Oregon’s farmers and ranchers are at the hub of one of the state’s most important economic sectors. A 2015 report by Oregon State University economists linked food and fiber production to $50 billion in Oregon sales and 326,627 full- and part-time jobs.
The value of farming and ranching may be more apparent in rural communities, but the Portland metro area – better known for juggernauts such as Intel, Nike and Oregon Health & Sciences University – has an economic connection to agriculture that extends beyond trendy restaurants.
Port of Portland a Major Factor
Portland is the primary handler and shipper of the bounty flowing from the state’s farms and ranches. The Port of Portland is among the nation’s leading grain shippers, moving about 4 million tons a year, most of it wheat bound for Asia.
The Port also ships hay, grass seed and vegetable seed. Planes take perishable products that must be moved more quickly, such as cherries, berries, live seafood and fresh-cut greens. Rail and truck lines move fresh, canned, and frozen vegetables and fruit.
Josh Lehner, an economist with the state Office of Economic Analysis, says food processing jobs also are part of agriculture’s impact in the metro area. Food processing employs more than 28,000 workers statewide and was the only sector of Oregon manufacturing that added jobs during the 2009 recession, Lehner says.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture licenses more than 300 food and beverage processing facilities in Multnomah County alone, many of them small and specialized, creating beverages and packaged products you enjoy from your local grocery store.
Portland is known for its “foodies,” and in addition to being Oregon agriculture’s key consumer, it is the chief brander and marketer. Meeting Portland’s approval gives some farmers a unique market niche.
Many farmers, especially small operations, tap the revenue stream at farmers markets. The Oregon Farmers Markets Association counts about 130 farmers markets in the state, including 19 in the Portland area alone. Market sales total about $50 million annually, according to the Association.
Agriculture’s Rural Roots
In Madras, 120 miles away in sunny, dry central Oregon, the connection to agriculture is apparent. The tire store, machine shop, equipment dealers and other retailers know their well-being depends on customers who earn money farming and ranching. Janet Brown, Jefferson County’s economic development manager, says the carrot seed industry alone has an economic impact in central Oregon of $30 to $35 million annually.
“If you’re a doctor, you have a farmer as a patient,” Brown says. “If you have a car dealership, a grocery store, any kind of business – you have a farmer as a client.”
Madras Mayor Royce Embanks Jr. puts it plainly. “Basically, we’re an ag town,” he says. “If ag went away, this town would dry up.”
The area’s farmers have filled economic niches since the 1940s, shifting in response to market changes and water availability. Over the years, the area has grown wheat, potatoes, alfalfa, grass seed, and onions and garlic for seed. Even peppermint for tea and the oil that flavors gum, candy and more.
In 1979, six farmers and a former Oregon State University Extension employee, Mike Weber, formed a partnership to grow carrot seed on contract. Today, 35 farmers associated with Central Oregon Seeds Inc. multiply carrot seed varieties for the world’s major vegetable seed companies. The area produces 65 percent of the nation’s carrot seed and 40 percent of the world’s production.
“Companies around the world have put a lot of eggs in the basket of this county,” Weber says.