Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Seattle Gets to Farmland Preservation Through Great Food

Seattle Gets to Farmland Preservation Through Great Food

King County program is lesson for metropolitan Michigan

November 26, 2002 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Patty Cantrell
  Leaders in the Seattle region, who see farming as an essential component of the economy and quality of life, are revitalizing agriculture by connecting people to food that comes from local lands, and the hands that work it.

SEATTLE — Unloading boxes of fresh vegetables from one of his delivery trucks, Andrew Stout says he and his partner had little idea what they were doing when they arrived in this Pacific Northwest city in 1995 to start an organic vegetable farm and direct-marketing business.

They had one year of growing experience in Minnesota behind them and a notion that, even though their ground was rocky and rough for vegetables, they could build a profitable business on the unmatched taste of their deep-green lettuce and sweet, crunchy carrots.

It worked. They sold $1,600 worth of orders their first week out tantalizing restaurants and grocery stores with bountiful boxes of food. Now Full Circle Farm grosses more than half a million dollars in sales each year, employing 15 people full time, plus seasonal help.

But two years ago, these young, ambitious, profitable farm entrepreneurs almost gave it up because the going was tough on their six acres of rocky land. “We were at the point of calling it quits if we couldn’t find something better,” Mr. Stout says.

A Strategy That Works
That’s when FarmLink, one facet of a comprehensive King County strategy to support local agriculture, stepped in to keep Full Circle Farm in the area. FarmLink matches new generation farmers like Mr. Stout with landowners who want to sell or lease their property for agriculture. In just the last three years, FarmLink has made 11 such connections, adding to King County’s reputation as a center of new entrepreneurial programs to keep farmers farming and put productive farmland to work.

The story of Full Circle Farm is one of FarmLink’s success stories. Mr. Stout and his partner stayed in the area and expanded their business because they found a prime 80-acre place 30 minutes from Seattle, complete with valuable outbuildings, utilities, and organically certified ground. “I attribute our finding this great place solely to FarmLink,” Mr. Stout says.

Like a farmer who grows juicy, champion tomatoes by tending microorganisms that enliven and strengthen soil, King County is growing its future prosperity by working to keep farming going on the county’s small but prized base of farmland.

With 1.7 million people, King County is the 12th-most populous of the nation’s 3,141 counties. Agriculture takes up just 3 percent of its land and accounts for less than one-half percent of its jobs. But King County sees farming as an essential component of its overall economy and quality of life. Local leaders have been working hard since the late 1990s to revitalize agriculture not only by campaigning for the preservation of green space but on building a deep metropolitan connection to that land. They’re making that connection through the food that comes from the land and the hands that work it.

“Our focus is, ‘Who cares if you save farmland if it’s not being farmed,” says King County agriculture commissioner Roger Calhoon. “We have to find ways to make it possible for the farmer to get on the land and succeed.”

600 Acres So Far
King County’s results are mostly anecdotal, made of glowing testimonials from urban consumers and rural residents, as well as Seattle’s success on quality-of-life scorecards, where green and lively spaces — from fertile fields to busy neighborhood farmers markets — make the competitive difference. Still King County’s farm success is palpable and measurable, says Steve Evans, who works for the county as a “farmbudsman,” helping agriculture entrepreneurs develop their businesses and expand their markets. “In addition to preserving land, we’ve gotten about 600 acres of vacant farmland back into production since we started in 1996,” he says.

King County’s active support of small farm development and local food promotion — in addition to continued farmland preservation work — is a valuable lesson for counties in and around other metro areas, such as Grand Rapids and Detroit.  The King County program is a useful example of how regions can reconnect city and suburban dwellers with the value of farms and farming through the value of food. It confirms that innovative local programs focused on farm entrepreneurship can help invigorate the regional farm economy so that it returns profits to rural families, protects valuable land, and builds an irresistible sense of community.

“Our message isn’t just about quality-of-life and open spaces,” says Mr. Evans. “Our message is that it benefits you — you the consumer, the taxpayer, the local resident — to put a face with your food. It helps preserve those farms you see out there, and it helps those farms protect habitat and water quality and to produce food that may be safer and that is fresher and tastes better. People understand that, and they buy that.”

A Lesson for Michigan
The path to success in King County began in the same place that Michigan’s limited entrepreneurial agriculture programs now find themselves. Many citizen-led efforts to save Michigan farmland from sprawl continue to fall too often on the twin swords of urban apathy and rural farm demise. City and suburban dwellers no longer have much personal connection to farmers and farmland because most are two and three generations removed from their agriculture roots.

Opponents of public programs to save farmland, such as the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids, score points when they point out that fewer farmers would sell their land to development if more could make a living on their land. This argument was one of the bullets the Association used in recent weeks in an unsuccessful bid to thwart a Kent County proposal to purchase the development rights on half the county’s remaining farmland. Under the homebuilder pressure, a county subcommittee rejected the proposal. But the full commission, on a 14-5 vote on November 26, reversed the subcommittee and approved a scaled-back version meant to protect 25,000 acres, or a quarter of Kent County's farmland. It is the fourth county-wide farmland preservation program in Michigan.     

Seattle’s King County faced a similar argument in the mid-1990s when farms continued to struggle despite the county’s success in purchasing development rights on 30 percent of its total farmland base of 42,000 acres. Leroy Jones, now retired from his farmland preservation work with King County, remembers: “After preserving the land, farmers started coming back to us saying ‘Please help us with these other issues.’”

Those other issues are summed up, say farm economists, in the fact that the conventional system of producing bulk food for big companies that do all the processing and marketing is no longer economically viable for small and medium farms, which account for most of the farm families and farmland. Only the largest farmers deliver large enough quantities to make a profit on the low market prices that global markets pay for tankers of milk and tons of grain.

Mr. Jones says King County recognized that one way for area farmers to stay in business, and even expand, would be to go around the mass markets and sell high-quality food direct to local and regional consumers. That’s how the county got involved in such activities as the FarmLink program, which includes business training for farmers, and in developing and promoting farmers markets. King County now has 13 farmers markets, more than double its 1995 total of six markets. A significant number of farmers earn a full-time income at the markets.

“We have worked very hard on alternative marketing strategies for our farmers,” Mr. Jones says.

Another King County-backed strategy for increasing the success rate of local farms is a 10-county effort to sell consumers on food grown by farmers in western Washington’s Puget Sound area. With its “Puget Sound Fresh” label, managed along with FarmLink by the nonprofit Cascade Harvest Coalition, King County not only generates sales for local farmers, it also is increasing public support of farmland preservation. It’s doing that by increasing public awareness of where food comes from and why it tastes and feels better when it comes from Puget Sound-area farmers.

“All we have to do is make contact between the farmer and the consumer and we have the sales,” says Mr. Jones. “Puget Sound Fresh and other support programs are our preeminent tools now to keep farmers on these lands.”

Patty Cantrell, an economist and journalist, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s New Entrepreneurial Agriculture project. Reach her at patty@mlui.org. For more of Ms. Cantrell's first-rate reporting on agriculture and farmland conservation see the Farmland Protection section of the Institute's Web site.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org