Column: Challenging to grow food in Central Oregon

Janet Stevens Published Feb 28, 2014 at 12:01AM

Years ago, a radio announcer discussing life on the dry side of the Cascades made what I thought was a telling point.

Were it not for the American agricultural and transportation systems, he said, Eastern Oregon and Washington combined might — might — support 10,000 people.

Prineville has just over 9,000 people; Madras, 6,300. But Spokane, Walla Walla, Yakima, Pendleton, Bend and Redmond all are larger.

Eastern Oregon, meanwhile, contains about 154,000 square miles of land. Eastern Washington is roughly the same size. If, by conservative estimate the two contained only 300,000 square miles, the region’s 10,000 self-sustaining residents would each have 30 square miles of land to call his or her own. They’d need it.

You can bet few of them would live in this part of Deschutes County, for they’d be hard pressed even with that much dirt to grow enough food to stay alive.

We’re too high and, many years, our growing season is too short to grow what we need to live. Sometimes, less than 60 days lapse from killing frost to killing frost. We grow potatoes, onions and a few other root crops well, and we’re a great place to raise meat.

That makes us, in current terminology, a place of food insecurity, and that may not be a good place to be. It’s the reason Holly Hutton and some others in the food business do what they do. For Hutton, that means coordinating community garden efforts in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties through a grant from the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council.

Here, Hutton speculates, groceries would run out of food in a matter of days if access to the outside were cut off.

Community gardens, like Bend’s first at Hollinshead Park, are wonderful things for communities to have. They allow city folks, even those in small cities, to grow some of what they put on the table each night, and that’s not a bad thing.

Having a plot for potatoes and peas can lower a family’s food bills, for one thing, and in a region of relatively low wages, that’s important. It may prove especially important this summer, if food bills jump the 10 to 15 percent predicted in the wake of California’s drought. California produces more than half the nation’s fruits and vegetables, and nearly all — 90 percent or more — of everything from artichokes to celery to walnuts.

Hutton’s community garden program does more than simply encourage the expansion of local programs. It includes classes at the gardens that give growers a better understanding of nutrition, food storage and preparation, important things when one is trying to feed a family well.

Community gardens make up only a piece of the effort to improve food security in the region. A food hub, where local growers could go to clean, package for sale and store crops will help, Hutton says.

So, too, will efforts that, on the surface, may not seem related to agriculture directly. Agritourism is one, though it can be controversial.

A survey done for NeighborImpact found, not surprisingly, that many of those who hope to grow food here commercially believe it’s a financially risky proposition. Again, altitude and lack of water can shorten growing seasons and marketing can be tricky.

Farmers’ markets can help there, but to offer a steady, summer-long supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, farmers from the Willamette Valley pretty much have to be invited to participate. Balancing local growers’ needs against availability and customers’ desire for variety can be tricky.

In the end, I have doubts about this region’s realistic chances of becoming food self-sustaining. Does that mean the effort to do so should end?

Of course not.

If local growers can help us put food on our tables, we’re better off for their efforts. If more of us can enrich our diets with food we grew ourselves, that’s also a plus. For the poor, home-grown can be a financial, as well as a nutritional, boon.

Then there’s this: The closer to home your food is grown, the better it tastes. If food doesn’t have to be shipped hundreds of miles, a farmer can choose varieties that taste good, even if they don’t travel well.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.