Oregon agriculture sales drop almost 15 percent

PORTLAND — Oregon's agricultural sales plunged almost 15 percent last year, pounded by a weak economy, low prices and oversupply, according to a report released Monday by Oregon State University.

The state's farmers and ranchers grossed $4.1 billion in 2009, down 14.8 percent from 2008 — the biggest fall since at least 1976. Hardest hit were sales of small fruits and berries — down 41.5 percent — and grass and legume seeds.

"Ugly," was the one-word assessment of Don Wirth, who has grown grass seed near Tangent for more than 40 years. "A year ago October our markets basically collapsed. For the next 8 months sales were really slim. We started fighting each other to see who could sell the cheapest."

On the same day Oregon received its annual revenue forecast — one that painted a $180 million revenue shortfall and slow economic recovery — the report by OSU's Extension Service showed that the state's most valuable, diverse industry is hurting.

Only three of 12 broad commodity groups bucked the downward trend. Field crops, poultry products and vegetables and truck crops showed small sales increases.

"We've never had a down year like this," said Larry Burt, the extension service economist who compiled the report. "We don't expect it because we have a diverse agriculture. You don't expect to see so many down."

Until 2008, agricultural sales had shown five consecutive years of growth. They fell 0.2 percent that year.

Crops, which make up 70 percent of all agriculture sales, fell almost 17 percent last year, to $2.8 billion. The sale of livestock, dairy products and poultry fell 9.7 percent to $1.25 billion.

Of the 80 individual commodities in the report, 50 saw their sales drop, including Oregon's five top commodities — beef, nursery crops, dairy products, wheat and alfalfa hay.

The economic pinch felt by one often rippled to others. Belt-tightening by dairies was one cause of a 30 percent drop in sales of hay and forage. Developers and financially strapped municipalities didn't buy grass seed and nursery crops.

Grass seed growers — and some berry growers — were also hurt by oversupply.

The lone star of the report was sugarbeets, which soared 135.4 percent to $17.3 million, thanks to increased harvested acreage, yields and prices.

"That was a dream come true for growers," Burt said. "But we don't control our own destiny for some of our crops in Oregon."

The immediate future isn't likely to improve for farmers and ranchers, he said.

"We need an improvement in the general economy," Burt said. "And we need to get inventories under control, and unfortunately that means some growers are going to have to take a loss."

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