More Snohomish County farms turn to tourism to stay alive

One by one, the dairies disappeared.

The cows were sold, the land was developed. And the farmers’ sons and daughters moved to the suburbs that pushed their way north from Seattle.

That was north Snohomish County two decades ago. Now, a small group of farmers are staging a resurgence, hoping to preserve farmland close to Washington’s urban core and rejuvenate the county’s love affair with agriculture.

They aren’t angling for a rebirth of the dairy industry; most come from dairy-farm backgrounds and can easily list the reasons why hundreds of farms were shuttered in the last few decades.

They just want people to come spend the day in Arlington — drive north on I-5 about 30 or 40 miles. They want them to pull off Highway 530, get out of their cars and walk down rows of green vegetables. Pick strawberries, smell lavender. Maybe pet a horse or a friendly goat named Oreo.

“We’re trying to get people from the city. So many people don’t remember Grandpa’s farm,” said Connie Foster, the proprietor of Foster’s Produce and Corn Maze in Arlington. (She and her husband are the proud owners of Oreo and two other goats.)

The Fosters, along with five other farming families in Arlington and Marysville, are marketing the “Red Rooster Route” for the first time this year, hoping to share their visitor base and draw new tourists north from King County. They provide the map and details of how the trip will play out; guests bring plenty of time and some spending money.

The route is the latest sign that Snohomish County agritourism — the now-standard term for farms open to the public — is growing up, getting organized.

Just look at what happened on the two miles of Highway 530 between I-5 and downtown Arlington. When the Fosters converted their half-century-old family dairy farm into a produce market and agritainment destination one decade ago, they were surrounded by traditional farms. Then five years ago, a u-pick vegetable garden and Garden Treasures nursery opened up down the road. And last year, the Biringer berry farm started drawing guests across the highway.

Those three farms, along with Lavender Hills in Marysville, the Bryant Blueberry Farm &Nursery and Ninety Farms (both in Arlington), form the Red Rooster Route.

They’re starting small, but in time, they want to develop the route to include other farms that are moving away from conventional farming.

“If they want to keep their farms, agritourism and agritainment is what’s happening,” Connie Foster said.

City people like it

The Biringers were in the agritourism business long before the term was coined.

Mike Biringer is a second-generation farmer, and he and his wife Dianna opened their Everett fields to the public thirty years ago.

They’ve weathered floods, freezes and market slumps, and Dianna Biringer says they can weather economic recession, too.

Last year, the Biringers opened their second farm across the street from the Fosters.

“Last year, with the gas prices, people didn’t want to drive up,” Dianna Biringer said

She has a Midwest quality about her: blond hair, blue jeans and a knack for navigating bumpy farm terrain on four wheels. Late last week, she paused while touring the berry fields to point out that the strawberry plants were moving from bloom to berry.

A few berries were starting to form, green and hard — and late, because of the cold winter. Soon, thousands of visitors will traipse through the fields with cardboard boxes.

They might pause on their way out to buy a jar of honey, but the Biringers try to limit the frills.

“We don’t get too fancy, but it seems like the city people love it,” Dianna Biringer said.

Agritourism was gaining popularity in Snohomish County for the first part of this decade, but the recession hit some farms hard, said county tourism director Amy Spain.

The tourism bureau produces a farm-trail map every spring, and fewer farms were open to the public this year than in 2008, Spain said.

“Some farms have gone out of business or closed, other farms have made the decision not to be open to the public,” she said.

Those that remain are getting more savvy to marketing, and many are developing hands-on “experiential” activities for visitors.

‘My son’s generation’

Organized agritourism has a strong precedent in the Northwest, maybe most prominently in the Hood River region near Portland, Ore., where a band of fruit farmers developed and marketed the “Fruit Loop” almost two decades ago.

Farming in Hood River was declining in 1992, when the Fruit Loop opened for its first season with just a handful of farms. Now, the tourism route has nearly 40 participants and is billed as one of Oregon’s most popular attractions.

The Red Rooster farmers are aiming for a small-scale farming revolution, similar to what happened in King County’s Snoqualmie Valley near Carnation and Monroe in the 1990s.

“We started small, with six people,” said Mike McCrorie, who owns Lavender Hills Farm with his wife Carol. “What we want to do is welcome new members if they physically grow things.”

The group has nonprofit status and is applying for tourism-related grants to help with advertising.

The idea of preserving that land for farming was what spurred Mark and Patricia Lovejoy to buy an old dairy farm in Arlington’s Island Crossing five years ago. Now, Garden Treasures’ nursery and u-pick fields are open eight or nine months out of the year, a small-scale sustainable farm that utilizes the old dairy’s barn, milk parlor, even its manure reservoir.

Mark Lovejoy grew up in Arlington on a more conventional farm and watched the dairy industry fail. Many of his childhood friends moved on to lives that don’t revolve around soil and harvest cycles — but those lives weren’t for him.

“Most of the famers’ kids starting to do different things because their parents lost their business or lost their farms in the milk industry,” he said. “I really wanted to give back, help keep this farmland around. Because it might not be so important for my generation to have this farmland, but I think my son’s generation is going to need to have this farmland here in Island Crossing.”

Dante, the Lovejoys’ 3-year-old son, has never known a home besides the farm. His favorite toys include a small shovel and hoe.

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