In 1954, San Juan County had 50 percent more farms than today, and these farms were over twice as large. What does this mean?
It means that we now have only 27 percent of the farmland we had then. Within the memory of the average county farmer, farmland has shrunk from two out of every five acres to one out of nine. We lost 9 percent of our farmland just from 1997 to 2002. It’s no wonder the County Council named agriculture a top priority in 2008.
We all know why this is important. “Food Security” sounds like fashionable phrase, but it means we can feed ourselves when ferries break or transportation costs rise. In this century of global warming, sustainable farming practices can sequester tons of carbon in the soil. Once farmland is developed, it is lost forever. For those involved in our tourism industry, who will come to look at our glorious views of housing lots?
What can we do? Plenty! There are farmland preservation programs in place now, and planning to do. The San Juan Preservation Trust, the County Land Bank, the San Juan Islands Conservation District, WSU Extension, and the County Assessor can help. Wait, the County Assessor? Yes. The County Assessor administers the state Agriculture Open Space Taxation Program, which included 12,389 local acres in 2007. This program assesses working farms as farmland instead of residential lots. While not a permanent solution, it’s also not an answer to cash crunches at tax time. For information contact the Assessor’s office.
The San Juan Preservation Trust and the Land Bank have been working to preserve farmland since 1984 and 1990, respectively. Usually the landowner voluntarily sells or donates certain rights to their land to one of the two organizations. These “conservation easements” are written with the landowner’s wishes in mind, while protecting the land from development. Agricultural easements already exist around the county. If you have questions ranging from new farm enterprises to green building methods, the San Juan Islands Conservation District and WSU Extension can help with the “how” of keeping farms alive.
Nobody has the perfect solution to preserve our rural character, but more brains bring better ideas. Town hall meetings will convene this spring. Bring your questions and comments to the meetings or to the organizations above. At least enjoy the food and views of working farms. Think of it as tasty insurance.
Tim Clark is with the Agricultural Resources Committee.