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.
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A scene at Ballard's popular Sunday farmers market.

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.

Jon Rose is no tree-hugging greenie. He'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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.

Meanwhile, farmers markets have more than doubled in Washington in the last decade, with 80 new markets springing up during that time. Giuntoli, who wrote the commission report, says microfarms of under 50 acres are generally the main suppliers of farmers markets; larger farming operations usually sell to brokers.

There has even been a boom in virtual microfarming. San Francisco game maker Zynga recently logged 72 million visitors a month at its wildly popular FarmVille fantasy game, which lets users build and run their own tiny virtual farms.

Developers are starting to pay attention to these clues. In Chelan County, for example, one developer is planning to incorporate vineyards, orchards, and a farmers market into his 312-acre project. Skokomish Farms, a developer in Mason County, just south of Kitsap, plans to transform part of a 783-acre hay farm on the Skokomish River into 19 microfarm-size plots of 40-acres each. Each owner will get five acres for their own use and put the other 35 acres into a jointly owned farm, says Alan Krivor, the project's developer. The farmland will carry a perpetual conservation easement, with homeowners free to pitch in on the farm if they choose, Krivor says. They can also take their share of the farm's harvest and sell it at a local farmers'ꀙ market.

Krivor, who has done traditional urban developments in Idaho, Montana, and eastern Washington, bought the farm two years ago for $2.6 million, planning to break it up into 82 small lots. He scratched that plan after meeting with area planners and environmentalists. "It had beautiful soil," he says. "We decided, 'Let's do something different. Let's not just cut it into little squares.' 'ꀝ

In Oregon, where urban development has been sharply delineated from rural farms for three decades, the recently incorporated Portland suburb of Damascus is blurring the line by building its new city around a 77-acre farm. Future development and farmland will be designed to coexist, according to planners. "Oregon land use is very dichotomous," Clackamas County Commissioner Charlotte Lehan told The Oregonian last August. "You're either urban or rural — urban with 10 houses per acre or rural with one house per 80 acres. I'm coming to the opinion that maybe we need to recognize another kind of animal."

So, in the future, will developers lure buyers with gardens instead of golf courses and replace swimming pools with squash patches? Don't bet the farm on it, says Olympic Resources' Rose.

"The odds are, development amenities like a farm will fail," Rose says. "But the reality is, I want our project to have a broad market appeal and a farm is part of that today. It will stand a much smaller chance of failure if the folks running it care most about growing things from the land."

Krivor is more optimistic. His Skokomish Farms website is replete with Navajo chants, Irish blessings, and idyllic scenes of pastures and hay fields. But the philosophy behind the project is similar to traditional developments, he says, except instead of putting in a lake and a golf course, "we had a beautiful farm with great land, rivers, and mountain views to work with."

"You saw this kind of back-to-the-land thing with hippies in the '70s," Krivor says. "But it's much more sophisticated now."


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