WOODINVILLE — Semi-trucks, shipping containers and pallets of food are at the center of a lease dispute between Snohomish County and a nonprofit delivering critical resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Farmer Frog was ordered to find a new home by the end of February. The county-owned land it leases at the Paradise Valley Conservation Area near Woodinville was no longer a suitable hub, according to the Snohomish County Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“Where all this major operation is happening — all the large-scale trucking and more intensive use, all the pallets, containers — all of that is in an area not leased by Farmer Frog,” said Tom Teigen, director of the department. “It isn’t part of what they should be utilizing on a daily basis and it also affects the primary parking area of the park.”
Among the towering trees and winding trails of the 800-acre conservation area, Farmer Frog has operated a working farm and education center since 2017 from the site of a 19th century homestead called Paradise Farm.
Before the pandemic, the site was used for teaching kids the science of growing food and for helping start school gardens. Faced with the COVID crisis last spring, Farmer Frog took on a different role, assisting in the emergency distribution of food.
Farmer Frog’s 7.5-acre site became the command center for an operation that has supported more than 2 million Washingtonians since the pandemic began less than a year ago.
“This is what we do now,” Farmer Frog founder Zsofia Pasztor told The Daily Herald last summer as she gestured to 50,000 pounds of watermelon en route to households, neighborhood groups, churches and food banks.
As Farmer Frog’s impact grew, the large-scale distribution caught the attention of its landlord.
Teigen said the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (formerly known as the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department) began discussions with Farmer Frog in the fall about the improper use of the site.
The county alleges the nonprofit is using land it doesn’t lease and said the ongoing activities are incompatible with the area’s environmental needs.
The big trucks don’t mix well with the hikers, bikers, equestrians and nature lovers embarking from the Paradise Valley trailhead that neighbors Farmer Frog’s site, Teigen said. He also has concerns for the salmon population the conservation area was originally acquired to protect.
“It is not a good situation and we want to work with Farmer Frog to help them resolve this and at the same time, clearly this can’t continue at this site, it is completely an inappropriate use of this site,” Teigen said.
Farmer Frog disputed the county’s determination. It shared its opposition and anticipated consequences of a move in a study released earlier this month.
“This request may hurt and hinder the Tribal, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), refugee, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities of our County and State,” the study reads in part. “Therefore, Farmer Frog is asking county leadership and all other state and local agencies involved to collaboratively find a solution that is equitable and supportive of our communities, while also supporting us in our important work at Paradise Farm uninterrupted.”
Zsofia Pasztor said the operation isn’t high-intensity, commercial use, as the county portrays. Instead, she said, no more than five or six trucks pass through the site on a given day.
Szabolcs Pasztor, director of administration for Farmer Frog, said the land in contention has always been used by the farm and the lease has no mention of truck traffic limitations.
The county blames Farmer Frog for parking-lot potholes and a damaged gate, but Szabolcs Pasztor said those eyesores have long been issues the county refuses to fix.
“We’ve had for years this history that Snohomish County doesn’t want to invest into Paradise Farms,” she said.
The imposed eviction day of Feb. 26 came and went without consequences, but a resolution doesn’t appear imminent.
Teigen remained steadfast that a move was necessary to fix the damage, and Zsofia Pasztor said she wants a solution that meets the needs of both parties.
“The county still insists on having us move, and it is not a simple thing,” Zsofia Pasztor said. “We are looking at the location and what we need in order to function at least as well as we are. It is not an easy thing to find a space like that and then we need funding for the move.”
An earlier offer from the county to house Farmer Frog free of charge in two buildings at the Evergreen Fair Park was revoked, and Teigen said the county has no suitable alternatives.
“Quite honestly, there isn’t a good site to house this intense of an operation,” he said.
For now, food distribution continues from Paradise Farm. Zsofia Pasztor said Farmer Frog is helping thousands of people each week and does not intend to stop.
“The services we provide are not possible to fill in with food banks and other programs — they are already maxed out,” she said. “The crisis is still going.”
Farmer Frog plans to host a meeting with the community in the coming weeks to discuss options for the nonprofit moving forward.
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.