Preserving Our Farmland: PCC Farmland Trust and Jubilee Biodynamic Farm

(Click on any of the images below for a larger view, and
take a virtual tour of Jubilee Biodynamic Farm here.)

What does farmland protection have to do with what’s on your dinner table? Or maybe it should be put this way: What does what’s on your dinner table have to do with farmland protection?

Think about it… Today, the typical American prepared meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside the US. What if we had to grow our food “back home?”

Our Disappearing Farmland

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, Carnation WA

According to American Farmland Trust, between 1982 and 2007, more than 23 million acres of America’s agricultural land was lost to development. During that time the US population grew 30%, while developed land increased 57% – nearly twice as fast. Our food is in the path of development: 91% of our fruit and 78% of our vegetables are now produced in “urban-influenced” areas.

While farmland is disappearing across the country, it is possible to understand the critical issues by examining what is happening in just one state. Washington is a large agricultural producer with farmland at high risk. This is just one example; development is encroaching on farmland everywhere.

From the 1950s to the present Washington lost 25% of its farms and 20% of the farmland; 805,000 acres of farmland has gone to development, related non-agricultural uses, and speculative non-cultivation.

And for the 19 Western Washington counties that surround Puget Sound – where 78% of the state’s population resides – the loss has been even greater. The region has lost 55% of its farmland over the last half century. There are now 17,000 farms in the region comprising 1.02 million acres, down from 2.3 million in 1950. Out of those million acres, only about 316,000 are harvested cropland.

Suddenly it’s clear that we’re not feeding ourselves from nearby farmland, and we’re not likely to be able to. Western Washington currently produces only about 43% of the region’s food requirements by weight. However most of that is exported. In 2010, Washington exported over $6.1 billion worth of food and agricultural products. Leading products include: fresh fruit and vegetables, wheat, seafood, processed foods, meat, dairy products, and wine.

Jubilee Farm Homestead

Even under the best of conditions, using all available potential farmland, Western Washington could produce only about two-thirds of the required food by weight.

Our neighboring farmers face challenges from all sides – demanding market, the changing climate, and developers waiting to buy prime farmland to build new homes on. Then add in the fact that our farmers are getting old!

The average age of America’s farmers is around 60 years old. As these farmers get older, the USDA projects that about 70% of our remaining farmland will change hands in the next decade. And who will get their hands on it? To ensure that in the future we will have farmland on which to grow our food, especially farmland close to urban areas, a variety of programs are in place to prevent building on land that should be feeding us.

Celebrating the PCC Farmland Trust preservation of Jubilee Farm

In King County there is the King County Farmland Preservation Program (FPP). The FPP ensures that some of the county’s remaining prime agricultural land will stay undeveloped and available for agriculture. By acquiring development rights, the county places covenants on the property that restricts its use and developments. These agreements are contained in an agricultural easement that imposes contractual obligations on both the property owner and the county.

The easements are placed on the property in perpetuity; they remain in effect even if the property is sold, rented, bequeathed, or annexed by another jurisdiction. Although the covenants do not require that the property be actively farmed, they prohibit any activities that would permanently impair the use of the property for agriculture.

Farmland preservation programs – as well-intentioned as they are – don’t limit impacts from surrounding land use that can impede farm operations. These programs don’t protect valued resources withing a larger context, within a watershed, for example. Development on slopes above river valley farms is shown to increase storm water runoff, contribute to increased flooding, and degrade water quality.

PCC Farmland Trust

Taking a tour of Jubilee Farm

PCC Farmland Trust is a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to “secure, preserve, and steward threatened farmland in the Northwest…” The Trust was founded by PCC Natural Markets as an independent organization, and receives funds from PCC Natural Markets and other companies that donate to the Trust.

Rather than just establishing easements on rural lands, the Farmland Trust also works to place – and keep – farmers on the property to produce food for the local food system.

Since 1999, the Trust has saved seven farm properties, totaling 1049 acres, that support 11 working organic farms.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm (the little red dot) is surrounded by housing development.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, Carnation WA, has put more than 200 acres into conservation easements through the King County Farmland Preservation Program with help from the PCC Farmland Trust.

Erick and Wendy Haakenson, and their son David and his wife Kristin, are farming in a floodplain skirted by the Snoqualmie River. An active farm for more than 20 years, the farm is home to one of the largest and oldest (17 seasons) Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in the state.

Protecting valuable flat and well-drained soils is critical. Jubilee Farm is surrounded by development and bookended to the north and south by two public golf courses strategically placed to attract high end residents to the river valley.

The golf courses, which are permitted in the floodplain under existing regulations, are actually high impact uses contributing to additional road traffic and detrimental to both adjacent wetland habitat and water quality.

Here’s what Erick has to say about the partnership with PCC Farmland Trust to protect Jubilee farm:

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm under fall flood waters.

The only reason our valley hasn’t been industrialized is because of flooding. Flooding has been in some ways a curse for farmers here, but also a blessing; it has prevented the kind of industrial sprawl that transformed the Kent valley from a farming community into what it is now [light industry].

I am quite convinced that at some point flooding will be controlled in our valley, as it was in Kent. It may not be in my lifetime, but I expect that within David’s lifetime the urban demand for water will become so great (climate change, loss of glaciers, exhaustion of aquafers) that we will no longer be willing to watch winter rains and floodwaters flow untapped into the Puget Sound. The ways and means exist – even without a massive dam like the Howard Hanson on the Green River – to capture the water that would otherwise flood our valley, and transport it to areas of need.

When flood control comes to our valley, maybe the citizenry will be wise enough to enact land-use policies to protect farmland from conversion to non-agricultural uses. But I wouldn’t bet on it. That’s why Wendy and I have joined forces with both the PCC Farmland Trust and King County to establish covenants that have now been placed on our farm, and will be in effect in perpetuity. These covenants are recorded on the title of the farm. Together they play a crucial role in insuring that this farm will continue to exist as it does today.

The covenant with King County initiates a relationship between our farm, County government, and every citizen in King County. This is significant because it means that every person in the County is now a stakeholder in any potential transaction regarding this farm – there can be no back-room “deal” in which land is quietly transformed from agricultural use to some other use.

The combination of the County and PCC Farmland Trust covenants has given us what we want: The County contribution is that the agreement involves every citizen in the County. The PCC Farmland trust’s contribution is the requirement that the land be farmed in perpetuity, and that it be farmed organically. We could not have asked for more.

More Reading

PCC Farmland Trust – learn more at the Trust’s website

PCC Farmland Trust Protect Jubilee Biodynamic Farm From Development (Video), Kelly Sanderbeck, Annual Fund Manager for PCC Farmland Trust, talks about the Trust and how they work with farms like Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, Carnation WA, to preserve farmland in Washington.

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, Monthly Newsletter, September 2012, Erick Haakenson writes about his reasoning behind working with PCC Farmland Trust to preserve Jubilee Farm.

Farming on the Edge

Can Western Washington Feed Itself? (Slides)

Can Western Washington Feed Itself? (Report)

Jubilee Biodynamic Farm: Close Community Connections

Food Miles: How Far Your Food Travels Matters