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Originally published February 23, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified February 24, 2010 at 12:14 AM

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Number of farms in state grows, report finds

Woe is the family farmer. They've got it tougher than just about anyone, what with their tanking profits and all the faceless agri-conglomerates gobbling up their land.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Woe is the family farmer. They've got it tougher than just about anyone, what with their tanking profits and all the faceless agri-conglomerates gobbling up their land.

That seems to be the conventional wisdom. But key measurements in a new state report indicate farming in Washington has actually gotten rosier in some respects.

The report, by the state Office of Farmland Preservation, tracks a variety of indicators to see if the state's efforts at supporting agriculture are working.

The idea is to quantify the state of farming, rather than just relying on the gut sense of farmers and officials, said Bob Hart, chairman of the task force behind the report.

The numbers may be surprising:

• The number of farms in Washington rose 6 percent between 2000 and 2008 — with the upward trajectory steeper in the last two of those years. That means the state has about the same number of farms as it did in 1970, though the total acreage in farming has shrunk.

• Ninety percent of the farms are owned by individuals or families.

• There has been an increase in local food processors in the last few years, which helps lower transportation costs for small farmers, and thus helps keep agriculture economically viable.

• Net farm income is higher than it's been in nearly 20 years, rising 192 percent since a low in 1999, the report states.

• The number of farmers markets has more than doubled since 1998.

"I think farmers have always felt like they're on the short end of things," said Jacob Anderson, a member of the task force. He concedes, however, that "there seems to be a lot of good news."

Exhibit A in those trends could be Siri Erickson-Brown and her Local Roots farm in Carnation.

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After a master's degree in public administration and several desk jobs, she decided to change careers, interning at a small farm in 2006.

The next year, she started farming on leased land and has been selling vegetables at farmers markets and to a number of Seattle restaurants. The farm also has a Community Supported Agriculture program, delivering produce to 70 members.

Not long ago, this wouldn't have been possible, Erickson-Brown believes.

But with the surge in interest in "local food," and consumers' increasing desire to know what's in their food, she and her husband, who has a law degree, have managed to build a "moderately successful" business. Both work full time on the farm.

"I basically felt like there was a ready market," she said, citing the bustling farmers-market scene. Small farmers like her, she added. "aren't finding it too hard to sell what we grow."

Not everything's perfect. While the number of farms has increased, the number of acres in farming has decreased.

It's getting harder and harder for newcomers to buy land — and increasingly enticing for farmers to sell to developers.

And not everyone is seeing that increase in net farm profits.

"If you talked to the average farmer, I don't know that he'd say the value of my crop has gone up 192 percent," said Josh Giuntoli, with the Farmland Preservation office. Most small farms take in less than $10,000, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

It's important to note that not all farms are created equal, said Lee Faulconer, with the department. "There's always some segments doing well while others aren't," he said.

For instance, when the price of corn went up, the cattlemen saw hikes in the price of feed.

In most farm families, one member works off the farm, to ensure not only a steady paycheck, but health insurance and other benefits.

Meanwhile, the average age of farmers has steadily increased over the decades. With many of the state's farmers nearing retirement, their children aren't necessarily interested in taking over.

Erickson-Brown said the small and sustainable model she and other new farmers are trying feels right.

"Growing food seems like a positive thing to do," she said.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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