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Zach Christensen explains the ins and outs of a hazelnut orchard to a tour group June 20 near Perrydale.
June 26, 2012
PERRYDALE -- The crowd gathered at the edge of the hazelnut orchard on the Scharf Bros. Farm listened intently as grower Zach Christensen explained that the Willamette Valley provides up to 98 percent of the United States' crop.
"But to make any money when establishing an orchard, it takes about 15 years," continued Christensen, who grows his hazelnuts on his own property nearby. "The first five years is just maintenance."
At the Scharfs' pinot gris and pinot noir vineyards to the west, Jason Scharf talked about the importance of vigilance to warding off birds during the fall grape harvest. One year, starlings made off with an estimated 30 tons of grapes from their acreage, he said.
"Even with cannons here ... ," Scharf began before being cut off.
"Cannons?" an audience member asked incredulously.
"Air cannons," he assured her.
School is out for summer, but there was learning taking place for about 70 public officials and current and would-be legislators from around the state last week.
The group toured Scharf Bros., Ag West Supply and other local agricultural operations in Polk County to see how farms work, and to learn what challenges old and new growers and ranchers are facing. The event was coordinated by the AgPac Educational Services Association, which has run the program since the 1990s.
"They're making time to help educate, which could be more helpful to them in the long run," said Ross Swartzendruber, a West Salem-area candidate for House District 23. "Not everybody knows what goes on out here, other than it's a nice place to drive when they're tasting wine."
Oregon's gross farm receipt tax, estate planning for generational farmers and regulations for pest management were some of the topics posed by farmers and visitors alike.
About 70 public officials, current and would-be-legislators toured local farm and ranch operations June 20 to learn about the farm industry.
Growers tried to dispel the perception of farmers as rich based on land and capital owned; profit margins are slim after expenses and then splitting income between the multiple family members and longtime employees often involved in a single operation, said Justin Scharf, Jason's brother.
Labor was another major topic. Stronger immigration enforcement and violence in some parts of Latin America have reduced the migrant labor pool and farmers in the West are feeling it.
Matt Perrin, a member of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association who works at his family's Perrin Dairy near Woodburn, said there aren't enough farm laborers around for tasks such as picking fruit or milking cows.
"Three or four years ago, people would come by the farm all the time looking for work," Perrin said. "Now, you hardly have anybody coming by; it's harder to find people.
"The federal government needs to have some sort of program to legalize farmworkers," he continued. "Temporarily, whatever it is ... we need workers."
Lack of vocational training in public schools, even basic shop classes, have hurt the chances for young people -- 18 to 25 -- to get jobs in agriculture, farmers said.
"I want somebody who has the ability to think critically, for example, about a certain piece of equipment," Christensen said. "And (the knowledge) just isn't there."
It might seem tough to give up a sunny day for a farmer in Oregon. Matt Crawford, who grows grass seed, wheat and clover in the Perrydale area, said he would have been applying fungicide to grass that afternoon.
"There needs to be more knowledge about what we do, in the general public, let alone legislators," Crawford said. "Any chance we have to inform I think is definitely worth it.
"If we just stay on our farms, in our little holes, and don't talk to people, others will just run right over the top of you," he added.