Agriculture at the core of Oregon’s sesquicentennial history

Department of Agriculture — The State of Oregon is having a birthday party this weekend that is expected to last for the rest of the year. Statehood was attained 150 years ago, but agriculture in Oregon predates the year 1859. The sesquicentennial celebration now underway certainly includes the life and times of the agriculture industry, which hopes to tell its rich, historical story in the months ahead.

“Agriculture is, and has always been, one of the cornerstones of Oregon’s economy and way of life,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “When Oregon attained statehood in 1859, farming and ranching were already thriving throughout the territory. It was agriculture’s great potential that helped bring the first Oregonians to the area.”

All the elements of modern day Oregon agriculture- from its diversity and abundance to its trade value and processing- were present in one form or another more than 200 years ago when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took that bold journey into the unknown west as part of an expedition that shaped the future of the United States. From the time the explorers first set eyes on the arid eastern part of the state to their overwintering at Ft. Clatsop on the Oregon coast, Lewis and Clark took great care to document flora and fauna of a region as well as the agriculture as practiced by native tribes.

The direction and inspiration for the exploration came from an agrarian leader- President Thomas Jefferson, a farmer from Virginia. One of the great purposes of the expedition was to find an agricultural paradise for a country that would eventually expand, according to Professor James P. Ronda, a well known author on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

“Combined with Jefferson’s almost naive faith in agriculture, which he envisioned as spreading gradually westward, this personal need to know the world of plants would one day be a further incentive to promote western exploration,” wrote Ronda.

The expedition began in 1804 and the two explorers spent the next year approaching the Pacific Northwest. In September 1805, after a hot, dry summer Lewis and Clark could not imagine the land east of The Dalles might someday be agriculturally productive.

“Had they know what would happen within 100 years with dryland farming, they might have looked at Eastern Oregon differently,” says Ken Karsmizki, former executive director of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. “In the early 1800s,  U.S. agriculture was at its easy stage. The country had not been populated for very long. Crop rotation was in its infancy. As land wore out, farmers would move to the next piece. The thought was that when everything east of the Mississippi wears out, people would move to the other side and keep on farming.”

Lewis and Clark and the pioneers that followed essentially wrote off Eastern Oregon as a place for agriculture. As they proceeded west, they saw more trees and animals. In general, every mile west of The Dalles translates into an additional inch of annual rainfall that provides more suitable conditions for agriculture.

The early stages of the Oregon Trail movement began in the 1830s. Agriculture was the main attraction for those willing to move all of what they had to the west. Many settlers looked for quality pasture land, thinking not just about crops, but about livestock, too. New arrivals were anxious to build towns, but knew those communities needed to cater to agriculture.

“They looked for potential commercial centers- where was the water and where could you build the mills?” says Karsmizki. “If farmers were going to grow wheat, they would need mills powered by water.”

Pioneers found areas in the Columbia Gorge that sustained fruit production. Today, those areas are teeming with pear, apple, and cherry orchards. Farther west, the wild berries they found might have indicated a future haven for grapes made into wine.

Meanwhile, the course was set for the growth of Oregon’s agriculture industry. As is the case today, Oregon sent most of its agricultural production across its border. Interstate commerce of agriculture exploded in 1849, when gold was discovered in California. Large farming operations in Oregon fed the miners down south.

“Everyone in California seemingly gave up the plow and took up the pick,” says Karsmizki. “More people got rich feeding the people who were trying to get rich. The commodity of food was getting scarce in Northern California because so many people jumped from the farms to the mines.”

Many present day Oregon farms date back to the Donation Land Act of 1850, a federal law that allowed 640 acres of free land to married couples and 320 acres to single men. Most early homesteads were in the rich and fertile Willamette Valley, with others established in the Rogue and Umpqua valleys of southern Oregon. Today, 1,082 farms in Oregon are recognized as having been family owned for more than a century, and 19 families have achieved 150 years of continued business.

“There is no better way to describe the term sustainability than to highlight these family farms and ranches,” says ODA’s Coba. “Not many companies in Oregon are celebrating their 150th birthday and I think there is a much better chance Oregon agriculture will still be around in another 150 than many other industries.”

Oregon’s productive farm land and great potential, first observed by Lewis and Clark, was firmly established by the time statehood had been achieved, paving the way for the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. Along the way, there have been several milestones for Oregon agriculture, ranging from its increased production of food during World War II to its well known efforts at export marketing.

As Oregonians continue celebrating the state’s sesquicentennial, it’s important to remember that at the root of it all is a heritage of agriculture.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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