Sustaining a Future for Farming in Washington

By: Melissa Campbell, Executive Director, Washington Farmland Trust

I am from a small town tucked into the northwest corner of Ohio. A town, much like many others we all know, where farmland sits at the outer edges of a humble but growing and thriving community. Farmland is the backbone of that community.

Just like my small town back in Ohio, and other communities across the country, we here in Washington are losing farmland at an alarming rate. If we continue at the current rate, our grandchildren will wake up one day, never having experienced eating a Washington grown apple or locally grown berries. Can you imagine that?

The United States is home to 10 percent of the planet’s arable soils—the most of any country on Earth. But roughly 2,000 acres of agricultural land are lost every day in the U.S. Here in Washington, we have lost 100,000 acres in a 10-year period. We are also losing farmers, many of whom are ready to retire and do not know who will take over their business.

On top of all these challenges, the global pandemic has fundamentally changed our daily lives and the economy, yet the agricultural real estate market has not let up. Farmland values continue to skyrocket, with prime parcels going to the highest bidder. This leaves local food producers and land stewards unable to compete.

Our mission at the Washington Farmland Trust is to sustain a future for farming in Washington for generations to come. We protect and steward threatened farmland across the state by keeping land in production and making it accessible to future generations of farmers. To date, we have conserved 24 farm properties, totaling 2,669 acres.

Our Story

Our story began in 1999 with Nash Huber, who has been growing food in the fertile Dungeness Valley for more than 30 years. When Nash learned that land near his farm was in danger of being developed into small housing parcels, he called local retailer PCC Community Markets. PCC leaders Joe Hardiman, Jody Aliesen, and Randy Lee spearheaded a first-of-its-kind effort, calling on the co-op’s members, vendors, and shoppers to raise funds to purchase Nash’s threatened land. In just a few short weeks, 97 acres were protected forever and the PCC Farmland Fund was born. You can read more about our history here.

Fast forward to today and Washington’s land and communities have changed dramatically. As we look toward the future, we are drawing on our 20-year history and long-standing partnerships to chart a path for the next 20 years. In 2020, we announced a new name – Washington Farmland Trust – symbolic of how we have grown and evolved to meet the shifting needs of our state’s farming communities.

When the organization was founded two decades ago, the biggest threat to farmland was urban sprawl. Today, the urgency of climate change, historic and current inequities in accessing land, and the global pandemic only add to the pressures that farmers face.

3 Focus Areas

Over the next 20 years, we are working to address three core issues:

Protecting what’s left of our state’s most valuable agricultural lands. Current zoning laws are not aggressive enough to prevent fragmentation, subdivision, and conversion of agricultural lands to nonagricultural uses.

Creating land affordability and opportunities for next-generation farmers. The community is facing a succession crisis as the current generation of farmers approaches retirement age, causing a monumental shift in farmland tenure. At the same time, young and beginning farmers face significant barriers to accessing affordable land and securing a tenable market position. Due to years of discriminatory laws and practices, finding land to farm is even more challenging for farmers of color.

Addressing climate change and social inequity in everything we do. Addressing the impacts of this multi-level crisis will be essential to ensuring the actions we take today are viable into the future.

We believe it is imperative to respond to these many threats by forging new partnerships, expanding our service area, and growing our programs. We’ve identified near-term priority areas in multiple counties along the I-5 corridor, where threat of conversion is highest, for targeted, collaborative farmland conservation efforts in response to urgent threats and natural resource concerns. We’ve also identified long-term areas of interest east of the Cascades, where threats may just be emerging, and where we aim to conserve farmland in tandem with regional partners statewide.

Farm to Farmer

We are particularly excited about Farm to Farmer, a new program that has already provided technical assistance to 80 farmers and farmer collectives and made more than 85 introductions between parties. Farm to Farmer connects local producers with the land opportunities they need to grow their businesses. Our coordinators provide personalized technical assistance to every farmer looking for land and landowners looking to lease or transition their property throughout the process.

Elizabeth Mugeche and Francis Ndishu have been practicing organic agriculture for the last seven years. After training at Tilth Alliance‘s Incubator Program for five years, the couple began leasing land on Shared Soil in Enumclaw, Washington, where they specialize in mixed vegetables.

For years, Elizabeth and Francis have had their eyes on the Skagit Valley and its sandy loam soils, as they grow many root and winter storage crops. Earlier this year, the couple connected with landowners Kimi and Jake Schell through Farm to Farmer, and now call the land their home farm.

“We are so grateful to be connected with farm owners Jake and Kimi Schell,” said Elizabeth. “They have the perfect sized farm in the most ideal location.”

Kimi, a chef and staff member at Viva Farms, one of our partner organizations, told us that she is excited to see what Elizabeth and Francis produce on this new land, and hopes to source product from them for her farm dinners in the future.

After starting Farm to Farmer in Pierce, King, and Skagit Counties, we heard the need for expansion from other farmers and partners across Washington, from the Olympic Peninsula to Spokane. In response, we plan to launch the Farm to Farmer Network, a collaboration that will expand the reach of the program through partnerships with conservation districts, farmer training and advocacy organizations, and land trusts across the state.

In all our efforts, these partnerships with local organizations and community members are essential to ensure lasting impact and meaningful change. As we expand our geographic service area, we aim to be a resource to local land trusts as well as address gaps in program delivery where they exist, both in conservation and land access.

One lesson we have taken to heart in 2020 is that farming brings together so many issues that we all care about: regional food security, climate change, equity issues, and bridging the rural and urban divide. Washington communities are interdependent, and we are always stronger and more resilient together. As the only statewide nonprofit exclusively dedicated to farmland preservation, your support is sustaining a future for farming Washington. With your help, we can double down on our efforts and the statewide need for local food and farms.

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