Farms: Back to the future

As an early asparagus harvest gets under way in Eastern Washington, and farmers markets open on both sides of the Cascades, there’s more good farm news to reap.

Two recent reports found that farm employment in Washington increased in 2009, and that the number of farms grew 6 percent between 2000 and 2008. The confluence of the recession, the interest in local, sustainable and organic foods and the highly publicized incidents of contaminated foods, have helped farmers survive and even thrive. The state Office of Farmland Preservation reported:

  • Net farm income is the highest it’s been in nearly 20 years.

    Ninety percent of farms are owned by individuals or families.

    The number of farmers markets has more than doubled since 1998.

    Meanwhile, thanks to another booming industry, there are now more than 650 wineries in Washington (valued at about $3 billion annually).

    The state Employment Security Department reported that employment in the agricultural industry grew last year, with nearly 12,300 more seasonal and permanent jobs added between January 2009 and January 2010. And while long seen as low-paying jobs, some farmers say it isn’t so.

    “Agriculture has always been mislabeled as the minimum-wage payers of the American economy, and it’s not true and never has been,” Jeff Gordon of Gordon Brothers in Franklin County told the Tri-City Herald. “We pay good wages for good people to do a good job.”

    The Office of Farmland Preservation notes that the average age of farmers has increased over the decades, and says their children aren’t necessarily interested in taking over. That may be true. But it’s apparent that other people, many of them young, are quite interested.

    Mark Lovejoy, owner of Garden Treasures in Arlington, said he gets between five and 10 inquiries about employment a week, largely from college graduates interested in organic farming, Herald business writer Amy Rolph reported last week. Lovejoy was able to take on two more employees last year. His direct-to-consumer organic farm now has a staff of five.

    Everett Community College associate faculty member Laura Wild worked with organizers of the Everett Farmers Market to expand the season last fall at the college. It’s now hosting a spring market on Wednesdays, a precursor to the market’s regular summer run on Sundays starting on May 30, The Herald’s Sarah Jackson reported.

    Wild is co-teaching a class this quarter called “Sustainable Food Systems: What to Eat and Why it Matters.”

    It’s hard to find a subject that currently enjoys greater consumer interest, or holds greater promise for our economic and physical health.