Dear Stan Flemming,
I've long wanted to write this letter to you yet the demands of self-employment have been high on me since mid-October. I thought you brought up a very salient point at the County Council meeting then, and I'd like to address it now. You asked about Orton Junction: "Why isn't anyone farming this land now? If it was being farmed it would be totally a different issue."
I agree. The short answer is that the land is owned by Investco, and that no young farmer wants to sign a lease for a place that is owned by a development company.
I've learned from community members (notably Bob at Woodland Park Greenhouse) that Investco's pattern is this: to buy land that is not zoned for their intended use, to coerce the county to change the zoning, and then to develop it. They repeat this in whatever county they work in. It is much cheaper than of course buying land for their intended uses at the start.
But your question in general brings a lot of thoughts to my mind. You've also said that your parents were farmers and that you see the interest in farming decline in this country. And that I think is the bigger issue to talk about.
I do not see what you see. I run a business based on sustainability education, and my work overlaps with what is generally called agriculture. What I see are young farmer events that are too full for their venues and burst out into parking lots, I see conferences on sustainable farming that gather hundreds of people, I talk to young people everywhere that dream of growing their own food, and making a profit at it. What I do see happening is that the kind of farming is changing dramatically.
What do we mean by 'farming?' I'd say for the purpose of this conversation there is traditional farming (great-grandparents homesteading), conventional farming (lots of land, big equipment and debt) and sustainable farming (small profit-producing homesteads). The traditional farms were unprofitable compared to the 'get big or get out' mentality. But then the conventional farms don't offer an appealing lifestyle (and coincidentally aren't great for the planet anyway). So the new generation, the generation of Tilth Producers and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA's) and Farmer's Markets, is to steer back towards extended families that can make a profit from a diverse, locally-connected farm and live there too. This trend is rising by leaps and bounds.
The USDA estimates that organic productions increase by 15 percent annually, but this also includes large California-type landholdings. According then to the Census of Agriculture, small farms, not necessarily Organic, are growing by 4 percent annually.
So why isn't this number even bigger? This was recently addressed by a survey put out by the Young Farmer's Coalition. Young farmers top obstacles: lack of capital and access to land.
Washington State's FarmLink program recently reported that they have 300 New Farm Operator/Land Seeker members and have roughly 63 current Landowner/Current Farm Operators on their property list.
And why don't we see these young farmers knocking down the doors of Pierce County Council saying they'd buy Orton Junction if given half a chance? Because for it's high price, the land doesn't offer the same progressive community that counties like Whatcom, Skagit, Thurston, and Jefferson do.
But I live in Pierce County and love it, as do you. And the soil here is superior to many other places. We do have an explosion of CSAs and Farmer's Markets, albeit slower than other communities. And every young farmer who moves here (the latest being Filbert Acres, John & Alison Nichols) causes great celebration.
The question we're facing is what kind of community do we want to have? One based on long-term sustainability or one based on short-term 'development'?
I am continuously surprised that our county is Still having this conversation. Dan Roach I think said that the Orton Junction issue was one of the biggest issues of the county for the year. Really? Don't we have anything better to do in this county than contemplate paving over more farmland for more big development? I'd love to see us move on to what actually creates long-term financial sustainability in this area, and I've seen very few conversations of that caliber happening.
And for what it's worth, the new TDR program would please (nearly) everyone if it wasn't attached to a bad land deal. As would a community center and a medical building in our half-empty downtown. The land deal as it now stands makes happy only a select few people and corporations who will ransack our community for 2.5 million in up-front costs and untold millions in externalized costs.
But I get off of my main point: the future of food-growing in this region is rich. I have a garden less than a mile away from the Orton Junction area. I easily grow food year round without pesticides, without watering, and with a few hours of labor a week. In the meantime I run my own business. Food just grows.
I'd like to see us get beyond farming: to diverse gardens in our lived-in areas, to bigger gardens on the outskirts of our towns, to animal husbandry incorporated at appropriate scales throughout the entire system, and a return of our hinterlands to the forests that support our salmon runs. But as long as our land-use pattern in this county continuously destroys even farmland, the farther away that reality seems.
I acknowledge that you feel like you've made the best choice possible for our communities. I see holes all through the current plan, and my ideal may seem just too extreme to be realistic. I dream of a county (and city!) council that will not tolerate abuses to the town's sustainable long-term design. I look forward to the day when the conversation will not be “why should we protect this farmland?” but “now that we've met all our needs within our towns/gardens/farms, how can we restore more forestland?”
Divine Earth Gardening Project