In 1999, an Olympic Peninsula organic produce farm that supplied carrots to PCC Natural Markets was for sale, likely to be sold to a residential development. It was a situation that “set off a light bulb” for the idea of the PCC Farmland Trust, a non-profit that works to preserve farmland across Washington state, said Hilary Aten, the Trust’s conservation director.
Aten provided an overview of the Trust as the guest speaker at the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce’s Thursday luncheon, which was held at the Verdant Health Commission office in Lynnwood. She noted that the trust operates separately from PCC Natural Markets, a cooperative with 52,000 members and 10 stores including one in Edmonds, but that PCC is the trust’s “biggest supporter to date.”
“Once farmland is developed, it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to reclaim as open space or bring back into production,” Aten said. “Once it’s pavement you can’t bring back the natural processes that created that soil.”
Since 1950, farmland in Puget Sound was about 1.4 million acres, but by 2007, had been reduced to 600,000 acres — a loss of approximately 58 percent of our region’s farmland, Atken said. Washington state now loses 45,000 acres of farmland each year, or about three family farms per day, and the most vulnerable land is that owned by farmers approaching retirement age. Children are not taking over the farm from their parents like they used to. With the average age of a Washington state farmer now at 57, the prediction is that about 70 percent of our state’s farmland will be up for sale in the next 10 years.
That’s where the Farmland Trust comes in, with three options for saving the farm:
– A fee simple purchase, where the trust buys the farm, owns it and manages it, then leases it out to farmers.
– A conservation easement, in which the trust makes a voluntary agreement with landowner to protect farmland “forever in perpetuity. They continue to own the property; we just have the right to make sure it stays as farmland forever,” Aten explained.
– Simultaneous sale, where the trust buys a conservation easement at same time that a new farmer buying a farm from a farmer who is retiring or otherwise selling the property. This allows the new farmer “to come in and farm the property and buy it at a more affordable price than he would have faced in a speculative real estate market,” Aten said. Under a conservation easement, a legal document accompanies the title of the property and essentially purchases development rights, ensuring the conservation is permanent, she added.
“We’ve seen a big need for farmland preservation in the Puget Sound region,” Aten said. “Part of the reason that is important is not only the level of growth that is happening…but also because that’s an important market for new beginning farmers — access to urban farming for direct sales.”
The Farmland Trust — which is committed to ensuring environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices on the land it protects — has been concentrating much of its work in Pierce County, in the Puyallup Valley, Aten said. But the trust is now looking do more work in Snohomish County, which has had the highest rate of farmland loss in the Puget Sound region. Unfortunately, that rate that is accelerating: the county has lost 60 percent of its farmland since 1950 and an additional 8 percent since 2007.
Snohomish County has “a strong farming heritage with excellent prime agricultural soils,” she said. The county is also home to Home to over 35 Centennial Farms – basically farms that have been under the same family’s ownership for over 100 years, she noted.
Aten said that an announcement is expected soon on the Farmland Trust’s first easement project in Snohomish County, involving a fifth-generation family farm, which will be closing this fall.
Megan Jenny, who oversees community engagement for the trust, invited everyone to attend two fall farm tours at trust-conserved properties in October – a Harvest Fest Oct. 3 at Tahoma Farms in the Orting Valley and a Pumpkin Fest Oct. 24 at Jubilee Farms in the Snoqualmie Valley. You can learn more about those events here.
The trust receives support from federal and state grants but the majority of its money comes from private donations, Aten said. The link to donation information is here.