Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

ENTERPRISE — A law passed by the Oregon Legislature this summer will help families keep their farms.

The Wallowa Land Trust, a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by Wallowa County landowners and residents to protect the rural nature of the country, and two Northeast Oregon farmers found this issue important enough to travel to Salem this spring in support of the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program. Kathleen Ackley, the trust’s executive director, said conserving working lands is part of the focus of her organization.

“What is cool about this particular program is that there is a lot of interest from farmers and ranchers wanting to conserve their land,” Ackley said. “This law will help us be more successful in helping them.”

The law allocates funding to support the efforts of Oregon’s land trusts to help farmers and ranchers with succession planning and conservation easements. The state funding can be used to leverage federal money authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill and made available through the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. The federal program provides 50 percent of the property’s appraised value in support of conservation easements. The landowner can provide 25 percent, leaving fundraisers to find the additional 25 percent, typically from private sources.

“Our county is reliant on agriculture,” Ackley said. “This law is a great way to help landowners stay on their land and support rural economies.”

Ackley said the bill authorizes $190,000 to be allocated over the next two years. It’s not a huge sum, but she said it’s a good start and gets Oregon in line with similar laws in California and Washington.

Ackley said on average Oregon has some of the oldest landowners in the country, and 80 percent don’t have succession plans, even though the economic base of most rural counties relies on livestock and grain crops.

Ackley isn’t the only one in Wallowa County concerned about land prices and keeping agriculture land in production. Woody Wolfe of Wallowa has been working on his succession plan since he took over the family farm more than a decade ago.

“I see Wallowa County changing, and I’m not sure I like all of what I see,” Wolfe said.

With property prices on the rise, farms are being divided. Wolfe said the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program is an avenue to keep landowners from fragmenting their land.

Read complete story in Friday's Observer