Will the last farmer to leave Puget Sound please wish us luck?

Better yet, says a new report, we should develop conservation tactics that do a better job of protecting farmland from development.

Crosscut archive image.

A farm near Yakima, where irrigation is often critical (Washington State Department of Ecology)

Better yet, says a new report, we should develop conservation tactics that do a better job of protecting farmland from development.

Puget Sound-area farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate, turned over for development of urban areas or "rural estates," according to a new study released Tuesday.

The report, published by the American Farmland Trust, found that the Puget Sound region lost more than 1.4 million acres of farmland between 1950 and 2007. The majority of that land loss occurred in four counties — Pierce, Snohomish, Whatcom, and, predictably, King. Those counties, which each lost more than 100,000 acres during the 57-year period of the study, are responsible for more than half of the state's farmland loss. 

It's no coincidence that the four counties mentioned also have some of the highest growth rates in the region, a fact the report blames for overwhelming their relatively strong farmland protection programs.

"Farmland loss is not just about land," said the Pacific Northwest director of American Farmland Trust, Dennis Canty, in a press release on the report. "It’s about protecting the farmers who hold rural communities together, wildlife habitat, water quality, flood control, and healthy local food grown sustainability by farmers we know. There is too much at stake to allow Puget Sound farmland to continue to fall through the cracks."

The report recommends a range of conservation tactics to ensure the Puget Sound's remaining 600,000 acres of farmland stays, well, land for farming. 

  1. Ensure all current farmland is zoned as such. Agricultural zoning protects farmland from being turned over for other uses, whereas land zoned simply as all-purpose rural can be easily used for residential and commercial purposes and have smaller minimum lot sizes. Which brings us to the next recommendation.
  2. Increase the minimum lot size in agricultural zones. Smaller lot sizes (5-10 acres) are more desirable to developers or those interested in creating large rural estates, which drives prices up on farmland, leaving those budding young (poor) farmers we discussed earlier landless. When lot sizes are kept at 35-40 acres, as is the case in King and Whatcom counties, farmland is much less desirable to developers.
  3. Purchase the development rights of existing farmland. One relatively expensive way to preserve farmland is through the county purchase of the development rights on a piece of land. A cheaper option, which a few counties have already put in place, is to create a county bank for development rights. King and Pierce County have created banks that buy the development rights on rural land and then sell those same rights to developers in urban areas, thereby transferring development from rural to urban areas.
  4. Give farmers property tax relief. In Washington state, counties may provide farmers with property tax relief, by allowing them to pay taxes on the agricultural value of their land rather than its highest potential value.  

Still, other farming organizations caution about moving forward too quickly on some of the American Farmland Trust's recommendations.

"Zoning changes will be helpful only if the development rights are purchased first," warns Dan Wood, Associate Director of Government Relations for the Washington Farm Bureau — a non-profit membership organization representing farmers and ranchers. "If you downzone a farm without first buying the development rights, farmers will have less asset value, which they need to borrow money for equipment or operations."

Wood cites a farm in Pierce County he dealt with in the mid-1990s. At the time the farmland was worth $50,000 an acre. The county, in an effort to preserve local farmland, was considering rezoning the area as agricultural land. Under the new zoning though, the land's value would have depreciated to just $5,000 an acre. The plan was scrapped. Had the county bought the development rights first, Wood explains, the farmers' economic interest also would have been protected.

To those who would pooh-pooh the idea that Washington is in a state of farmland crisis, Canty offers up examples like Bothell and Woodinville, which he says were agricultural areas just 20 years ago. "It moves slowly, but you can see it in retrospect pretty easily," he explains. "Thirty years ago the lower Green River Valley was agricultural. Now it's all built-up warehouses."

"You get homeowners moving into farm areas, and often times they object to the smells and sounds of farms," he explained. "It becomes harder and harder for farmers to stay afloat in those instances."

With all of this disappearing farmland, where is Washington's extra food coming from? Not from Eastern Washington, according to Canty, who said in an interview that farmland loss was a statewide problem. He cited a study in progress at the University of Washington, which found that Washingtonians are eating about two pounds of food for every pound produced by the state. The difference is imported from other states and countries.

The Washington Policy Center's Environmental Director, Todd Myers, says that's not such a bad thing. "It's better to grow food efficiently and ship it to the consumer than to grow food inefficiently where the consumer lives," he said. "Transportation is such a tiny portion of food growing energy used, that we're more likely to do harm than good by always buying local food."

Myers points to an energy study that found that New Zealand lamb, shipped to and consumed in Great Britain, used less energy than lamb raised and consumed in Great Britain.

"We can come up with all sorts of ways to protect farmland, but protecting farms for farms' sake isn't always good for the environment," he says. Still Meyers does concede that the plan has environmental benefits, like the value of farmland in filtering toxic run-off. "The biggest environmental problem that the Puget Sound faces is runoff from non-permeable surfaces," he explains.

Meanwhile, Canty worries that if Washington doesn't solve its farmland problem soon, the state will be caught with its pants down as the global food supply tightens. "As the world's population increases, as land available for agriculture decreases, and as water for crops decreases, there's going to be much more competition for food," Canty said. "And I think people are going to start feeding their own people first."

Full disclosure: The author's parents own a farm that benefits from Washington state property tax relief.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, Q13Fox.com and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.