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Rural Oregon, meet Portland

By Eric Mortenson
Capital Press

Can Portland and Rural Oregon ever get along? Maybe they need a proper introduction.

Rural Oregon, meet Portland.

You may think you already know it: A big, know-it-all place that leans hard left, drives a Subaru and decides every election. Filled to the brim with activists and annoying, dismissive hipsters. Wants to restrict, regulate and label everything, it seems, and tell the rest of the state what to do.

Throw in Portland’s traffic, crowds, high prices and its vaguely-threatening street people — it’s no wonder many of Oregon’s farmers and ranchers want no part of it.

And that’s a mistake.

Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, was talking about that the other day. She said a Willamette Valley grower told her he doesn’t even like to visit Portland.

Now, Coba is a jean-jacket Pendleton girl who worked the family wheat harvests and was chosen Roundup Queen back in the day. But she came of age professionally in Portland, and still works those power circuits as state ag director in Salem.

So she told the grower, “I know exactly how you feel. But where is the population that’s eating the food you grow? And don’t you think it’s important to interact with them a little bit and see what makes them tick?”

Good point. Because, like it or not, Portland influences everything in this state. It’s the consumer, marketer, shipper and brander. If it approves of you, you’re golden. If not, it can cause you trouble. President Obama took more than 75 percent of the Multnomah County vote in 2008 and 2012, topping 80 percent in multiple precincts. Guess who will decide whether Oregon labels or bans GMO crops?

Nearly half the state’s population, about 1.7 million people, lives within 30 miles of downtown Portland. Name the state’s major attractions and Portland’s got it: From the Blazers, Timbers and Thorns to the Oregon Zoo and OMSI, served up with a spectacular view of Mount Hood, a beeline to the coast and a gateway to the Columbia River Gorge. The New York Times swoons over Portland, with story after story about how hip and clever the place is. One called it the “capital of West Coast urban cool.” Even Gov. John Kitzhaber said “meh” to Salem and declared he was going to spend most of his time in Portland.

Yes, Portland is self-absorbed. You know the TV show, “Portlandia?” It’s only half-parody. One episode depicted an obsessive foodie couple questioning the restaurant waitress about the chicken on the menu. They learn he was raised on a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts. “His name was Colin,” the waitress says soothingly.

“Keep Portland Weird” is the city’s unofficial slogan — stolen from Austin, Texas, by the way — but the rest of Oregon isn’t grinning. At the Corvallis exit down I-5 recently, a big pickup carried the bumper sticker, “Make Portland Normal.” An SUV out in Hillsboro, a suburb west of Portland that went from ag to high-tech in the span of a generation, provided another bumper sticker response: “Weird Isn’t Working.”

Rural producers probably feel the same way about Seattle, San Francisco and Boise, but Portland’s a special case. Nonetheless, here are some things to consider:

• Despite the slogan, Portland isn’t as weird as it pretends to be

Granted, there’s the annual naked bike ride, the woman who rollerskates topless and the guy who wears a Darth Vader mask and blows flames out of a bagpipe. While wearing a kilt. And riding a unicycle.

And, yes, the counter clerks and restaurant servers often have lip rings, nose rings and tattoos running up one arm and down the other. They are among the throngs of vaunted “young creatives” who are cooler than you’ll ever be. But just as often, they’re hard-working, intelligent, literate, ambitious and open-hearted.

Traffic is heavy by Oregon standards, but Portland drivers are quite civil. They stop to let pedestrians cross streets and rarely honk, even at jerks who deserve it. They’ll let you into their lane with a “Oh, no, you go” wave. “Portland polite,” it’s called by people who have lived in other cities.

Portland has wonderful parks and conserved its walkable old neighborhoods, which retain local stores, schools and professional offices clustered around century-old houses. Portland’s suburbs are as bland and filled with mega-chain stores as anywhere else, but many parts of the inner city have a small-town feel. For example, residents of Sellwood, a southeast Portland neighborhood, can walk to two parks, a branch of the Multnomah County library, a swimming pool, movie theater, doctors, dentists, orthodontists, veterinarians, two grocery stores, three brew pubs and half a dozen other good restaurants, a hardware store, auto repair shops, attorneys’ offices and more.

“There are towns within Portland,” says Katie Pearmine, who grew up part of a Gervais farm family and now lives and works in Portland for the Oregon Food Bank. “You can walk around, you know everybody. There’s a bakery, the coffee shop and the local store where people know each other.

“It’s one of the best cities in America,” Pearmine says. “It’s a great place to live, and it holds a lot of the same values (as rural Oregon).”

• Portland LOVES farming, but it isn’t so sure about agriculture

The local food movement was born here, and the city’s foodie reputation is well-deserved. Check out the menu from Higgins, one of the city’s best-known restaurants. It names farm and ranch suppliers from Gaston, Wallowa, Canby, Parkdale, Scio, Maupin and many other small Oregon towns.

The greater Portland area has nearly 60 farmers’ markets, and every one of them is packed, spring to fall. Many farmers have found the markets provide a welcome alternative revenue stream, with customers eager to buy seasonal fruit, berries and vegetables. But selling at Portland markets requires patience and engagement.

Janna Coleman drives three hours from Hermiston to sell at Portland markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. She sells cut peonies and blueberries, while family members back home grow hay, wheat and corn. Her Portland customers, she says, have two questions about her blueberries: Are they organic, and why is she using plastic containers?

Coleman explains she tried to be organic but had to treat the blueberries for a root weevil infestation and interrupted the organic certification process. Some customers walk away.

“We’re not chemical dumpers,” Coleman says. “We live where we grow.”

As if on cue, a woman approaches, looks over the berries and asks, “When did you last spray them?”

Coleman says many customers can’t grasp the scale on which the family farms; they have 200 acres of blueberries alone, and only about 1 percent of the crop is sold at retail farmers’ markets.

“I think that blows people’s circuits in Portland,” she says.

Three booths down, Zina Martishev sells strawberries, raspberries and a raspberry-blackberry cross called a tayberry. Her family farms in Canby, a small town southeast of Portland, and sells at five regional markets.

“Portland,” she muses. “I don’t think they know how hard it is to grow it, bring it here and to sell it.”

Even organic growers, who enjoy knee-jerk acceptance from Portlanders, find it difficult to explain themselves. Anna O’Malley, who sells vegetables in Portland for Eugene-based Groundwork Organics, says customers have to wade through terminology and even the impact of weather.

“Up here, you read about the weather and decide what to wear that day,” O’Malley says. “Everything happening with a farmer today is connected with weather that happened two weeks ago or a month ago.”

Many Portlanders emulate farmers on a tiny scale with raised-bed vegetable boxes, rented space in community gardens, berry patches and backyard chicken coops. Portland Homestead Supply Co., on busy Southeast 13th Avenue, offered June classes in canning, pickle making, pig butchery, cheese making and organic solutions to pests and diseases.

Coba, the state ag director, agrees that Portland doesn’t know what to think about the size and complications of commercial agriculture.

“Conventional ag is not bad ag,” she says, “I don’t know how to get that message across.

“Most Portlanders think if you run a family farm, that’s a good thing,” Coba adds. “But they have in mind that corporate ag is bad.”

She says there are probably fewer than 20 large corporate operations in Oregon out of more than 35,000 farms. In fact, more than 90 percent of Oregon farms are family owned and operated. If they are incorporated, it’s for business and tax reasons.

Can conventional Oregon agriculture win over Portlanders?

“We can’t stop trying,” Coba says. “We always have to be reaching out about what it takes to be a successful farmer. Will we ever succeed? That’s another question.”

• People really do use bicycles for everyday transportation

And buses, street cars, light-rail MAX trains and the Portland Aerial Tram, which connects the booming South Waterfront District to Oregon Health & Science University with a pair of 79-passenger trams that slide up and down a steep cable system.

But it’s bikes that stand out, in part, unfortunately, due to an arrogant minority who believe cycling makes them Better Than Thou and to stunts such as the annual Naked Bike Ride. Held in June, it attracts thousands but leaves you wishing most of the participants had kept their clothes on.

Beyond that, however, biking is a viable option. According to 2012 figures from the Portland Bureau of Transportation, 6 percent of the city’s commuters use bikes. That’s more than 17,000 workers and is the highest percentage of bike commuters among large American cities, according to the bureau.

Bikes now account for 20 percent of the traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge, one of the major commuting arterials into downtown Portland. More than 3 million bike trips have been registered since a counter was installed on the bridge in August 2012.

There are reasons behind the numbers. First, parking downtown costs a minimum of $9 a day, so there is money to be saved. Second, Portland has invested in bicycle infrastructure, with 319 miles of bikeways to help people get around. One path, the Springwater Corridor, passes through the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and gives riders frequent glimpses of deer, geese, herons and even bald eagles.

At rush hour, riding a bike into and out of downtown is often quicker than driving the clogged boulevards.

Finally, it’s relatively safe. Most drivers, especially downtown, are accustomed to sharing the roadways with bikes.

Biking isn’t just for Lance Armstrong-wannabe types. Of commuters, 35 percent are women. Retiree Tom Gihring, still wearing his bike helmet as he bought some flowers recently at downtown’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, says he rides “everywhere” from his home in the Irvington neighborhood on Portland’s east side.

“There’s no need for a car,” he says.

• Yeah, but …

It’s a city. It has gangs, which occasionally like to shoot each other. Mumbling transients are a common sight, and the street kids who hang out downtown can be crude, loud and scary. Gentrification, with wealthy yuppies and retired professionals snapping up older homes close to downtown, pushed much of Portland’s poor into east Multnomah County, away from services and traditional minority neighborhoods.

The median listing price for a house in Portland this spring was $320,000, or about $60,000 higher than the state median. The average driving commute time is 27 minutes, but that can double when the highways back up. Morning and afternoon traffic on Interstate 5, Interstate 84, the Sunset Highway and Interstate 205 is as jammed as anywhere else.

The city often stumbles over its own progressive feet. When a teen urinated into one of the city’s reservoirs this spring, Portland officials were ready to dump 38 million gallons of water before reconsidering. Occupy Wall Street protests a couple years ago devolved into a rowdy and dirty collection of tarps and tents across from City Hall that officials tolerated for months. The Portland Aerial Tram, with a construction estimate of $15.5 million, cost $57 million to build — a cost overrun greeted with a shrug.

Street cars rattling along new east side lines frequently run empty, as car-less transportation infrastructure hasn’t been matched by riders. The $1.4 billion “Big Pipe” project, a system of giant tunnels and pipes designed to keep untreated sewage from flowing into the Willamette River during rainstorms, is celebrated because it does its job most of the time.

Finally, Portlanders can be hurtfully cavalier about rural problems. Farmers faced with water shortages should simply grow something else, they’ll say. Unemployed loggers and millworkers should get jobs in the tourist or recreational trades. Cattle ranchers with federal land grazing allotments are freeloaders, they’ll argue. Wolves, cougars, spotted owls, ancient trees, butterflies and salmon are cool; people are suspect.

“I think rural people understand Portland better than vice-versa, because they go to Portland more than Portlanders go to rural areas,” says Bruce Weber, director of the Rural Studies program at Oregon State University.

“They do understand some of the things that drive the urban economy, and the decisions made that affect Portland,” Weber says. “I think they correctly believe that most Portland people both don’t understand the rural population or the economy of rural areas, and probably fundamentally don’t care about it.”

• So, Portland, have you met Oregon agriculture? You two might like each other

It’s a big player out there, with about 35,000 farms operating on nearly 17 million acres. It’s the second biggest sector of the state’s economy, with an annual production value of $5.4 billion.

Pretty good at what it does, too. Produces more than 200 different crops and commodities and leads the nation in a delightfully diverse bunch of them: Hazelnuts, Christmas trees, blackberries, boysenberries, black raspberries, storage onions, prunes and plums and four kinds of grass seed. It’s second nationally in pears, hops, red raspberries and blueberries.

You probably know about Oregon wine, especially the internationally acclaimed Pinot Noir, but grapes aren’t even in the top 10 of the state’s most valuable ag products. You know what’s ahead of them? Blue collar crops like hay, wheat, potatoes, cattle and calves. Number one, almost every year, is nursery products — landscaping and ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers.

Worried about “Big Ag?” Some Oregon farms and ranches are big in acreage and revenue, but that’s an outcome of seeking operational efficiency, not some plot to control the food supply.

The average Oregon farm in 2012 was 433 acres, a figure that’s remained stable for the past 25 years. They are overwhelmingly family operations. The state has nearly 1,200 Century Farms or Ranches, meaning they’ve been in continuous operation by the same family for at least 100 years.

We’ll give the last word to Tom Sharp, a cow and calf producer in Harney County, deep in the southeast corner of the state and about as far removed from Portland as you can get. He’s an electrical engineer who worked 33 years in high-tech before retiring from Tektronix in Beaverton and taking up ranching full-time in 2007. Among many other community activities, he spearheaded an effort in which private landowners agreed to conserve range habitat for the greater sage-grouse, which is a candidate for endangered species listing.

Farming and ranching, Sharp says, is “America’s most important and strategic industry,” one that gives us tremendous economic and political advantage compared to most of the world.

Farmers and ranchers are good stewards of the land because their livelihood and lifestyle depend on healthy ecosystems, Sharp says.

“Farmers and ranchers are best positioned to protect our lands, wildlife, water and other natural resources,” he says, “because they are the population closest to it on a daily basis.”

Got it, Portland? Now, why don’t you and Rural Oregon shake hands.

The original article published in Capital Press on 6/2614 can be found here.