Farm on the down: less agriculture and it’s different

  • By Scott North
  • Friday, July 29, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

It’s the time of year when some politicians work out by running their gums and slicing their hands through the air like shovel blades cutting into rich, dark soil. If past election seasons are an indication, some of that arm waving will be about what efforts have been made to preserve Snohomish County’s agricultural heritage.

While there is no doubt that area farmers are more networked and conferenced and comprehensively planned than in the past, there is more to the agriculture story:

• Farming, the activity that feeds us all, has been withering in this community for decades. That is due largely to land development and national economic shifts that saw population migrate, along with the jobs, from rural to urban areas. The number of farms in the county peaked at 6,200 in the early 1940s. Best estimates today calculate about 1,670 farms dotting the local landscape.

• Still, the acreage used for agriculture has registered a modest uptick. There were about 8,200 more acres of farmland in the county in 2007 compared to five years earlier, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average farm size grew about 4 percent, to 46 acres.

• But most farms here are for hobbies, not commerce. Data suggest that 77 percent had annual sales valued at less than $10,000. That means the majority of farms here exist to provide a rural lifestyle. Their primary cash crop is property taxes.

• Fewer than 150 farms brought in crops or livestock valued at least $50,000 a year. By contrast, median family income here is estimated at $63,600.

• In recent years, the county’s agricultural production dipped from $126.9 million to $125.6 million.

• Farming that produces milk and other dairy products, once the dominant form of agriculture here, still brings about $37.3 million a year. Poultry, eggs and cattle combine to account for about $20 million. Vegetables, fruit and grain bring in another $8 million. But the biggest money — nearly $48 million — comes from growing things that support urban and suburban lifestyles: nurseries, greenhouses, floriculture and sod. Yes, grass.

• And when it comes to grass, growing the illegal kind also is remarkably lucrative. As Diana Hefley reported two years ago, Snohomish County is the state’s second most-popular locale for indoor marijuana growers. There are lots of homes to buy or rent, easy access to electricity and plenty of privacy. In 2008, drug detectives dismantled enough grow ops to produce pot valued at up to $145 million a year.

• The community has farmer’s markets and agri-tourism and coalitions urging consumers to buy food from local sources. There are press releases and Facebook announcements. But as telling, there also was an auction late last year. A family that spent four generations farming in the Snohomish River valley sold their dairy herd. Preserving agricultural heritage just didn’t pay the bills.

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