Working to save endangered Northwest organic farmland
PCC Farmland Trustis believed to be the only trust in the country dedicated to preserving organic farmland, a resource that's steadily shrinking even as demand for local and organic foods is on the rise.
See what's up down on the farm
Watch video of Carrie and Ken Little at their organic farm in Orting, where the PCC Farmland Trust is helping them preserve an important way of life.
DAN AND KIM Hulse grow some 60 different vegetables and fruits on their family farm in Orting, re-evaluating each year where to invest their time and soil. Radicchio and escarole are out. Strawberries are always in demand.
But in the big picture, some decisions mean more than just market vagaries: There are the raspberry canes the young couple put in, and the 10,000 feet of riparian plantings to preserve water quality, and the designation as a Salmon-Safe farm. That's all happening because the Hulses own rather than rent the 40-acre plot they call Tahoma Farms. And their plot exists partly thanks to the PCC Farmland Trust, a preservation program that sprang up from the serendipitous intersection of a carrot farmer and a grocery store.
Berries take years to return on their investment. Stream plantings can't be measured on ledger sheets. If the couple were just renting the land, "that would be the farthest thing from my mind," Dan says.
"Now, we're always thinking about the long term — what's in our vision for 10, 20, 30 years down the road?"
With an annual budget of around $1 million, the PCC Farmland Trust is small compared with other conservation efforts nationwide. But its charge is unique — and its reach is spreading fast. It's believed to be the only trust in the country dedicated to preserving organic farmland, a resource that's steadily shrinking even as demand for local and organic foods is on the rise.
The lost farmland is evident just on the drive to the trust's 100-acre Orting Valley Farms project, lined with cookie-cutter developments here and open fields staked with "For Sale" signs there. The trust's project, divided between the Hulses and two other farmers, is next to one of those "For Sale" signs. The last neighboring field had a $3 million price tag, says project farmer Joel Blais, who started up his Crying Rock Farm across the street from the Hulses.
Could a small farmer on his own ever raise enough strawberries or fava beans or Freedom Ranger chickens to pay off that kind of loan? It was hard enough for Blais to raise a fraction of that, even working through the trust and its partners.
"I really started out with nothing," he says. "I had 14 sows and a bag of feed."
That's not quite true. Blais also had gone through a Pierce County agricultural program. He had a business plan, large-scale gardening know-how, and serious project experience from his years as an information-technology manager. Those factors helped balance the equation when the trust sought out farmers interested in working the land, settling on the Hulses, Blais and Carrie and Ken Little of Little Eorthe Farm. (Carrie Little had years of experience in organic farming, running the Mother Earth Farm that provides fresh produce for Pierce County food banks.)
Recruiting farmers is just one of the unexpected turns the trust has taken since it was founded in 1999.
The seed of the land trust sprung from conversations with farmer Nash Huber, famed for the sweet Nantes variety of carrots he grows in Sequim. Huber had been telling Joe Hardiman, produce merchandizer for PCC Natural Markets, how hard it was becoming to find cropland. Some of the best soil in Washington was being swallowed up, Hardiman said. And Huber warned Hardiman that the fields were quickly being converted to "ranchettes and pony farms" and playgrounds for millionaires.
The lost land had a fourfold impact on carrots, which are demanding on the soil and prone to rust fly maggots, needing a four-year rotation with other crops, Hardiman said. Then 100 acres went up for sale across the street from Nash's land. The ad said it would make beautiful five-acre homes with views of the Olympic Mountains.
Hardiman went to the board of the co-op grocery, which now numbers nine stores. The board bought in. It formed a separate nonprofit, then known as the Farmland Fund, to buy that 100 acres for $600,000. But members knew the looming crisis was about more than a grocery store and its supply of organic carrots.
"We weren't only going to say, 'We're going to save one farm and one farmer,' " Hardiman recalls. "We knew everything happening in the Sequim delta was happening elsewhere."
THE NON-PROFIT American Farmland Trust estimates that an acre of farmland is lost in the U.S. every minute. And organic farmland, which lines up with PCC's own mission, is rarer still.
"I don't think people get it," Hardiman says. "(They think) somehow that organic produce comes from a can in a warehouse somewhere, and there will always be those warehouses and there will always be those cans."
Despite that, the trust's initial pace was "glacial," Hardiman says. Its second property wasn't preserved until 2003. Yet it was solidly rooted enough to take off as local and organic farming became national buzzwords, as ensuring a local food supply became a government concern as well as a consumer issue, and as it established itself more as a separate entity from the co-op (which is still a major donor and represented on its board, among other connections).
The trust hired a full-time director last year. Its budget and staff have tripled over the past few years, with a current tally of seven employees, some still part-time. It boasts 3,000 donors, however, including major contributors like the woman who recently pledged an annual gift of $100,000, saying they were solidly on their feet and ready to do more.
Less sexy but just as effective, the trust has dramatically extended its reach by teaming up with government and nonprofit partners. The cash that helped preserve the Orting land, for instance, came through a Pierce County land-preservation program called Conservation Futures, and from a state grant program to preserve working farms.
To date, the trust has permanently protected 865 acres across Washington, in a patchwork that includes parts of the state's best-known and most successful organic farms, such as Nash's and Full Circle Farm in Carnation. The tally also includes promising entrepreneurs like the Hulses, and relative beginners like Blais.
A Whidbey Island couple even donated their farmland last year. In June, the trust announced its latest project, 300 acres of a Walla Walla farm that produces wheat and alfalfa grown from non-genetically modified seeds. It's staked claims in Eastern Washington, where the bulk of the state's agricultural land is, and in urbanized Western Washington, where some donors still remember growing up in the middle of a network of farms and dairies.
Each piece of land has a story and a pull of its own. It's an advertisement for farm preservation just to watch Blais scratch the tufty ears of his American muleback hogs, a breed that itself is battling extinction, their grunts of pleasure picking up pace as he moves to their bellies. It's a tangible testament to see the thriving Nash's stand at farmers markets, bursting with crinkly dinosaur kale and those famous carrots. It belies federal statistics about the graying of the American farmer (the average age is 55 and rising) to see the Hulses' 3-year-old, Lyla, joyously pumping her legs on her swing in the old dairy barn near her family's hoophouses full of tomato starts.
But after 12 years, the trust wants to take on the bigger picture.
"We met a goal that said we wanted to acquire 500 acres within the span of the past five years; we easily did that . . . (But) we're capable enough to do more than a set of boutique farms," says Executive Director Rebecca Sadinsky.
"I don't say that demeaning the farms we've done, but we've done spot projects. Each one is an important market along the way and an important community asset where they are, but I think the next question is . . . how can we make even more of a difference?"
Can they move beyond preserving single farms, and on to restoring farming economies?
At the Orting farm, for instance, Blais put in a licensed slaughterhouse. He sells some of his pastured heirloom pork through the Hulses' CSA. He and the Littles are both involved in a Washington State University project to see if hops, once a major Pierce County crop, can thrive there again. The three farmers share camaraderie and, occasionally, tools and customers.
Restoring that infrastructure on a larger scale would take a lot more money than what the trust brings in now, and a lot of information. By fall, the trust should have some ideas and plans. But it's negotiating on two other Orting properties already, knowing it has support from Pierce County. It has a constant eye out for putting money together with the right farmers and the right land.
"Almost every deal, we have two of those pieces in place, but not three," Sadinsky says.
With early acquisitions, the trust purchased property and leased it to farmers. Now it buys a conservation easement instead, ensuring the property can only be used for organic farmland. The easement takes developers out of the market and slashes the value of the land to a level the farmer can better afford. Appraisals of the 100-acre Orting property originally came in at $2.4 million; after the easement the land value dropped in half, says trust Development Director Kelly Sanderbeck.
That setup "gets us out of the business of being landlords," says Sanderbeck. It stretches the trust's dollars further (further still when other agencies put up the easement cash). And it lets farmers own their land, which felt right.
Even so, it isn't simple.
"Not all open space that looks like it once was a farm many decades ago is still a good farm . . . And the other thing is, some agriculture is really hard on land," Sadinsky says. Christmas-tree farms and sod-growing operations aren't usually good bets, for instance. If the soil is still prime farmland, the trust checks on water rights and maps floodways. Opportunities to preserve natural habitat like creeks and adjacent woodlands are a plus.
WHEN THE Orting property, the old Ford Dairy Farm, came up for sale, owner Emma Ford was willing to wait out a long process to ensure it remained a farm.
The soil was rich. The Hulses and Littles purchased their parcels. An old barn on the property, the big timbers and the open pastures made Joel Blais fall in love with it. But Blais hadn't been farming long enough to acquire a loan with favorable terms. In the end, a PCC donor, Julie Kintzi, purchased the land and is leasing it to Blais until he can buy it outright.
Blais has learned a lot since he began farming in earnest — how to gauge whether a boar from one of his heirloom breeds could safely stay in the same stall with new nursing piglets (surprisingly, yes), how to deftly capture escaping chickens and pop them back under their grazing enclosure, how to explain to his children that the pork they were eating was the same pig, Poppy, who they had played with in the fields.
He lives on the farm with his wife and their three youngsters; with the pigs and hops and experiments like the Muscovy duck seeking out shade under a lawn chair the other day. Customers drive to the farm to pick up the meat, or, when supplies allow, he sells on Saturdays at Pike Place Market.
It's been tough work, albeit welcome work, even with the trust's help. It's also been an education.
But "it's not deep technology," Blais says. "This is what man's done since there was mankind."
That's how farmers Gary and Lois Fisher of Whidbey Island felt. The couple started up their Camelot Downs farm as a second career 25 years ago, focusing on livestock breeds that existed during Colonial days. "It was something that came as a shock to us, that the animals that Gary knew in Future Farmers of America were on the endangered list when we came back to the island," Lois says. They founded Camelot Downs on 15 acres of what was once a 25-acre cattle ranch.
Now the Fishers oversee heritage sheep, poultry, even llamas. But the 10 acres of farmland they didn't buy? It was broken into two five-acre housing parcels.
The same or worse seemed bound to happen to the rest after they were gone. "We just didn't want a developer to come in and put a whole bunch of condos on it," Lois Fisher says. "We wanted it to stay open land, farmland."
They donated a conservation easement on the property to the PCC trust, as well as money to help maintain it.
It's a financial hit for the couple, but the farm is about more than money, Gary Fisher explains.
He points to the motto of Camelot Downs, which now stands even more true:
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer and food blogger. Harley Soltes is a freelance photographer.
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