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.
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; email@example.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods