A mixed grade for farm protection
Dan and Kim Hulse grow an array of fruits and vegetables in some of Pierce County’s richest soil. Their Tahoma Farms sits on 40 acres in the Orting Valley, in the shadow of Mount Rainier.
It’s part of a larger swath of land that used to be a dairy farm but is now divided into smaller organic farming operations.
It’s also part of the county’s shrinking stock of agriculture land. A farmland advocacy group in late January released a report that places Pierce County in the middle of the pack among Puget Sound counties when it comes to farmland protection.
The report, completed by the Seattle office of the American Farmland Trust, says the county has a “fairly strong” set of protections, including regulations and tax incentives. But it also faces “very strong development pressure.”
The report recommends the county take steps to increase protections, including restoring funds to an inactive agriculture resource program.
Dennis Canty, the farmland trust’s Northwest regional director, said now is the right time to talk about preserving agriculture land in the Puget Sound region.
“There’s far more interest in local food, local farms, than in a generation,” he said. “There’s also a bit of a lull in the real estate market that allows us to do far more for less in terms of land conservation.”
The report says Pierce County lost more than 118,000 acres of farmland between 1950 and 2007, the time of the last federal census of agriculture. The county had about 47,700 acres still being farmed in 2007.
Farmland protection is a timely topic in the county. Late last year, it was at the center of debate as the controversial Orton Junction land-use proposal worked its way to the County Council.
The City of Sumner asked to extend its urban growth area onto 182 acres of rural and agriculture land, making way for a mixed-use development. Supporters touted jobs and retail dollars, while opponents decried the loss of prime farmland.
The County Council eventually gave approval after the city and the majority Orton Junction property owner signed off on a deal. It included increasing the amount of agriculture land preserved elsewhere in the county to offset the development.
A coalition that includes the American Farmland Trust has filed an appeal of the council’s decision.
Dan Hulse, the Orting Valley farmer, said there was heartburn in the farming community over the Orton Junction proposal and the agreement.
But he said there are also signs in the county that are “positive and encouraging” when it comes to farmland protection. He mentioned a county program that shifts development away from agriculture land through the purchase or transfer of development rights, known as TDR. The Hulses were able to buy their Orting Valley farm that way.
Through TDR transactions, developers agree to sell farmland they otherwise might clear for houses or factories. In exchange, those developers get incentives, such as taller-than-usual building heights, to build somewhere else, such as in an established urban area.
Canty praised the TDR program. And he said the county’s Farming Assistance, Revitalization and Marketing Program was innovative. It included a “farmbudsman” to provide assistance to farmers, help market local produce and work on preserving agriculture land in the county.
The position was lost to county budget cuts a couple of years ago. The report’s recommendations include restoring funds to the program and beefing up promotion of the transfer of development rights option.
The report also encourages the county to make zoning changes such as using a Rural Farms zone to buffer prime farmland from residential areas.
Marian Berejikian, executive director of Friends of Pierce County, an environmental group that’s also part of the Orton Junction appeal, said the county shouldn’t take satisfaction in its middle ranking. It should do a better job following the land-use polices and plans it has already set, she said.
Brynn Brady, Pierce County government relations coordinator, said the county is doing what it can to preserve farmland given limited resources.
But protecting agriculture land from development isn’t as simple as the report portrays, she said.
“The county can zone land, designate the land as farmland. The county can develop a tool like the transfer of development rights program. But that pressure to convert is a (complicated) area,” she said.
Relieving that pressure will require social change, such as greater value placed on buying locally grown food – and the county can’t do that on its own, she said.
The farmland report evaluated protection measures in 12 counties in the Puget Sound area. Skagit ranked at the top, Kitsap at the bottom.
Hulse said he feels preservation of farmland should be a priority in the region. It’s an asset that benefits everyone, he said, and “it can’t save itself.”
“It’s everybody’s responsibility.”