It will stay a farm forever —

It will stay a farm forever

By John Dodge
The Olympian

One of the largest farms in south Thurston County will remain just that in perpetuity, thanks to a conservation easement on 510 acres to be managed by the Capitol Land Trust.

In addition, the land trust and Thurston County have teamed up to purchase outright another 211 acres of riparian habitat along the Black River, an impenetrable swath of property not used for farming.

This means that the 721-acre Black River Farm south of Littlerock will remain much as it is today, rather than being chopped up into a rural housing development.

Conservation of the dairy farm and riverfront property has been more than 10 years in the making and the product of countless negotiations between past landowners, the current property owner, Ralph Plowman, and nearly a dozen government agencies and conservation groups.

Keeping the farmland intact fits with the Black River Initiative, which is an effort to protect and conserve thousands of acres of what is considered one of the most unique lowland river systems in the Pacific Northwest, noted land trust executive director Eric Erler.

The area consists of a complex of wetlands, bogs, streams, prairies, forests, farms and timberlands that is home to hundreds of unique fish, wildlife and plant species. In the past 20 years, about 6,000 acres have been permanently protected via outright purchases of land and conservation easements, which restrict landowners from developing their properties.

Dairy farmer Plowman has operated Black River Farm since 2001 and purchased it two years ago. He runs a continuous parade of milk cows through his milk parlor – 800 head in all – and grows corn for silage on the surrounding 330 acres.

“I think the conservation groups and the farmers often have the same goals – we want to keep the land in farming,” Plowman said.

The sale of the farm conservation easement and riparian zone, which netted roughly $2 million, helps Plowman pay down his debt and invest in his farm.

“Everything we did before the sale, we can still do,” he said. “And we didn’t need the riparian zone – I never go down there.”

Land trust conservation project manager Laurence Reeves said keeping traditional farm and forestry activities alive on rural lands is one of the emerging goals of conservation groups.

“There’s not many properties like this sitting on the Black River,” he said. “The key is the property will never be subdivided.”

Plowman said the decision to tie up the property in farming was made easier by the fact that his son, Adam Plowman, wants to stay in the dairy business.

“And I’d like to see it stay a farm myself,” he said.

The Black River Farm adjoins the Thurston County Glacial Heritage Preserve, a 1,000-acre property that is the largest prairie preserve in the county.

State and federal grants make up the bulk of the project funding. Besides the land trust, county and Plowman family, others who worked on the preservation of Black River Farm include The Nature Conservancy, the state Recreation and Conservation Office, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, the Natural Resources Conservation Office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state departments of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife and Parks and Recreation, the Chehalis Tribe, South of the Sound Community Farmland Trust and PCC Farmland Trust.

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