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Who's Afraid Of The Family Farmer?: The Oregon Farm Bureau decides to shoot first at a sustainable farming group in Deschutes County 

The Oregon Farm Bureau decides to shoot first at a sustainable farming group in Deschutes County.

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Kendra Kimbirauskas spent a good chunk of her childhood on a working farm in her home state of Michigan. The farming bug stuck with her. She now has roughly 100 chickens and goats that she and her husband raise for meat and dairy at her rural home in the small town of Colton about 60 miles southeast of Portland. She slaughters her own chickens and is the manager of her local farmers market.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to Kimbirauskas to learn that she's an anti-farm organizer working to undermine Oregon's agricultural community. In fact she was shocked - because she said it's not remotely true.

But that's what dozens, perhaps more, local farmers and other members of the Deschutes County agricultural community heard about Kimbirauskas after they got an unsigned "fact" sheet produced by the Oregon Farm Bureau, a Salem-based non-profit that serves as the umbrella group for 34 local farm bureaus across Oregon, including Deschutes County, and counts more than 54,000 members.

The fact sheet arrived in mail boxes beginning in mid-to-late October in advance of a pair of meetings that Kimbirauskas had organized in John Day and Redmond through her organization, Friends Of Family Farmers (FOFF), that were intended to connect small independent farmers with a statewide initiative aimed at pulling down barriers for family farmers, including lack of access to labor and processing facilities. The meetings were a follow-up to a series of listening tours held over the past year. Most of the gatherings have drawn a couple of dozen growers, most of whom are focused on pocketbook issues, such as the lack of convenient meat processing facilities, but some also share Kimbirauskas' concern that industrial-scale agriculture, such as feed lots, undermines family farms and rural values. It's that second piece of FOFF's mission that apparently rankled the Oregon Farm Bureau, which claimed Friends had ties through another organization to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which Kimbirauskas said is not true.

In fact, after seeing the fact sheet, she worked with an attorney and drafted a letter to the farm bureau, threatening to sue the organization for libel if it didn't back off.

In addition to the alleged PETA link, the letter stated, correctly, that Kimbirauskas worked in the past for both the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, environmental organizations that it labeled as "unfriendly to the farm community." The letter arrived unsigned and absent the farm bureau letterhead. However, an e-mail chain, which the Source recently obtained, showed that the letter originated with the Oregon Farm Bureau's Government Affairs Director Katie Fast who supplied it to Deschutes County Farm Bureau President Matt Cyrus.

While Fast did not return phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment, Cyrus acknowledged that he received the fact sheet from OFB and forwarded it to his board members.

However, he said he did not intend for the information to be widely disseminated. Cyrus said that at the time he didn't know anything about the Friends of Family Farmers and turned to OFB in an attempt to learn more. Since then, he said a representative of the local farm bureau attended the meeting and reported that the Friends of Family Farmers was not the anti-farming organization it was painted to be by the Farm Bureau.

"It was portrayed as a wolf in sheep's clothing and apparently that was not the case," Cyrus said.

Kimbirauskas, who attended the meeting in Redmond to dispel the myths about herself and her organization, said she was disappointed but not necessarily surprised that the farm bureau chose to mount an anonymous attack against her.

"These are scare tactics," she said. "It's an ad hominem attack against me personally because they don't like what we're doing."

Specifically, Friends of Family Farmers has helped rural neighbors organize against the establishment of corporate farms in their communities, including rallying community opposition to the massive Threemile Canyon dairy farm in Boardman and a recent battle against the development of an industrial chicken farm with ties to chicken processing behemoth Foster Farms in rural Clackamas County. That operation was proposed to be sited on a wetland near the Molalla River. The work in Deschutes County, however, didn't have anything to do with the Friends anti-factory-farming initiatives, Kimbirauskas said.

Rather, the organization is reaching out to small farmers in an effort to give them a larger voice in issues that impact small operators and to help ensure the long-term viability of small, independent farms, which FOFF and others say is key to creating a safe and sustainable food supply.

It's hardly a fringe concept. Groups like Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council (COIC), the Oregon Food Bank and other mainstream organizations have all waded into the Eat Local push that aims to reconnect growers and consumers. Recently, COIC, NeighborImpact and the Redmond-based Wy'East Rural Conservation and Development Council banded together on a comprehensive assessment of the area's agricultural potential. The project coordinator, Sydney Leonard, who works out of the NeighborImpact offices in Redmond, has been traveling around meeting with farmers and others involved in local agriculture to figure out what it will take to develop a sustainable food system in Central Oregon.

The eat local movement extends far beyond Central Oregon. Recent food scares and a growing awareness of the environmental and social problems surrounding the industrial farm systems are changing the way that Americans look at their food, said Larry Brewer, president of the Sisters-based Small Farms Conservatory. The non-profit organization is a support network of sorts for independent family farmers and an advocate for wholesale reform of America's commodity driven system, which Brewer said works to undermine sustainable production.

Brewer, who was born on a small farm in Iowa and has taught agriculture science at Western Washington University and Clemson, put Leonard in touch with the Friends of Family Farmers after recognizing that they were seeking out some of the same independent growers. Brewer said he was aware of the fact sheet that the farm bureau put out on Friends of Family Farmers and he isn't surprised by the tactic.

"I think they're obviously grasping for straws... but the (Oregon) farm bureau is a voice for industrial agriculture. It's funded by industrial agricultural interests and anybody who is advocating moving from industrialized agriculture is probably considered by the farm bureau as not a friend," Brewer said.

In fact one of the Oregon Farm Bureau's points of legislative emphasis in the last session of Congress was a campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for employees to form unions on farms - not exactly a mom and pop issue. It also spent money lobbying against EPA regulation of greenhouse gases on farms and actively campaigned to remove the federal inheritance tax.

Even if the state farm bureau is focused on issues related to large-scale commodity farming, that's not the case with the Deschutes County Farm Bureau, Cyrus said. To the contrary, he said the local farm bureau is well aware that its constituents are mostly small-scale operators. He said the organization sponsored a series of lunch hour workshops in Redmond last year aimed at small farmers.

"The statistics that I saw indicate that the average farm in Deschutes County is ten acres... There are only a handful of farms in the county that are more than 100 acres," Cyrus said.

If the Deschutes Farm Bureau can help those operators find a niche, whether it be in organic agricultural or some other specialties market, everybody benefits, Cyrus said.

Kimbirauskas said some county farm bureaus are aware of the plight of small farmers who often find themselves locked out of a system that deals with products on a strictly top-down commodities basis. However, she said that, by and large, the farm bureau system is set up to propagate the bigger-is-better model, giving short shrift to smaller operators that are interested in sustainability as much as profits. To that end, the group is working to draft an Agricultural Reclamation Act in Oregon, a sort of organizing document designed to jumpstart a statewide discussion on supporting family-owned farms now and for future generations.

"I honestly don't know what the farm bureau felt is so problematic about getting farmers together in a room to start talking about those issues," Kimbirauskas said.

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