Linda Neunzig, a farmer and Snohomish County agriculture coordinator, is surrounded by her Katahdin hair sheep at Ninety Farms. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Linda Neunzig, a farmer and Snohomish County agriculture coordinator, is surrounded by her Katahdin hair sheep at Ninety Farms. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

County farming coordinator knows agribusiness first hand

“The biggest challenge women farmers face is being taken seriously,” says Linda Neunzig.

ARLINGTON — When Linda Neunzig’s children were younger, she was a full-time farmer raising lambs, cattle and chickens on a 52-acre spread just outside town.

She purchased the farm in 2002 and named it Ninety Farms. “Neunzig in German means 90,” she explained.

Soon after, the single mother sought a loan for improvements. Bankers would politely listen to her request and ask, “Where’s the full-time job in all this?’”

“My full-time job was the farm.”

Their response to her answer was similarly skeptical: “A single woman with kids with a farm? I don’t think so.”

“Traditional banks, at least back then, shied away from farming,” Neunzig said.

Northwest Farm Credit Services, a Spokane-based cooperative, did loan her money.

“In my experience, the biggest challenge women farmers face is being taken seriously,” she said.

But that attitude may be changing as more women enter farming.

In Washington, there are more than 22,000 women farming, working nearly 5 million acres of land, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census. The state also has a higher share of female farmers — 37 percent — than the national average of 31 percent.

Agriculture is a $140 million industry in Snohomish County. The county is home to 1,400 farms whose average size is 42 acres, Neunzig said.

The county’s aerospace industry, with Boeing in the lead, has an enormous global impact, but so too does the county’s cabbage seed crop, to cite one example.

Half the world’s cabbage seed is produced in Snohomish, Skagit, Island and Clallam counties, according to Washington State University.

“We are feeding the world from our small farms,” Neunzig said.

Neunzig is also the Snohomish County agriculture coordinator, a position she’s held since 2006.

It’s a full-time job, but she still tends a flock of 200 to 300 sheep, supplying grass-fed meat to some of Seattle’s top restaurants and exporting breeding stock to Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand.

Among her duties: ensuring that the county’s 50,000 acres of designated commercial farm land remains farm land, advising county leaders on farm-related issues and helping farmers find land, markets and loan opportunities.

Linda Neunzig signals her dog, Lexi, to round up the Katahdin hair sheep at Ninety Farms. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Linda Neunzig signals her dog, Lexi, to round up the Katahdin hair sheep at Ninety Farms. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

To be sure, many financial institutions strive to provide loans to farmers and farming operations. And, in fact, the criteria used to evaluate farms is similar to other businesses, said Matt Duffy, senior vice president and market manager for Columbia Bank, headquartered in Tacoma.

That includes good cash flow and good credit scores, he said.

“The aspects unique to farming that we look at include the type of crop, expected yield, their marketing and sales strategy, and their budgeting and payment cycle,” Duffy said.

“With crops, we look for diversification, or lack thereof. Pardon the pun, but we want to ensure they don’t have all their eggs in one basket,” he said. Workforce availability can also be a factor in loan evaluations.

“In other businesses, like a clothing retailer … labor may not be as critical,” Duffy said. “If they don’t get the items sold this week they won’t rot. With some crops, if you don’t get them harvested at the right time and to market, you can lose the entire year’s work.”

While the lack of a financial track record can trip up both new and existing farmers, “Columbia specializes in working with government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try and help them secure loan assistance,” Duffy said.

From truck farms to dairies, “we have a rich history of farming,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. Supporting farmers, which includes keeping farm land affordable and reducing sprawl, is crucial.

“Linda is really our lead person in dealing with all things related to agriculture,” Somers said. “She is a farmer and a landowner and is familiar with the challenges that farmers face these days.”

Neunzig wasn’t born into a farm family. Her interest in farming grew out of her childhood love of horses and the agriculture classes she attended at Snohomish High School. “I got my first lamb when I was 16,” she said. “My dad built a pen in the yard.”

In her 20s, she worked on horse farms in California and became a licensed veterinary technician. In 1990, she returned to Washington.

As agriculture coordinator, she also organizes the Centennial Farm Project at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe, weighs in on conservation and development and takes calls from farmers worried about a “cow that doesn’t look right.”

She’s pleased that Washington State University Everett is now offering a new degree program in organic and sustainable agriculture. “It’s important to bring in new farmers,” Neunzig said.

Said Somers: “If I came back here in 50 years, I would like to see agriculture thriving here. It’s important to the community and the economy, it enriches the county.”

In the next 25 years, it’s predicted that 250,000 new residents will settle in Snohomish County, Neunzig said. “We need to have some place for them to live, but we also need to be able to feed them.”

At one point, she was trying to illustrate the importance of farms to high school students.

From their expressions, it seemed as if they couldn’t care less about where food comes from, she said.

“Standing in front of the class, I remembered that most of these kids could recall 9/11,” she said. “So I asked them, ‘Do you remember when airplanes couldn’t fly and semi-trucks couldn’t be on the road? Where do you think your food comes from them?’ When they answered the store, she countered with the fact that ‘the average store has three days’ supply of food on hand. Now what?”

“If this happens again, you sure better know a farmer,” she said. “You could just see their minds go to work on that one.”

Neunzig hopes to pass the torch. Both her children grew up on the farm. Her son attends Skagit Valley College. Her daughter is finishing a degree in finance and economics at Shenandoah University in Virginia. “She’s very interested in farming. I suspect she’ll be in agricultural in one way or another.”

What can consumers do to support local farms?

Check labels. Buy local, Neunzig said.

“Are your salad greens from Willie Green’s Organic Farm in Monroe, or California? Are your blueberries from Hazel Blue Acres in Arlington? If you’re a farmer and you’re selling more, you’ll put more land in production.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

With the Olympic mountains in the background, Boeing's 777X lifts off from Paine Field on its first flight, to Boeing Field in Seattle, on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020 in Everett, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
More 737 Max fallout: Boeing delays 777X delivery until 2023

The company also reported a record loss of $11.94 billion in 2020, much of that due to the 777X delay.

An Alaska Airline plane lands at Paine Field Saturday on January 23, 2021. (Kevin Clark/The Herald)
Paine Field makes short list of airports that could grow

Arlington’s airport is also in the running, says a state group planning for future air travel demand.

FILE- In this Sept. 30, 202, file photo, a Boeing 737 Max jet, piloted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
European aviation agency clears Boeing 737 Max to fly again

The EASA will continue to monitor the plane’s operations closely as the aircraft resumes service.

(Getty Images)
You voted: The best bakery in Snohomish County

Even during a pandemic, people still have their favorites.

submitted by Peg Tennant
Oak Harbor Farmers Market closes after more than 20 years

A new group is already planning for a new market this spring at Windjammer Park.

Weatherstripping is installed Thursday afternoon at Pallet in Everett on January 21, 2020. (Kevin Clark/The Herald)
Everett-based Pallet offers a novel way to shelter homeless

The manufacturer’s small, temporary homes have helped hundreds of people get off the streets around Puget Sound.

A Boeing 777X airplane flies over Moscow, Idaho. during a test flight Tuesday, June 23, 2020. The new model of airplane had its first flight on Jan. 25, 2020, from Paine Field in Everett, Wash. The 777X will be the world's largest and most efficient twin-engine jet, according to Boeing. (Geoff Crimmins/The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via AP)
Tax break proposed for manufacturers, but it needs a sponsor

Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber hopes to boost manufacturing across the state with a new incentive.

The strip-mall site (bottom) where Trent Development hopes to build 350 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2020 in Lynnwood, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Hundreds more apartments planned around Lynnwood light rail

In a new proposal, a developer envisions 350 units, two buildings of at least seven stories, a one-acre courtyard and a dog spa.

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2019 file photo Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, looks on as Suzi LeVine, right, the state's Employment Security Department Commissioner, talks to reporters at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The state of Washington is calling in the National Guard to help process unemployment benefit claims as officials grapple with a backlog caused in part by a fraud ring that stole more than half a billion dollars in aid, officials said Thursday, June 11, 2020. LeVine said that Gov. Jay Inslee approved the deployment of troops who will start assisting her team next week as it tries to reduce the unemployment claim backlog.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren,File)
Head of state employment agency to join Biden administration

Suzi LeVine’s departure is effective Feb. 1. A deputy, Cami Feek, will serve as acting commissioner.

Our readers have voted on a few of their favorite things in Snohomish County. (Getty Images)
The best in Snohomish County, chosen by you

Even during a pandemic, people still have their favorites.

FILE- In this Sept. 30, 202, file photo, a Boeing 737 Max jet, piloted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
European aviation agency: 737 Max to be cleared next week

The review of the aircraft “began with the MCAS but went far beyond.”

Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX, poses with a production electric engine, the magni500, at the  company's new office on Seaway Boulevard on Monday, Jan. 18, 2020 in Everett, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Electric aircraft developer magniX moves HQ to Everett

The company builds electric motors, and it’s teaming with Arlington’s Eviation to launch a fully electric plane.