Out near the northwestern edge of the Portland metropolitan region, nestled between forested hills and rolling fields along a quiet stretch of Highway 8 in Community Participation Organization (CPO) 13, lies Gales Creek, Oregon, a small farming community in unincorporated Washington County. Along a two-lane country road are a tavern, general store, a church, and a scattering of barns and houses. While Gales Creek has no official municipal boundaries, the community’s residents have a keen sense of its identity and history, and in recent years, mounting concerns about its future.
Established in the 1840’s, the town and its associated creek are named after Joseph Gale, one of the original governors of the Oregon Territory. Since that time, the community has grown and shrank in concert with Oregon’s reliance upon local agricultural and timber harvesting.
With no legal borders to go by, the divisions in the land itself can function as boundaries to use in analysis. The shallow valley through which Gales Creek flows is divided into three watersheds, Upper Gales Creek, Middle Gales Creek, and Lower Gales Creek. The boundaries of these watersheds are an effective stand-in for geographic borders, and have been used by Neighborhood Pulse to define the statistical area of Gales Creek.
The Farmers' Fight
"Students, farmers join forces on LNG"
Christian Gaston, Forest Grove News-Times - News
The Portland region’s growth over the last two decades has transformed neighborhoods in every jurisdiction, perhaps most visibly in the urban cores of cities like Portland, Beaverton and Gresham. But change has also rippled out to the peripheries of the region, to small rural communities like Gales Creek. With that change has come concerns among the community about the affordability of land and housing, the future of agricultural production in the area, and the environmental impacts of the region’s growth and development.
Can what is happening in places like Gales Creek can serve as an indicator of other rural areas around the region? Are the region’s rural protections working as intended? Researchers from the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies recently spent time in Gales Creek seeking to answer these questions–and hopefully to shed light on our region as a whole.
Five Gales Creek residents recently gathered in the home of Anne Berblinger on Gales Meadow Farm to discuss the challenges they faced in maintaining their community. In the farmer’s recent memory was the fight against the LNG pipeline. Oregon LNG planned to run a $6 billion dollar pipeline across Gales Creek, threatening to disrupt many of the farming operations there. The farmers of Gales Creek organized to stop the project. In April of 2016, LNG finally announced plans to cancel the pipeline after spending twelve years trying to get the required permits for the project.
The farmers were successful, but despite that success, the threat alone changed the community. Many farmers sold their property and many businesses in the community ceased operations. Lis Monahan, an organic goat cheese farmer, described the effect that the plans for the LNG pipeline had on Gales Creek, “When we first got here there was a busy little store, there was a busy school, and there was a nice tavern, then over the next five or six years all of those went away.” Although, she also says, “Now it seems it might be coming back. It just feels like Gales Creek might be on the cusp.” Sue Vosberg, a farmer and lawyer involved in the fight, said that the struggle to defeat the pipeline really brought the community together.
At the back of many resident’s mind is also a concern that not enough younger people are moving out to rural areas to farm – a concern that is not unfounded according to recent census data. Anne Berlinger, for one, says she hopes young people have the opportunity to live and farm in Gales Creek. Recent census data suggests that younger residents, in their 20’s and 30’s, make up an extremely small part of Gales Creek’s population. Men and women aged 25-29 make up 1.76% and 1.73% of the area’s population, respectively. That’s roughly equivalent to men and women aged 70-74 in Gales Creek. In urban areas of the metro region, by comparison, men and women aged 25-29 are the largest age cohort, each comprising around a little over 4% of the population.
Youth and Race/Ethnicity in the Rural West
Despite his community involvement, he has had great difficulty finding a place to live there. He remarks, “My family’s been here for 140 years and I can’t afford to live in my own community.” Accessory mobile homes are allowed on farming properties so retiring farmers are able to house their children. Despite this, Chas doesn’t want to live in a mobile home for most of his life.
Chas’ story is likely a common one among young residents of the region, in both rural and urban areas. If younger residents are unable or unwilling to live and work in places like Gales Creek, the alternative is to commute from elsewhere in the region. As of 2015, it is estimated that 80% of the people who work in Gales Creek live in urban areas (when limiting the scope to only the tricounty area). Only about 5% of Gales Creek workers live in Gales Creek, and the remaining 15% commute in from elsewhere in the rural reserves (Source: LODES 2015). This compares slightly favorably to the rural reserves as a whole, where about 87% of workers commute from urban areas.
Racial demographics of Gales Creek and rural reserves reveal significant differences from non-rural areas. Whereas, in urban areas, white non-Hispanic residents comprised around 79% of the population as of 2010, in the rural reserves they make up 90%, and 92% in rural reserves and Gales Creek areas, respectively. While racial diversity has increased over the years in more urban parts of the region, rural areas have tended to stay more predominantly white.
Lis Monahan explains how being close to an urban area creates additional cost burdens for farmers, especially to do with the price of land and labor, “If you rent some retail space, then the price is going to be somewhat in relationship to the business opportunity there, to the traffic flow or estimated sales. When you go into farming the price for the farmland stands in no relationship to the yield that farmland will give you as far as sales.” In addition, she perceived the new Oregon minimum wage to be a burden. The minimum wage in Washington County, where Gales Creek lies, will peak at $13.50 per hour by the year 2022 because it is classified as an urban county. Rural counties in Oregon will only reach $12.50.
The Future of Portland's Frontier
“It’s unaffordable everywhere, though,” Aurora says, adding she believes her generation will generally be unable to buy property and will be forced to rent forever. “You can be in the black if you take the work off the debit side and put it on the credit side. The opportunity to be here and to do the kind of work we do is such a gift,” said Anne Berlinger, owner of Gales Meadow Farm. Like many farming communities across Oregon, Gales Creek has its challenges, but the farmers that live and work there approach them as a labor of love.
The farmers were asked if the expansion of Forest Grove’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) and Forest Grove’s new development concerned them about preserving farmland in Gales Creek. They explained that it would never reach Gales Creek. Anne Berlinger was told by planners in Forest Grove that it would never develop because it is in a floodplain. Lis Monahan believes that it will be too expensive to pump water up the valley, mentioning some properties that have developed on the outer edge of Forest Grove that have had a difficult time with water pumping.
Even though Forest Grove’s UGB is not planned to reach Gales Creek, the farmers perceived some impacts from growth in Forest Grove. Lis Monahan noted that in order for small farmers to remain profitable they must produce things that are locally consumed, not commodity products. New residents become new customers for those farm-to-table products. She also believed that farmstands are frequented more within big development like those being built around Forest Grove.
Because of the price of land, the farmers explained that farming could never be their only source of income. They explained that oftentimes farming is taken on part-time or by just one spouse within a marriage while the other spouse works a “day job.” The farmers gave the impression that their motivation to be involved in farming did not come from profit, but from enjoyment of the work itself.