for agriculture and other development. Agricultural runoff removes topsoil, nutrients, pesticides, and organic materials and carries them to rivers where they become pollutants.

Many farmers in the Willamette Basin recognize that the challenge in the next 50 years is to learn to farm in greater harmony with natural systems. Many farms are reducing the amount of pesticides they apply, choosing to use more sustainable methods of control. For example, Stahlbush Island Farms, near Corvallis, has installed owl boxes along its Marion Berry fields to help control mice.

Other sustainable practices being developed include crop rotation, leaving streamside buffers, strip tilling, no-till drilling, winter cover crops, reducing and eliminating pesticides, and composting.

The Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas imagines the following possibilities for agricultural change by 2050:

Plan Trend 2050:  Approximately 40,000 acres of agricultural lands are converted to other uses by 2050 under this alternative, most also urban uses next to 1990 urban growth boundaries. The total area of land in agricultural production remains at approximately 20% of the basin. Map plant trend
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Development 2050:  With the expansion of housing and businesses onto farmland, approximately 181,000 acres of 1990 agricultural lands are converted to other uses under this scenario, with most of these converting to rural residential and urban uses or fragmenting into areas considered too small to farm. Map development
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Conservation 2050:  The mix of crops doesn't change much but farmers convert low productivity farmland to habitat. This isn't imposed on farmers, but instead encouraged through a variety of incentives. Conservation easements, transfers of development rights, and restoration grants are a few examples of the ways that farmers can be compensated for raising habitat instead of other crops. This could result in restoration of 12.5% of private agricultural land. That means that under this scenario, there's a 248,000 acre reduction in land in traditional agricultural production, but less than a fourth of that is urbanized. Most is restored as habitat. Riparian areas on farms and on public lands are replanted. Map conservation
Get map: GIS | PDF


Willamette Basin Alternative Futures Analysis. Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium, August 2002. EPA EPA 600/R-02/045(a).

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