County should look at why farms are struggling

Contrary to the perception created by Snohomish County that county agriculture is doing well, is the reality that agriculture has been loosing $1 million dollars in production every year for the last twenty years.

Ironically that is the period from 1992 to 2012 when the state Growth Management Act was enacted with the requirement by law that the county has to protect and enhance the agricultural resource industry.

The county has been able to hide this reality by quoting census report figures that do not adjust for inflation. In 1992, ag production stood at $98 million dollars, which translates in inflation-adjusted dollars to $161 million just to stay even in 2012. However, the real ag production figure is $139 million, a loss of $21 million over 20 years. When comparing the 2002 production figures with the 2012 figures, we have to realize that the trend of the demise of agriculture in Snohomish County is accelerating to a loss of $2.3 million dollars per year. An astounding figure that is contrary to what the county has been portraying.

There are many more facts in the 2012 agricultural census reports that prove this trend.

The net income (sales less expenses) of the average farm in 2007 was $6,299 which would be $6,975 in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2012. In reality, farm expenses exceed income resulting in a negative figure of $1,108. There were 1,118 farms in the county with net losses.

Other telling figures are: We lost 232 farms during that 5 year period and we lost 60 full time farmers amounting to a loss of 11 percent! We lost almost 6,000 acres of farmed land. Furthermore the census figures show that 1,100 farmers had reduction in sales of $10,000 per year. There are many more interesting facts to be learned from the 2012 census report, but hardly anybody reads or studies it. The Sustainable Land Strategy Committee met with census officials in 2014 to vet the above quoted figures and found them to be correct.

We also looked at neighboring counties. The average farm in Skagit County, with 1,070 farms, showed a net income (sales less expenses) of $18,376 on 106,000 acres. In Whatcom County 1,702 farmers showed an average income of $24,943 on 115,831 acres. Thurston County is the best comparison with 1,336 farmers on 76,638 acres with an average net income of $ 8,062 per farm. All fared substantially better than Snohomish County farmers.

Some blame the fact that the county’s efforts to protect salmon as required by another GMA goal has caused the loss of 6,000 acres of farm land; however that would only explain the loss of about 11 percent, while the real loss is 18 percent since 2002. It also does not explain why the average Snohomish County farm works with a loss.

Most people will blame the loss of dairy farms, which is not the cause. We only lost two dairies but increased the cow count by 5 percent. However, the sheep count went down over 30 percent and cattle count went down 57 percent. These factors are indicators of the problem.

Small farmers have given up farming in Snohomish County due to the fact that they are denied every basic infrastructure component that is needed to farm economically. Most of the designated farmland is in the flood plains with regulations that are anti-agriculture, preventing the basic needs of farming, such as construction of fences, barns and power poles. Not to mention the regulatory problems to keep proper drainage and maintenance of ditches. County staff will tell you that all of this can be done one way or the other but ignore the fact that the regulatory cost is prohibitive. Farmers are treated as developers, contrary to the Right to Plow initiative that declared that farming activities are not development activities by definition.

The county does the talk, but does not do the walk.

In 2012 they expanded the Shoreline Management Area unnecessarily, resulting in 90 percent increase of regulations. The county has maintained a federal subsidized flood insurance program for the benefit of home owners, with such strict regulations that prevents farmers to insure their buildings and subsequent bank credit to build in the flood plains.

Other efforts such as the Agricultural Advisory Board, seems dead-ended simply through the fact that it is completely controlled by county staff with predictable results. This year they have missed or cancelled three of their monthly meetings by members not showing up. Staff has made it abundantly clear that they have neither time nor funds to address the real problems that critical areas have on ag land and do not think there is any reason for addressing that issue.

Most other counties have voluntary compliance systems in place. In fact, currently the County Council is considering the last nail in the coffin by eliminating the voluntary Farm Plan. Many bad decisions have led to the demise of agriculture in Snohomish County, a process that will be hard to reverse. It is hard to argue otherwise when reading the figures of the census report.

John Postema is president of the Snohomish County Growers Alliance.

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