Oregon Losing Farmland: Advocates Express Concern

Oregon lost 4% of its farmland from 2017 to 2022, according to the newly released 2022 Census of Agriculture that is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years. As the second highest western state with the highest decrease in farmland behind Washington, Oregons farmland is cause for concern for some agricultural land conservation advocates.

Farmland conservation advocates said that Oregon’s land use planning program done a good job at protecting farmland historically, but the recent survey raises red flags. The advocates say it’s worrying to observe the trend of decreasing farmland, especially in comparison with other states.

The over 35,000 farms and ranches currently registered in Oregon represent a 5.5% decrease over the 15.2 million acres of farmland. This is down by 4% since 2017. Despite losing more than 660,000 acres of farmland within those five years, Oregon still has land use laws that restrict development that is unrelated to agriculture on land zoned for farming.

With land protection laws enshrined in Senate Bill 100, which passed in 1973, the cornerstone of Oregon’s law remains the set of 19 statewide land use planning goals. Of these, goal number 3 stipulates that counties must identify farmland, designate it as such, and zone the land as exclusive farm use (EFU).

The land use and planning coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Jim Johnson, indicated that farmland loss could be due to increasing utility-scale solar developments on farmland, and the drought over several years that has forced some farmers- especially those farming in central Oregon, to stop production on their land  because of the shortage or lack of water. But Johnson said that by far the biggest factor for the loss, is non-farm uses of farmland, and this can add up over time.

Johnson confirmed that Oregon does have a very good land use system in place protecting agricultural land,  and overall has done a good job historically. He also said that, “the numbers show that there’s been a weakening of the program from a lot of different angles.”

The Working Lands program director for 1000 Friends of Oregon, Greg Holmes, confirmed that the reasons for loss of farmland in Oregon are varied. Noting that not all land being farmed in Oregon is zoned as  exclusive farm use and that not all EFA zoned land is farmed, his view is that the USDA’s census of the amount of Oregon farmland reflected as lost could differ to the numbers provided by the state.

Land being rezoned for urban use is one of the reasons for the loss of EFU land, but this is not a substantial amount of land. The latest farm forest report from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development shows that around 28,000 acres of farmland have been rezoned since 1989.

A more prominent reason is that Oregon has increasingly allowed more non-farm uses on EFU zoned land without changing the zoning. This puts farmland out of production and Holmes said that landowners and developers have been allowed to misinterpret the law to develop wedding venues, golf courses, and dog kennels on EFU land, none of which are related to farming.

Holmes believes that there are people that are taking advantage of the different interpretations on land use to do things that take farmland out of production. He said, “That’s concerning.”

Holmes also thought that it may be the right time to revisit the state’s land use planning program and also to firm up the laws about what can and cannot be developed on farmland. He said that, whichever way it’s counted, the rate at which Oregon is losing its farmland is concerning.


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