Apples. That’s probably what first comes to mind when most people think of Washington state agriculture. While apples are undoubtedly a top crop, representing 23 percent of the total value of agricultural production in the state, Washington farmers are actually busy producing more than 300 different commodities. And the South Sound region is no exception to a diverse agricultural economy.
Thanks to rich, volcanic soil; diverse climate; and abundant water, agriculture has long been a vital pillar of the region’s economic success. Today, there are more than 4,800 farms sprinkled throughout just Pierce, Thurston, Lewis, and Mason counties alone. Whether it’s eggs, berries, sweet corn, pumpkins, grain crops, U-cut Christmas trees, cattle, or another local crop, agriculture in the South Sound remains plentiful.
“When you get into Pierce, Thurston, and even Mason counties, a lot of the focus is local. You have a lot of small- to medium-sized farms. Farms average probably close to 25 acres in size, at the high end,” said Kelly McLain, policy advisor to the director at the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “… There’s a lot of diversity still in the South Sound, and we have some of the best soils anywhere in the state for growing crops because of the volcanic till. You have this fantastic soil.”
Over the years, the diversity of crops, consumer demand for local goods and organically grown produce, and a rise in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) have helped many farms remain resilient. (For those not familiar with CSA, it allows you to buy a “share” from a local farm. In return, you receive a box of farm-fresh produce each week during the growing season.)
That’s not to say, however, that farming in the South Sound is not facing its fair share of challenges. In many areas, farming acreage is on the decline amid mounting residential and commercial development pressure, and succession planning for many farms has become a real challenge (after all, farming isn’t for everyone and is not for the faint of heart). Becoming increasingly adaptable has unquestionably become a vital survival tactic for today’s farmers.
Some of the challenges facing today’s farms are evident in parts of Thurston County and especially Pierce County, which is experiencing tremendous residential and commercial development. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, Pierce County has experienced a population growth of nearly 14 percent since 2010.
“The pressures for that land to be developed are really high unless the land lies in a floodplain, and then farmland really is the highest best use for that land,” McLain said.
In many areas, such as Fife and the Orting Valley, for example, this juxtaposition has created an interesting checkerboard of sorts of farmland and new development.
As described by the Washington State Conservative Commission, “VSP (created in 2011) gives counties the option to protect critical areas and farmland by implementing plans that rely on incentives — rather than regulations — to encourage farm-friendly conservation practices.”
How it works: Each county develops and carries out local plans that identify where critical areas (i.e., wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, etc.) and agricultural activities intersect, sets benchmarks to protect critical areas and farmland, and outlines incentive-based strategies that will be used to hit those benchmarks.
There are currently 27 counties participating in the program, including Thurston, Mason, and Lewis.
“It allows the farmers some flexibility in how they manage and maintain their farm and really allows them more leeway and maybe some opportunities for keeping the farm farming longer because they don’t have some of the same strict regulatory requirements to meet the expected protection benchmarks,” McLain said.
As noted earlier, succession planning also is a major challenge for many of today’s farms. Enter PCC Farmland Trust, a nonprofit land trust that works to keep land in production by making it accessible to future generations of farmers.
“Succession planning in all of the Puget Sound is actually the top issue associated with farmland preservation. Preserving farms is much more difficult if you don’t have a succession plan or family members interested in taking over. So, there’s been a ton of focus from PCC Farmland Trust and others around how do we create a model so that farms have a next step or someone buys them out,” McLain said.
One such example is Terry’s Berries Farm located in the Puyallup River Valley. As reported in 2017 by The News Tribune, former owners Dick and Terry Carkner decided to retire after cultivating the farm for more than 30 years.
Puyallup farmers Mark and Katie Green were managers on the farm, harvesting for its CSA program, but purchasing Terry’s Berries Farm seemed like a near-impossible feat. However, as reported by The News Tribune, “PCC Farmland Trust stepped in, and in collaboration with partners under the Puyallup Floodplains for the Future Initiative, secured $125,000 in easement funding through the Department of Ecology’s Floodplains by Design grant with Pierce County.” This enabled the Greens to purchase the farm, known today as Wild Hare Organic Farm.
To date, PCC Farmland Trust has conserved 24 farm properties, totaling 2,669 acres.
So what does the future hold for farming in the South Sound?
“I think that the future for South Sound agriculture is bright. I think that people that are creative and people that are excited about farming and excited about creating a business model that really plays up the fact that we have all of this great, great ground for growing local foods can make this work,” said McLain. “But I think there’s always going to be push and pull in an area where development is happening like it is here.”