Farming on the Fringe

JunJie Wu, Oregon State University professor of Agricultural Economics
Urban markets offer farmers new opportunities, says JunJie Wu, holder of the Emery Castle Professorship of Resource and Rural Economics (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

By Lee Anna Sherman

At America’s urban-rural fringe, there are plenty of irritants to strain neighborliness: the stench of manure drifting across a suburban cul-de-sac. A tractor hogging an exurban roadway at rush hour. An influx of hobby farmers raising alpacas and emus. Croplands subdivided and sold to city commuters. Strip malls, industrial parks and housing developments sprawling across a formerly pastoral landscape.

But the benefits of the urban-rural interface can outweigh the detractions — at least in the short term, according to Oregon State University’s JunJie Wu, holder of the Emery Castle Chair of Resource and Rural Economics.

“Urbanization is not necessarily a bad thing for struggling rural communities,” says Wu, an economist in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “It creates new opportunities along with the challenges.”

Locally Grown, Higher Value

As populations creep outward from metropolitan centers, farmers are finding novel market niches in this affluent customer base, according to a new study by Wu and colleagues at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Malawi and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. High on the shopping lists of these new customers are high-value crops such as cut flowers, ornamental trees and shrubs for landscaping, tree-ripened fruit, locally grown wines, organic vegetables and u-pick berries — crops that generate more income per acre than traditional commodities like wheat and corn.

The study — an analysis of county data from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California — also found that demand for “inputs” such as farm machinery, seed and feed goes up during the early stages of urbanization. So does demand for “outputs” such as food processing facilities. Eventually, however, the “critical mass” of agricultural activity wanes as cropland disappears. Suppliers and processors can no longer sustain their businesses.

“Urbanization has a significant impact on agricultural infrastructure, farm production costs, and net farm income,” Wu concludes. “Still, the agriculture-related opportunities of urbanization outweigh the challenges in terms of the impact on farm income.”

Wu, who spent several months in China and England last year as a Fulbright scholar, has been analyzing trends in rural economics since coming to the United States from China more than three decades ago. But his roots in agriculture go all the way back to a small farm in Henan Province where his parents still grow wheat and corn for sale and vegetables for home consumption.

Not Just a Job

In the tradition of OSU’s Emery Castle, a leader in the field of resource economics and former president of the prestigious think-tank Resources for the Future, Wu not only delves into the effects of urbanization on agricultural economies, but also studies the environmental ramifications of land-use policies. Recent research topics include the impact of conservation programs on land values and how businesses make decisions for environmental compliance.

He loves his work so much, it feels more like a “hobby” than a job, he says. And for him, teaching is every bit as rewarding as research.

“Every time one of my students finishes his or her degree, I feel a sense of satisfaction,” he says. “I feel that I did something important.”