Crystie and Keith Kisler spent many blissful days picking blueberries in a Chimacum Center Valley field, before eventually purchasing the farm they so often frequented. They would later rename it Finnriver, after their former partner's son Finnegan and their son, River.
“It was a bit of a fantasy island experience. You know, when you’re not running a farm, they always look so peaceful,” said Crystie Kisler.
A similar feeling struck Rebecca Slattery upon first seeing the serene plot of land in Indianola that would become Persephone Farm.
The realities of farm life were not far behind for either the Kislers or Slattery, who both knew to expect the backbreaking work, the unpredictability of the weather and even the sudden changes in conditions that can cause a farmer to lose an entire crop. This is old news for farmers.
However, talk to a small-scale farmer these days about their challenges and discussion will range more widely, from taxes to zoning, and climate change to agricultural and food safety policies.
A recent Kitsap County Agriculture Alliance workshop gathered local small farmers to discuss new regulations in the Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) certification. The certification works alongside mandatory regulations set by the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed by President Obama in 2011, which aims to prevent U.S. food contamination.
The proposed GAP regulations could be harsh. Farmers worry that they will mandate the trace-back and documentation of every piece of produce — who picked it, on what date, at what time and in what plot — as well as the layout of produce processing rooms (concrete floors and a specific number of sinks might be required). Regulations on the growth, harvest and packaging of produce are also under review, and will affect large corporate growers and small farmers alike. Depending on how the chips fall with the approved regulations, certain requirements could be a deal-breaker for small farmers who can't afford the expense of such adjustments.
“I think it’s hard when policies come down that are made for large scale production, [which] when applied to small scale farms, doesn’t make much sense. One role doesn’t fit all sizes,” said Kinsler.
“One way that these GAP standards really come to an absolute paradox or contradiction with our farm’s philosophy is that it’s really anti-wildlife,” said Slattery. “Some of these GAP standards are trying to make your farm less habitat-friendly and more sterile, monoculture in the name of food safety."
Under GAP standards, farmers may have to take measures to eliminate birds from occupying farmland. Bird poop on spinach can cause salmonella, but many biodynamic farmers rely on birds to eliminate bugs without the use of pesticides. Even using horses to till the land could pose an issue.
“You can regulate yourself to death, and I think sometimes that’s what is happening,” explains Carol Kraus, who runs The Farm at Swan’s Trail with her husband in Snohomish, Wash. “The fact remains that food is grown in the dirt and the soil is rich and bountiful. And yet, there are always some things that can happen.”
As stringent national policies have become more pervasive in the lives of small farmers, county governments and agricultural advocates across Puget Sound have begun to provide economic and regulatory assistance.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Puget Sound region has lost 60 percent of its farmland since 1950 — often as a result of development pressure or farmers relinquishing their land in the face of economic hardship. Washington law, particularly the Washington Growth Management Act, authorizes county governments to plan for the use of land within their borders and directs counties to adopt regulations to conserve agricultural lands.
According to an American Farmland Trust study on farmland protection, Pierce, King, Snohomish and Whatcom counties — each with above-average farmland protection programs — lost more than 100,000 acres of farmland between 1950 and 2007.
For local governments, time, competing interests and the legislative process have been the biggest challenges to preserving farmland. As conservation efforts vary from county to county, regional and statewide agricultural organizations like the King County Agricultural Commission, Northwest Agricultural Business Center, Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network and Puget Sound Fresh have stepped in to develop cross-jurisdictional support for farmers.
In Snohomish County, farmer Linda Neunzig fills this role as the Agriculture Coordinator for the county's Economic Development Division. “Farming is like anything else," Neunzig says. "It’s a business that has to evolve and the infrastructure around farming has to evolve too.” Neunzig is also the owner of Ninety Farms, a 50-acre sustainable farm in Arlington, Wash, where she raises natural grass-fed USDA beef and Katahdin lamb.
“The recession has created a need to diversify, and every farmer has a story that brings value to their product,” she says.
In Snohomish County, a flexible list of acceptable agricultural uses provides farmers with a range of options for making money on their land. Neunzig also notes the importance of appointing agricultural ombudsmen — somebody who understands farming, to address the concerns of small farmers.
“The county and the policies supported by [Snohomish County Executive] Aaron [Reardon] have really been beneficial and made it possible for us to diversify, in a way that doesn’t depend on putting seeds in the ground,” said Kraus, who has recently begun to host weddings at The Farm on Swan’s Trail as part of efforts to diversify use of her farm.
“You still want to be able to farm, but making a living just doing that can be really challenging. A lot of things are out of our control: The influx of foods from outside the country coming in has made it difficult to self-produce. The loss of processing makes it difficult for farmers to get their product from the farm to the store and, because food coming in can be so cheaply grown, you can get priced right out of the market.”
“The deck is so stacked against us because food is so unrealistically cheap in our country. To be able to make any money as a small scale, we just have to work ourselves to the absolute bone, but we love our work,” said Slattery.
Efforts to diversify for small farmers may also include adapting to the regulations in place. Many small-scale farms — including Slattery’s Persephone and Kraus’ Swan’s Trail — continue to sell directly to CSA and farmers market customers to avoid the expenses and middle men involved in selling to stores. Customers who focus on buying direct and local make a huge contribution to the farm’s business.
These adjustments have created new business models for local farms like Kisler’s Finnriver Farm, which adopted conservation efforts as part of their farm's model. These efforts helped them secure low-interest loans, which enabled Finnriver to develop their cider production — a Finnriver crop that has become quite popular in King County farmers markets and restaurants.
“In the last ten years, Snohomish County changed the face of agriculture in [this county]," says Neunzig. "It was dying ten years ago. It was written off completely, and today, Snohomish County has been the leader of economic viability for agriculture. We’re getting more production, more farmers every day. It’s so much in part to the supportive climate of our county government.”
Neunzig has given presentations on her work for Snohomish County’s Agricultural Initiative in neighboring Pierce, King, and Skagit counties.
“We’re all friends, we all work together. The county lines sometimes don’t mean as much, because you have friends on the other side. Whether you’re in farming or in government, we really need each other to be economically viable.”
The recession has been a double-edged sword in these efforts. It is harder for cash-strapped county governments to prioritize agricultural preservation, but the issue of local economic vitality and local foods has come to the forefront of public discussion.
The concluding recommendation in the 2012 farmland protection study by American Farmland Trust touches on the same sentiment: In consideration of the lull in real estate development and the groundswell of interest in local foods and farm, there is no better time to ensure the protection of farmland. It is a mission that extends beyond farmers to local governments, advocacy groups and all those who eat.
This story has been updated to make corrections since it first appeared.