If Meriel Darzen were born 200 years ago, she would be riding around the countryside on horses for her job as with 1,000 Friends. Her work is inspired by the circuit rider attorneys of the 1800s who used to ride horses around in rural areas to hold court in each town’s circuit. A modern-day circuit rider, Meriel’s work as an attorney involves driving those same country roads to connect with rural communities and help residents understand how they can use Oregon’s land use system to protect their farmland and forests.

Meriel has always been interested in how rural lands, forests, and farms preserve the environment but also provide food and jobs for people. She sees how important the land is for both people and planet. She also sees how that land is under threat. As a circuit rider, she now gets to protect that land from development and non-farming uses so that farmers can prosper more easily.

Threats from development

Development is a huge concern for Oregon farmers. Farmers often are pushed off their land as development happens around them. For example, developers constantly try to buy pieces of land from farmers, who sometimes sell because they need money to stay afloat. This land is then rezoned as rural residential or industrial so that developers can build on it.

Cannabis is another pressure that is forcing people off of farmland. People are increasingly buying high quality farmlands and paying twice its value in cash so they can put down concrete or gravel for cannabis production, which is not allowed within urban growth boundaries or rural residential areas in Jackson County. This cannabis production ruins the soil while using up high amounts of water and energy.

When land is split to be used for housing or cannabis, farmers’ livelihoods are in danger. “The more development you allow on farmland that is not farming, the harder it is for the farmers to stay in business,” Meriel says. If farmers do not have contiguous pieces of land, they have a harder time growing crops and profiting from those crops.

In addition to splitting up farmland, development also causes problems for those trying to use traditional farming practices. New neighbors often start complaining about the dust, noise, or smell that results from farming. This often causes conflicts. Agritourism is problematic for similar reasons. Nellie McAdams, an Oregon farmer who works at Rogue Farm Corps, reinforces that the “proximity of people to agriculture can make some really challenging balancing acts.”

What farmers need to succeed

Meriel’s work has helped her to understand more fully what farmers need to succeed. “Farmers need large contiguous pieces of land, they need farm businesses, they need to not have interference from traffic, and they need to not be worried about the noise from their operations impacting something nearby that is not a farm.” In short, they need development to stop surrounding them and forcing them out.

Using the land use system to protect Oregon’s forestland and farmland

Oregon’s land use system is meant to limit the threats that endanger farmers. It prioritizes the protection of Oregon’s forestland and farmland and preserves Oregon’s iconic landscapes.

With grant support from Meyer Memorial Trust, Crag land use fellow Scott Hilgenberg is working with Meriel in rural land use work. They enforce the land use system to stop development proposals that try to rezone areas of farmland or forestland to become residential or industrial. Through education and outreach, they empower rural, underserved communities to participate in local land use decision-making that will shape the future of their communities.  In short, Scott and Meriel ensure that rural voices are being heard in land use proceedings.

“I always like to talk to rural Oregonians about how they feel about land use and forestry and farming,” Meriel Darzen – Circuit Rider, 1000 Friends of Oregon

Scott and Meriel will be in rural Oregon periodically to hear from community members and educate them about local land use issues. Follow Crag’s Facebook page to hear about local events. Visit 1000 Friends of Oregon’s website to learn more about their work with rural communities.

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