Friday, December 19, 2008

Local goverment and farms

King county Washington spends a fair bit of time talking about encouraging farming. They seem bewildered when the total farmed acreage in king county decreases every year.

King county is a very urban area. It is the most populous county in the state. Seattle dominates King county, and Seattle voters basically ignore the rural areas. Well, ignore isn't strictly true. Seattle would prefer that people who live outside Seattle pay the taxes on the property, and keep it green and pretty so that people from Seattle can see it when they drive by. Green and open space, paid for by someone else. That's a great goal.

Most of the farms in King county are operated by people who have at least one other income off the farm, if not two. This means that the farm is a second job for most people -- so people who are farming are working 80-90 hours a week between their full-time job and the chores required for a farm. When you add a regulatory burden -- even one that is supposed to "help" or "encourage" farming, you're dealing with the farmers sleep time, or free time, which they consider precious. No wonder people stop farming.

I'll be speaking at a public comment forum coming up, but meanwhile I answered a survey that they put out asking about farming in the future. The public comment forum i'll speak at is being held on Jan. 8, 7 p.m., in the Madrona Room of the Carol Edwards Center, 17401 133rd Ave. NE in Woodinville.

From the short survey, their questions and my answers.

What do you need to support your farm?
I need a customer base that can afford to purchase relatively expensive products. I need to be able to have buildings to support my farm activities. I need to be able to change my operations to suit the market -- different animals, different practices, different crops. I need to be able to live on or near my operation, or to grow my operation large enough to hire someone to live on or near my operation. I need a small slaughterhouse that will allow me slaughter animals that are USDA inspected within a 2 hour drive of my operation.

How is your operation changing?
I am a new farmer. I have been doing this for 3 years. My operation is growing.

What trends do you see in local agriculture?
Land is being cut into increasingly smaller chunks. No one will ever put together large parcels for agriculture, so the trend will be to have smaller and smaller chunks of land and smaller and smaller farms in the western Washington region, and king county in particular. In eastern Washington it is popular when land is subdivided to add CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions) that basically outlaw certain agricultural activities in land otherwise zoned agricultural. I need land that has reasonably clear boundaries on its use -- the base county zoning, for instance -- and I need my neighbors to not be able to control what I do on my land. I will respond to the market, but I need the flexibility to to do things that are common/good/best practice without fear of neighbors being able to block or interfere. King counties current setback requirements for pigs to be 90' from property lines means that you cannot keep pigs on lots less than an acre wide, or smaller than an acre in general. Remember that farms will be getting smaller and smaller as time goes by. Setbacks will gradually eliminate pigs from the possible farms in king county. Pigs in particular are known as "mortgage lifters" -- they are livestock that are a proven winner for urban markets. King county is hostile to small pig farmers.
what are your plans for your farm property in the future?

I am buying land in counties other than king to sell to consumers based mostly in king county. I would much rather operate and sell in the same county, but the current king county land use regime makes this impossible.

If you'd like to participate in the survey you'll find it here:

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