by Dana Tims, The Oregonian

Thursday July 16, 2009, 5:29 PM

A retention pond at Fisher Farms in Gaston captures excess irrigation water, which then flows through a natural filtration system. The process, an example of sustainable practices promoted by Oregon’s nursery industry, improves water quality and wildlife habitat.

Oregon’s nursery and greenhouse operators are undertaking a major effort to incorporate environmentally sustainable growing practices into their businesses.

A 12-member task force of growers, retailers and wholesalers met for the first time Thursday to begin mapping out a multiyear effort to develop greener business practices and satisfy growing consumer demand in sustainable agriculture.

“Oregon is already widely known as an environmentally sensitive place,” said Paul Bizon, founder of ProGrass in Wilsonville and the task force’s co-chairman. “Making our products just that much more positive for consumers just makes sense.”

With total sales of nearly $1 billion annually, nursery and greenhouse operations already constitute by far the largest segment of Oregon’s agricultural economy.

Announcement of the sustainability initiative comes at a critical time for the industry, which has been hit hard over the past 18 months by a dramatic slowdown in the nation’s housing market and the corollary chilling in demand for landscaping products.

Industry representatives hope that by creating standards leading to a first-ever sustainability certification process, Oregon — which ships 75 percent of its nursery and greenhouse products out of state — can remain competitive as demand once again ticks upward.

“Some people back East are already suggesting that it’s more sustainable to buy locally than from a distant West Coast supplier,” said John Aguirre, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. “We know that isn’t necessarily the case, but we really need to be able to quantify our efforts.”

Aguirre, whose organization is overseeing the initiative, said no other state is doing anything similar in terms of developing a set of best-business practices.

“Sustainability is becoming a mainstream business principle and that’s true for our industry, as well,” he said. “By the end of this project, we’ll know what types of things our growers are already doing that constitute sustainable practices and what sorts of things we can do to improve our current practices.”

Some examples of existing sustainability practices range from growers restoring riparian areas to bolster salmon runs in area streams to creating retention ponds that limit rainwater runoff, Aguirre said. One Silverton nursery recently installed solar panels to limit electricity costs, while others are investing in composting operations.

“There are lots of incentives out there to help nursery operations with these projects,” said Laura O’Leary, sustainability director for One Green World nursery in Molalla. “A big benefit of this new project will be its ability to let individual operations know how and where to get those incentives.”

The initiative is being underwritten by a $50,000 specialty-crop award grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The state nursery association is kicking in an additional $17,500 and substantial in-kind contribution of staff time.
Dana Tims: 503-294-5918;