The many hurdles from farm to table

From environmental regulations to expensive land, local farmers have a lot on their plate

On a hot weekday morning the Goose and Gander Farm, located in the Snoqualmie Valley, was already up and running as those who work the land were busy preparing food orders for restaurants.

Meredith Molli wore a large sun-brim hat, blue jeans and a loose cream colored shirt as she helped bag and weigh vegetables grown on her farm. The farm is located between Redmond and Carnation on roughly 60-acres of land, of which some 56 is technically farmable, but due to difficulty in repairing drainage systems, even less can actually be worked. That’s not a unique experience in the flood-prone lowlands of the valley.

“The farmers who own the land in this valley are the stewards of this land,” Molli said. “… No government from the county all the way up to the federal government is making that easy for us.”

In talking with farmers across the valley, a few concerns keep popping up: drainage issues, permitting and land prices.

Farmers need to be able to drain their land of irrigation, storm and flood water quickly to plant and harvest their crops. The problem is those same irrigation ditches that can become clogged with debris and sediment also serve as habit for the endangered Chinook salmon, which use the waterways as juveniles. What this means for farmers is that their irrigation ditches turn into protected species habitat, making basic repairs much more difficult to permit for.

“In some cases there’s really so many restrictions that you can’t do anything,” Molli said.

In Molli’s case, the previous owners of the farm had let the drainage system deteriorate and require more intense repairs, another common story in the valley.

Erin Ericson owns Tractor Farm outside of Fall City. She and her husband harvest around 400 fruit trees, mostly Asian pears, on 4 acres. She said some farmland owners simply don’t keep up with maintenance, while others purposefully let their land flood to facilitate duck hunting, which can fetch higher returns than farming the land. This in turn leaves less farmland available for purchase and drives up the cost of buying land, especially for small farmers. Ericson and her husband rent their property. It also means they’re stuck in a balancing act between not making major improvements with no certainty of future ownership and sustaining their level of land stewardship.

“Right now we try to invest our labor and take our profit from our product,” Ericson said as stood near her orchard on a recent afternoon.

For her, keeping the land well-maintained for agriculture use is important. She said if farmers let the condition deteriorate it may never return to working farmland.

Preserving farmland is a stated goal of King County, although it is often in direct conflict with its obligation to preserve and enhance salmon habitat. In 1979, county voters approved the Farmland Preservation Program, which allows the county to purchase development rights from willing landowners. This means that while the land is privately owned, it cannot be developed for uses outside of agriculture or open space.

However, Steel Wheel Farm owner Ryan Lichttenegger said that farms being flooded for duck hunting along with equestrian facilities are both permitted under the agricultural preservation program. This again places farmers in competition for affordable land.

“It’s something that rich people can pay for and it takes up valuable food producing land,” he said.

Meredith Molli harvests kale at the Goose and Gander Farm near Carnation. The 60-acre farm had a dilapidated drainage system before she purchased it. Aaron Kunkler/Staff photo

Meredith Molli harvests kale at the Goose and Gander Farm near Carnation. The 60-acre farm had a dilapidated drainage system before she purchased it. Aaron Kunkler/Staff photo

Lichttenegger is a tenant farmer, like many in the valley. He has been looking for around 10 acres to buy but has been unsuccessful so far. He was in negotiations with his landlord to purchase some acres, but his landlord sold the development rights for the whole 210-acre farm to the county, which stipulated that it would not be subdivided.

“It makes it impossible for a young farmer to afford,” Lichttenegger said.

Ted Sullivan, director of the county’s farmland preservation district said that while he had heard frustration from some farmers over land being used for non-commercial agriculture use, he didn’t know if it was growing. Duck hunting is allowed on farmland as long as it doesn’t harm the soil. Some farmers choose to allow it during the fall and winter when they’re not farming.

“Yes, there are some rumblings that are going on in the community,” Sullivan said.

The Snoqualmie preservation district stretches from roughly Fall City to Duvall and is comprised of around 600 parcels spread out over 14,500 acres. Cynthia Krass, executive director of the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance, said the bar to qualify as an agriculture use is low. The Preservation Alliance works with farmers and state and local governments to find ways to promote and enhance farms in the valley and help with regulatory hurdles that plague many farmers.

One example of this work is by helping farmers get permits needed to clear and maintain drainage systems and pipes through a process made available through the county. They try and work on clusters of plots at one time for efficiency, undertaking projects that repair and enhance farming capabilities.

“It’s not impossible, it’s just extremely complex, so our approach is to concentrate work in areas that are connected so that we have the greatest return on investment,” Krass said.

In response to competing interests between salmon and farms, a working group was formed in 2012 called Farm, Fish and Flooding. It sought to create and implement ways to protect salmon, reduce the effects of flooding and allow farmers to more easily maintain their land. The group presented a report to the county last summer laying out 40 suggestions and an agreement to work towards further solutions. The group is currently broken into working groups which will suggest specific actions in a few years. One of the main solutions farmers are seeking is less costly and clearer regulations.

In addition to owning the Goose and Gander Farm, Molli also serves on the Fish, Farm and Flooding group. While she is working on the group, she said the county has not to this point found a way to balance environmental and agriculture concerns.

“There isn’t a plan to make both of those things happen, those are conflicting objectives,”Molli said.

After finding land and navigating a confusing permitting process, the final hurdle for local farmers is simply getting their produce to customers willing to pay for food grown next door. Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Cooperative general manager Brad Johnson said this can be a challenge, even with a relatively new food box program.

“I think farmers are challenged, and this includes our farmers and probably all the farmers in the area, challenged by getting their produce to market,” he said.

Both Ericson of Tractor Farm and Lichttenegger of Steel Wheel both said finding customers was a challenged, though there are roughly 80 customers who are signed up for the food boxes, which are available weekly. The community supported agriculture boxes are filled with vegetables, fruits and eggs grown at local member farms. While it may be more convenient popping into a grocery store, Lichttenegger said their produce is fresher.

“It’s the least amount of miles our food has to travel for folks who want to purchase it,” he said.

Despite all the challenges that come with farming in King County, local farmers are hoping to stick with it. Both Ericson and Lichttenegger hope to ultimately purchase their farms. They hope to make substantial improvements, preserve the land for agriculture into the future and pass a farm on to their children.

“This is really important to us to maintain investment in the land,” Ericson said.

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