Damascus, Oregon (population: 10,000) ponders how to integrate existing urban agriculture into its future urban fabric.
Damascus, Oregon is located about 20 miles southeast of Portland, incorporating the surrounding communities of Damascus and Carver to become a city in 2004. It occupies roughly 10,000 acres (16 miles); now designated inside the Portland Metropolitan urban growth boundary. Comprised of a few food producing urban farms; some hobby farms situated on 10 acre plots; a smattering of urban refugees, nurseries, and other small commercial enterprises; the city is developing a comprehensive master plan to prepare for its anticipated population growth upon build out, (somewhere) between 20,000 – 60,000 new residents.
An important part of the master plan will address the issues of how to preserve their urban farms inside the urban growth boundary. I attended a workshop that brought together community leaders, city and county planners, local farmers, Portland Farmer’s Market representatives, and others, to listen and discuss ideas how to preserve and promote urban agriculture against the backdrop of future commercial and residential development.
Larry Thompson, from Thompson Farms, a successful urban farmer whose 120 acre farm is located nearby, spoke in part to the importance of environmentally friendly farming practices being necessary inside an urban area. Uncontrolled runoff, and the use of pesticides and other chemicals in proximity to homes is not a viable option. Using sustainable farming practices, he grows over 40 types of food crops through much of the year, and direct markets to farmer’s markets, farm stands, and pick-your-own services.
One of the interesting conversations I experienced occurred outside the larger group. Speaking with a produce manager of a local supermarket chain, his desire was to help form a community farmer cooperative to market a wide range of food products to local supermarkets including the big retailers like Safeway, Albertsons, and others. His belief was that fresh, locally produced foods need not cost any more to the consumer if a coordinated system involving farmers, distributors, local retailers, and an independent certification agency, could be put in place to maximize regional efficiencies of scale and production. Presumably, the higher costs of growing foods using sustainable practices, and insuring a fair price to the farmer, may be offset through major reductions in transportation costs. As he pointed out to me, a full truck carrying 28 pallets of produce, costs about $100 per pallet to ship from California to Oregon ($2800), and returns the same distance home, empty!
At least in the big supermarkets, why do we have to pay more for local foods compared to products that come shipped from long distances away? Isn’t there enough potential profit through the entire food chain: the farmer to obtain a fair price for his products, and to pay his workers a living wage; the local distributor to profitably deliver short distances; and the retailer to sell without having to charge more to their customers? How can a head of lettuce that travels 1500 miles to market be less expensive than a sustainable grown head of lettuce, originating only 50 miles away? What about important savings on CO2 emissions, fuel conservation, and overall reduced environmental pollution from using sustainable farming practices, how do we factor in those benefits to local communities, and society as a whole? I was intrigued with his vision.
Could his idea have practical implications for Damascus? What if the local Safeway stores (or other supermarkets) sold as much (Damascus area) food as was available to sell? What if such a model expanded across the country, region by region, and included pasture-fed beef, pork, and dairy producers? The idea that local farmers could substantially support themselves and their communities: economically, culturally, and environmentally—while improving the availability and appeal of eating healthy, tastier and fresh, foods, all—without necessarily increasing prices to customers— would be an incredible goal!
As Larry Thompson said in response to a question, there’s a role for the mega-farm to play in feeding the world. The urban farms, and the small family farms can feed local communities. Given the unrelenting dangers of global warming, increasing concerns about food security, rising costs relating to peak oil, not to mention significant diet-related public health concerns, maybe it’s time to start building local food economies.
The young city of Damascus may well consider such an option for its future.
See also: Urban Land Institute: Urban Farming and Local Food Forum