Preserving farmland by farming

Those who’ve lived in the San Juan Islands for many years remember farms large enough to sustain a herd of dairy cows and operate a dairy or to raise large numbers of hogs, sheep or cattle and grow fields of grain to feed them.

Today, old-timers and those who’ve arrived more recently see a different farming landscape: very few large farms, more acres of open, unused farmland and, here and there, smaller farms raising specialty crops and/or small herds of livestock.

The viability of today’s farms is the mission of the Agricultural Resources Committee of San Juan County (ARC). Begun in 2005 and staffed by a volunteer board and a paid coordinator, the ARC advises the County Council about “regulatory, economic, land use, environmental, and educational matters” and “specific efforts and projects that should be pursued to preserve and restore agriculture as a viable part of San Juan County’s economy.” (www.sjcarc.org/about.asp)

I talked recently with Peggy Bill, new ARC Coordinator, about current ARC projects. A long-time Lopez resident with a farming background, Peggy is optimistic about the ARC’s role in addressing regulatory issues that affect farmers, preserving farmland, and developing markets for locally grown food.

“According to a recent statewide study, regulatory issues are the biggest concern among farmers,” Peggy explained.

Here in the San Juans, zoning regulations affecting farm stands and farm stores are a concern. “Currently according to county code a farm stand or store is allowed on lands that are zoned rural farm and forest but not on those zoned agricultural resource land. We’re trying to get this resolved,” she said “because direct sales at the farm are an important revenue source for farmers.”

Another regulatory issue she’s particularly pleased to have worked on is farm intern status. Currently farm interns are only allowed if associated with matriculated colleges or universities. Through the recent efforts of ARC and Washington State Senator Kevin Ranker, state legislation has been adopted to provide a pilot farm intern program in San Juan and Skagit Counties. This legislation allows interns on small farms (less than $250K annually) and allows the farmer to pay less than minimum wage if there is a clearly defined educational component that’s been certified by Labor and Industry.

“Internships are time-honored way for people to learn the business of farming,” Peggy explained, adding that, “this legislation takes us one step closer to state-wide intern program.”

Turning to farmland preservation, Peggy said, “our farmland must be protected from conversion to non-farmland uses. One of the ways to do that is to help make agriculture more viable thus keeping the land active and productive.”

ARC is “stepping up efforts to connect farmers with land. More and more landowners have farmland that needs to be farmed. The challenge is connecting those landowners with farmers who are knowledgeable and are seeking land to farm.” And on farmland preservation side, “we are partnering with the Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust to support their commitment to farmland conservation. We’re also working with the assessor to make sure the county offers tax programs that encourage protection of farmland.”

And then there’s the food county farmers produce. “Another priority for us is the marketing side,” Peggy said. “Several years ago ARC launched the Islands Certified Local program (ICL) to increase the visibility of locally produced products. We have members, logo, program but no money. I’m talking with the Northwest Agricultural Business Center (NABC) to explore options for working together to develop and expand the ICL program.”

There’s also the idea of a permanent farmers’ market, first introduced in the ARC and now under the Ag Guild (www.sjiagguild.com/). “That’s still a big priority for the ARC.”

Peggy said: “it’s an exciting time to be working on agriculture in San Juan county, certainly full of challenges. The groundswell of interest in local foods is creating better markets for local farmers and a chance to revitalize our agricultural economy. If anyone has ideas or questions, they can contact me at peg@sjcarc.org or call 378-2906.”