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    On the urban fringes: small farms arising

    While big farms are slipping in number, Washington is seeing a rise in small farms, the main supplies of farmers markets. Developers are now treating a small farm as an attractive amenity, attracting those hooked on the FarmVille fantasy game.
    Tulips at a farmers market in West Seattle

    Tulips at a farmers market in West Seattle marmot06/Crosscut Flickr group

    The Ballard Farmer's Market: buying local, but car-dependent.

    The Ballard Farmer's Market: buying local, but car-dependent. Jill Rachel/Crosscut Flickr Group

    Jon Rose is no tree-hugging greenie. He’s a burly guy who heads Olympic Property Group and makes his living developing real estate for Pope Resources, which owns 72,000 acres of land in the Seattle suburbs. But Rose is about to embark on a development project here that could make him a hero to the local-food set and push Olympic into the forefront of a fledgling trend in suburban land-use planning.

    In January, Rose's company announced plans to take 7,000 acres of its holdings, stretching across the top of Kitsap County, and hand it over to the county in exchange for the go-ahead to concentrate middle and high-end residential and commercial development on an additional 1,000 acres surrounding the picture-postcard village of Port Gamble.

    The project would not only transform Kitsap’s forested northern tier and provide a safety valve for Seattle's developmentally stressed Eastside suburbs, but Rose predicts it could trigger $600 million in private investment in the county over the next two decades. Predictably, the plan has generated high excitement in Kitsap's business community and even elicited tepid enthusiasm from the county’s environmentalists.

    Almost unnoticed in the local to-do about the planned development is a piece of Rose's vision that centers on a 27-acre farmsite just south of Port Gamble. The long-dormant farm sits near the middle of Olympic’s development plan and is, in Rose's words, "a fabulous amenity."

    As Port Gamble spreads out, Rose wants to turn the farm into non-profit corporation, with a board composed of local farmers and Port Gamble homeowners, that will provide fields of row crops for the Port Gamble's farmers market and supply local veggies to the village's new residents through a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription arrangement.

    The farm, says Rose, would be a centerpiece of what he calls "an eclectic range of Northwest experiences" that would include display gardens, a marine science lab, and the farmers market, all designed to appeal to the post-1960s generation. "We want to develop a community that is sustainable, has intellectual stimulation and a defined quality of life," he says. "We're selling to the generation that went through the back-to-the-land movement in the '60s and early '70s. It’s part of their values system."

    That's a long cultural leap from traditional upscale development models, which usually involve slapping down a golf course to lure in retirees and second-home buyers. But Rose, who has done such development work in the past, says golf course projects never really worked — only about 30 percent of the buyers ever end up playing golf, he says.

    "Everything changed in the 1960s," he says. "The generation we're aiming at saw their parents retire to those golf course communities and a lot of them were dead within five years." (This is probably a good place for a bit of disclosure. Together with a neighboring co-owner, my wife and I run a 13-acre microfarm in Kitsap County. For the last ten years, we have raised flowers, fruit, chickens, lambs, and 53 kinds of vegetables. Jon Rose came to us several years ago seeking advice on how to make a CSA work. We don't stand to financially benefit from Olympic's development or its farm, but we are enthusiastic supporters of microfarming and of sustainable, local agriculture.)

    "There's no doubt developers are starting to see farms as a niche marketing opportunity," says Fred Berman, the small farm program coordinator for Washington's Department of Agriculture. Berman's agency has run 12-week "Cultivating Success" programs for wannabe farmers in urban areas around the state for years. Lately, he says, they have been selling out.

    "It's vicarious living," Berman speculates. "Maybe 10 percent of them will ever really get their fingernails dirty, but there's a lot of desire to do that and they're willing to spend money to learn."

    "Aesthetically," says Josh Giuntoli, farmland preservation coordinator for the Washington State Conservation Commission's office of farmland preservation, "it's nice living near a small farm." Giuntoli says the state doesn't even have a definition for "microfarm" but there are plenty of indications the category is growing fast. The Conservation Commission's 2009 farmland report, issued in December, says that while the number of big farms across the state earning more than $100,000 a year has shrunk by 700 since 2004, along with overall farm acreage, small farms of less than 50 acres making less than $10,000 grew by 26 percent.

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    Posted Wed, Mar 17, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

    This sounds like a very healthy way to go. JG

    Posted Wed, Mar 17, 9:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    Hmm. Fetishized farms. Stuff White People Like, dot-com...


    Posted Wed, Mar 17, 11:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent article. Micro-farming is one area where encroaching gentrification and a rural economy can hope to live in harmony. The catch is, of course, that the micro-farmers are typically recruited from the newly arrived gentry, not from the traditional rural community. Still, it's step forward from the earlier model of urban planners sitting in city offices and composing regulatory schemes for rural folk based on bucolic myths totally removed from reality.


    Posted Thu, Mar 18, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Krivor's statement about "this back-to-the-land thing" illuminates an ongoing problem. It assumes an uninvestigated and insupportable idea that there is some other kind of "thing". We live on the earth, all of us. Those of us who eat are fed by the land, every one. There is no other "thing" from which we draw our physical lives either individually or as societies. Local agriculture is ultimately vital to our species, and wherever it can be spared from or reinserted into urban or suburban development, that's a good thing. Right, some people don't enjoy the smell of manure and would prefer to live in boxes on top of each other in cities. Cool. Others want to isolate themselves in suburban enclaves where community is accessed entirely by car or by telecom. Fine. All these people still need to eat food grown in soil by somebody who is willing to cultivate that soil. The notion that a regard for and interest in farming is a quaint fad useful mainly to marketers belies a frighteningly short historical memory and threatens to undermine sincere efforts to return local food production to its once and crucial place in our culture.

    Posted Fri, Mar 19, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    I just want to essentially echo the comments above by both Woofer and Journeyman Matt: it is an excelllent article and represents one good idea for improving the way some of us eat and live.

    Of course, it doesn't address the much larger concern that for a multitude of reasons, we need to return to growing more foods closer to where they are consumed; with a focus on the freshness and health benefits of the end product, rather than higher profit margins at the expense of quality. For the most part, that means "organic," and should also include efforts to maintain a wide diversity of plant (and animal) varieties. Smaller farms are a wonderful thing, and should be promoted, regardless of whether you choose to get the dirt on your hands, or pick up the vegetables with your manicured nails at the market. One thing that saddens me the most about all of this, is that quality foods are beyond the budgets of many families with young children who need them the most.


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