Work being done to help beginning farmers expand
Since 2015, Amy Frye and Jacob Slosberg have been gradually adding to the land they farm at Viva Farms.
The couple started with renting 1 acre and now run their business, Boldly Grown Farm, on 6.5 acres.
With high demand for their wholesale vegetables and winter produce boxes, Frye said they’ve reached the point where they need to find their own property.
Frye said while the land-sharing system used by Viva Farms — an incubator for organic farms — was just what she and Slosberg needed when they moved to Skagit County, their farm is quickly outgrowing the model.
Their 6.5 acres are in three locations, making it challenging to move equipment and products. By next year, Frye said the farm’s production would begin to be limited by its acreage.
“This year we’ve definitely hit that crunch of ‘we really need our own farm,’” she said.
Frye and Slosberg started looking for property about six months ago but have struggled to find available agricultural land.
That lack of availability is one of the main barriers for beginning farmers, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland President Allen Rozema said.
For about a year, the group has been working with Viva Farms to establish a pipeline that allows farmers such as Frye to lease or buy land from property owners.
Farms get bought up quickly once they’re put on the market, Frye said. Sellers often aren’t willing to wait for a local farmer to get financing when a buyer from Seattle can pay more, and quicker.
That, coupled with property necessities such as irrigation and having organic-certified soil, limits options, Frye said.
“It’s not just one factor that stands out that makes it difficult,” she said. “It’s the combination of it all together and the time it takes to have those conversations and sort it all out.”
A lack of available land, high prices, unstable lease arrangements and finding land with the right resources are the main challenges for farmers on the hunt for property, said Holly Rippon-Butler, land access program director at the National Young Farmers Coalition.
The search for land
While beginning farmers struggle to afford land, large farms keep getting larger, Rozema said.
“Large farms are buying up more of ag land,” he said.
From 2007 to 2012, the number of farms in Skagit County decreased by 12 percent, from 1,215 to 1,074, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those farms also increased in size by an average of 11 percent, from 89 to 99 acres.
But the total number of acres being farmed in the county are decreasing. There were 106,538 acres being farmed in 2012, down from 108,541 in 2007, according to the USDA.
This trend is reflected nationally. In 2012, 36 percent of all cropland was on farms of at least 2,000 acres, up from 15 percent in 1987, according to a March 2018 study by the USDA.
Large farms aren’t a bad thing, Rozema said. The owners of those farms pick up land that might have otherwise gone unfarmed and attract support industries such as tractor dealerships and university research and development.
But consolidation can make getting started more difficult for beginning farmers, Rozema said, as more established farms can outprice a small-scale farmer for land.
At $10,000 to $11,000 per acre and a 40-acre minimum for land zoned as agricultural, Rozema said a farmer would need about half a million dollars to acquire a plot of land zoned for agricultural use in Skagit County.
Beyond the issue of cost, Rozema said the fertile land within the Skagit and Samish river deltas — most of which is owned by families that have been farming for generations — is at full capacity.
When farm land does change hands, Rippon-Butler said it often does so without coming on the market. Sales are often by word-of-mouth.
“Right now it’s just such a closed loop system that makes it hard for someone that just started farming to break into it,” Rozema said.
Mount Vernon farmer Arielle Luckmann recalled her search for land, which ended in 2017 when she and her partner began leasing 4 acres from Mount Vernon Christian School.
“It seemed like you would see land around that seemed like viable farmland, but it would never come available,” she said. “We would joke about going to just knock on their doors and ask if we could farm on their property.”
When beginning farmers can’t find land that both works for their business and that they can afford, they’re sometimes forced into short-term leases, Rippon-Butler said.
Farmers on short-term leases generally end up moving every couple of years, she said.
“It’s like entering the start-up stage over and over again,” Rippon-Butler said.
For farmers with children, that can also mean changing schools again and again.
“If you can’t see any stability in where your business is, you’re likely to choose health insurance at a 9 to 5 (job) over farming at some point,” she said.
Finding a solution
To help beginning farmers find land, Rozema said Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland is creating relationships between landowners and farmers.
In order to find land that’s affordable, the group is looking outside the 40-acre-plus plots currently zoned for agriculture to find other viable farmland.
The group’s efforts are made possible through a partnership with Viva Farms formed through a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant.
In late 2017, Skagitonians contracted a company to identify potential farmland in areas zoned “rural resource” and “rural reserve” because these properties are less expensive to lease or buy, Rozema said.
They narrowed the search to exclude land within 100 feet of streams and wetlands to account for critical area buffers, as well as identified parcels within 500 meters of piped water for irrigation purposes, he said.
The group found 52,013 acres that met one or more of its criteria. Of those, 41 percent are actively being farmed, Rozema said.
The search identified 4,169 parcels east of the Swinomish Channel with more than 1 acre of potentially farmable land.
About a quarter of the parcels are within 500 meters of piped water.
After identifying potential farmland, Skagitonians is focusing on connecting the landowners with those who want to lease and farm the land.
There are quite a few nonfarming owners of agricultural land, Rozema said, particularly in the La Conner area.
The group has a vision to create an online matchmaking portal to help make the connections.
While the online component materializes, Rozema said the group is focusing on facilitating those relationships and promoting the potential benefits for landowners, such as tax breaks.
Many landowners don’t need to be convinced that supporting beginning farmers is worthwhile, Rozema said.
Richard Hartung owns about 24 acres just south of Mount Vernon on Dike Road, and he wants to make it all available to beginning farmers.
Hartung, who is a consultant currently based in Singapore, said he’s always been involved in conservation.
In 2014, he took a Skagitonians tour of the county’s farmland, which got him thinking about buying land to help beginning farmers get established.
In 2016, Rozema helped Hartung find the land he now owns.
“I’m not a farmer, I’m definitely not a farmer,” Hartung said. “But I thought ‘what can I do to help?’”
His vision for the land includes making it the next stop in a pipeline of beginning farmers coming out of incubator organizations such as Viva Farms. He said he hopes to lease lots at a discounted price.
But in order to make his land viable for beginning farmers, it needs amenities such as water access or irrigation, a wash and pack station for produce and equipment such as tractors.
For this method of land sharing to be successful, Rozema said Skagitonians is having to work out how much of that capital should be provided by the landowners and what responsibility the farmers have to invest in it.
“I’m not sure when that will happen,” Hartung said. “But it’s moving along more than it was before.”
He hopes to have farmers on his land by 2020.
Elizabeth Walker, a former Seattleite who owns 12 acres just south of Mount Vernon, also hopes to share her land with beginning farmers.
Walker bought the land in 2006 with hopes to farm it herself, but she hasn’t been able to clear the land of the trees and shrubs left over from when it was a nursery.
She said she has realized the task is too much to take on alone, so she’s looking into leasing or selling the property.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to realize my dream on this,” she said. “But that’s OK because there’s a farm family that has the skills and experience out there to make it happen.”
While Skagitonians works to identify potential property owners, Viva Farms Executive Director Michael Frazier said Viva Farms is helping its more experienced farmers get financially and technically prepared to move onto their own property.
Farmers such as Nelida Martinez are ideal candidates. Martinez started farming at Viva Farms in 2009, expanding from 1 acre to her current 10.
She said through an interpreter that she wants to find a plot of about 30 acres, but finding the time to look for land has been difficult.
Because Martinez works alone on her farm, Pure Nelida, any time spent looking for property is time away from her business.
Martinez said it doesn’t help that she speaks limited English, which makes it difficult to talk with potential sellers.
“We can bring support to that relationship (between property owner and farmer) and help make it happen,” Rozema said.
As the number of farms and the land they are working continues to shrink, Rozema said ensuring beginning farmers can succeed is essential to the long-term viability of agriculture in Skagit County.
A variety of farm sizes and crops makes the county’s agricultural industry more resilient to market changes, weather events and climate change, Rozema said.
“This is why it’s so important to be preserving farmland in Skagit County of all sizes and in all locations, to maintain diversity at all scales and types of farming and to ensure there will be opportunities for all those desiring to enter the business of farming as well as to grow their business once established,” he said.