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Preserving Farmland

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This week a study suggested that one of the most important issues in Whatcom County is the preservation of farmland. The Whatcom County Council has talked for years about the importance of agriculture; however, many of the issues faced by farmers in Whatcom County are beyond the capability of the county council to influence. I have a different take on the issue, a perspective that comes from trying to start a farm in Whatcom County. My family is starting Heritage Lane Farms on a 4.5 acre parcel north of Lynden. The challenges are immense and come from sources many would not expect. I do not pretend to speak for many of the large dairy and raspberry farms in the County. They have their challenges that come from different sources. I would suggest, however, that if agriculture is going to be preserved in Whatcom County it will have to come from new farmers, like myself.

One of the biggest challenges for new farmers is access to capital to get started. Although it was fairly easy to get a loan for the property, many have a difficult time paying the price for enough property to adequately farm. The bigger problem is the capital needed to buy basic supplies and getting started. The Federal Government has a beginner farming program to provide operating and capital loans, but their programs consider new farms to be those that have been farming from 1 to 10 years, not much help to a true beginning farmer. Washington State also has a beginning farmer program, but they do not finance operating expenses, leaving it to the individual to figure out where to get the cash, and they want to finance larger projects in the $150,000 to $450,000 range. I went to a local bank, but the usual response is we like to finance businesses that have a track record. I finally financed our farm through a loan against my life insurance policy. If we are serious about preserving farmland, then we need to get serious about providing access to capital so those that want can get started. If we are going to require farmers to pay for their own starting capital and operating expenses, then we severely restrict the number of future farmers.

The next challenge is the infrastructure necessary to support small local farmers. The infrastructure is designed for large farms and it is overwhelming to try to break into food markets with a small farm. There are CSA’s and farmer markets, but these are very competitive and only go so far before we need to be able to influence the large institutions like schools and grocery stores. Neither has the ability or time to deal with multiple small farms, they need someone to aggregate the production of a number of small farms and then provide them the food. It is also expensive to do your own food processing, we will spend a fair amount of our capital putting in place a washing and processing facility that meets our needs, but only used part of the year. We also have issues with processing livestock as there is only two meat processing plants in the area that have USDA inspectors. The mobile processing facility in Skagit is booked and the Whatcom County facility is not sufficient. Local agriculture will be confined to farmers markets and CSA until the infrastructure is in place to allow sales to schools and grocery stores. Although Sustainable Connections and other organizations are doing wonderful things to help small farms, they are primarily aimed at CSA’s, farmers markets, and local restaurants; we need to quickly move beyond those markets.

The final issue was a complete surprise to me and still leaves me a little bit baffled. The biggest issue I have faced and still struggle to deal with is the agriculture community themselves. Because we have sheep, many of the local dairy farmers are up in arms because of a rare disease that can be passed from sheep to cattle. There has been work behind the scenes to try to foil our plans. I have also been told by a local farmer that I was not a real farmer and that when I had been farming for 10 years then maybe I would be legitimate. I am not a real farmer, but I have a commitment to local agriculture and local food, and I am willing to put my time and money behind my commitment. It is very tough when those that should be happy someone is starting a farm, in turn deride and try to derail your efforts.

None of these issues can be dealt with by our county government; they need to come from the commitment of a number of people that are committed to local agriculture. As nice as it would be to have large new farms started in Whatcom County using 20+ acres, the reality is the economics do not support it. The cost of starting a new dairy farm is prohibitive, and most of the new berry farms are being funded with money coming from British Columbia and require more than a million dollars. The commitment needs to be to those farms in the 2-10 acres that can be economically viable as a part-time farm or someone that does not have a lot of expenses and can live on little money. Our 5 acre farm will supplement our income, but will not allow me to ever retire on the money. A farm large enough to support a family is large enough that it requires tractors and other expensive capital, which then requires a larger farm and employees to help manage the amount of work that needs to be done on a 10+ acre farm.

If we want to get serious about agriculture then as a community we need to take the following steps:

1. We need a local fund that farmers can turn to for small amounts of capital. This will not come from government or banks, but must come from local investors that are willing to invest in agriculture and not Wall Street.
2. We need people and investors to get an additional meat process facility and vegetable processing facility in place dedicated to small farmers. This in turn can be a spring board to getting access to institutions like schools and grocery stores.
3. We need the local agriculture community to be helpful and provide mentorship to people like myself.

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Apr 27, 2009

Craig,

There’s an interesting article in today’s Herald business section regarding the Whatcom Farm Incubator Project.  Not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but here’s a link:

http://www.bellinghamherald.com/602/story/888189.html

Good luck with your farm.

Larry

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