It’s no secret the number of farms that once dotted the American countryside has shrunk over the years — whether through corporate consolidation, the inability to turn a profit due to production inefficiencies, or an aging demographic in farm ownership. Often, the result is a broken agriculture system and limited access to healthy, local food in crowded cities. 

According to a report compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Census of Agriculture, and released this spring, just over 2 million farms operated in America in 2017 — down 7 percent from 2007.

In Washington state, fewer traditional, family-owned, or large-scale dairy farms exist in the rural parts of Washington than years past. The number of farm operations in Washington state dropped from approximately 40,100 in 1997 to approximately 35,800 in 2017, according to the USDA’s report.

But one trend aims to change that narrative, particularly in the South Sound. The rise of peri-urban farms — conservation-minded farms situated on a city’s outskirts and designed to mitigate the effects of a rising population — is giving local farmers some hope. 

In the South Sound, peri-urban farms thrive by supplying farm-to-table restaurants with local and seasonal food, offering agricultural education courses to their communities, and mailing out monthly community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes to South Sound residents and business owners who own small shares of these farms. 

That doesn’t mean peri-urban farmers are immune to their own challenges. In fact, issues like the rising cost of labor and environmental degradation may affect these small- and mid-sized farms even more. And their proximity to large metropolitan zones means that city regulations, urban encroachment, heightened property expenses, and general cost-of-living put an additional set of obstacles in front of them. 

Katie Green, owner of Wild Hare Organic Farm

“Like any other family-owned business, there are a lot of question marks that linger over us,” said Katie Green, owner of Wild Hare Organic Farm in Tacoma. “Trying to balance having a constant cash flow and paying employees exactly what they are worth is hard. And, we’re operating at a much slower rate than large-scale farms and depending directly on a fluctuating clientele base to support us.”

Luckily for Green and other peri-urban farmers in the area, access to the amenities that these farms can provide is a priority for conservation districts in Thurston and Pierce Counties. Through partnerships between rural, urban, and agricultural communities, as well as local, state, federal, and tribal agencies, these districts aim to conserve and sustain the beneficial use and protection of local natural resources.

Guidance on pasture rotation, soil testing, and farm equipment rentals are just a few of the many services these districts offer — and almost entirely free of charge.

“We’ll help farmers come up with whole farm management plans, check soil fertility, help them balance their operations, and rent $3,000 equipment to farmers for $20 per day,” said Sarah Moorehead, interim executive director & agricultural outreach specialist at Thurston Conservation District. “Through local, federal, and state assistance funding, we cost-share with farmers, and generally end up covering 75 to 100 percent of costs.” 

Perhaps the biggest threat conservation districts help peri-urban farmers mitigate is that of land development. As urban areas expand and property values increase, the need for affordable housing and new development space grows. The land that peri-urban farms occupy is often the first to be targeted, Moorehead noted, and frequently developers can offer farmers much higher bids for their properties than other farmers can. 

“Development is critical and necessary as our region grows,” noted PCC Farmland Trust Conservation Director Hilary Aten. “But by protecting our region’s best farmland at the same time, we can make sure development happens in the right places, and not on irreplaceable prime farmland soils that we need to feed our communities.”

According to Aten, land trusts and local governments can remove development potential from farmland by purchasing agricultural conservation easements from voluntary sellers, protecting the farm’s natural resources to support future farming and land stewardship in perpetuity. 

Farmers can invest the money from easement sales back into their businesses or into their retirement plans, ensuring a smoother transition for the next generation of farmers. 

Land easement isn’t the only way peri-urban farmers can ensure long-term success. 

Amy Moreno-Sills, owner of Four Elements Farm in Puyallup, believes the key to keeping her business booming while mitigating changes in the industry is to diversify her sources of income. 

“We do wholesale, direct-market sales, CSA boxes, and blueberry picking,” said Moreno-Sills, who’s been running the farm with her husband, Agustin, since 2014. “Bringing people out to the farm to pick up their CSA boxes and pick blueberries is great because people are beginning to want to know the people who grow their food again, and it helps people see why farming like this is important.” 

If South Sounders don’t feel like driving to the outskirts of town to get fresh dairy and produce, they can stop by a local farmers market, or dine at one of the many farm-to-table restaurants in the area, such as Primo Grill in Tacoma or Table 47 in Gig Harbor, which Wild Hare Organic Farm and Four Elements Farm, respectively, provide with seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Charlie McManus, head
chef and owner of Primo Grill

Charlie McManus, head chef and owner of Primo Grill — along with his wife, Jacqueline Plattner — said the couple wanted the restaurant’s dining experience to feel like eating dinner at a friend’s house, where you might eat some food grown in their garden and where it’s a hyperlocal idea of dining.

“We are a small business, too, so we understand the pull and push of being a small business person and understand the challenges that farmers have as well,” McManus said. In order to manage some of the instability that comes with being a small business, he said that they’ve tried to set up a scenario where these farms can grow three or four things that they can grow well and that consumers can use for a few weeks during the season. It’s mutually beneficial.

While peri-urban farms in the area have developed some important risk-management tactics, their success still depends on South Sounders who are willing to invest a little extra time and money into sourcing their food.

Farmers markets are one of the treasures of the summer season, and it’s fun to hit different cities to explore all our South Sound offerings. We’ve compiled a guide to our farmers markets, so you can get the most out of the in-season bounty.

Auburn Famers Market
10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays, June-September

Bremerton Community Farmers Market
4-7 p.m., monthly Thursdays, May-September

Broadway Farmers Market (Tacoma)
3-7 p.m., Thursdays, May-August 

Central Kitsap Farmers Market
3-7 p.m., Tuesdays, July-October

Centralia Lewis County Farmers Market
11 a.m.-4 p.m., Fridays, May-September

Eastside Farmers Market (Tacoma)
3-7 p.m., Tuesdays, June-August

Federal Way Farmers Market
9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturdays, May-October

Gig Harbor Farmer’s Market:
Peninsula Marketplace

9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturdays, March-September

Gig Harbor Waterfront Farmers Market
1-7 p.m., Thursdays, June-August

Kitsap Fresh Online Farmers Market
9 a.m.-11:50 p.m., Mondays

Lakewood Farmers Market
10 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesdays, June-September

Olympia Farmers Market
10 a.m.-3 p.m., Thursday-Sunday,
“in high season”

Orting Valley Farmers Market
3-7 p.m., Fridays, June-September

Point Ruston Farmers Market
10 a.m.-3 p.m., Sundays, June-September

Port Orchard Farmers Market
9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, April-Oct.

Poulsbo Farmers Market
9 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays, April-December

Proctor Farmers Market
9 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays, March-December 

Puyallup Farmers Market
9 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays, April-October

Shelton Farmers Market
9 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays, May-September

Steilacoom Farmers Market
3-7 p.m., Wednesdays, July-August

Tumwater Town Center Farmers Market
10 a.m.-2 p.m., Wednesdays, May-September

Vashon Farmers Market
10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturdays, April-end
of growing season