Can county cultivate farming?

As local farmers struggle to make living off land, food advocates, some officials say Clark County can do more to ensure their survival

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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As local farmers struggle to make living off land, food advocates, some officials say Clark County can do more to ensure their survival.

Rob Baur remembers many weekends and summer breaks in the 1960s working on his family’s 30-acre pear orchard outside of Ridgefield. Much of his time there he spent pruning trees, and complaining about the chore to his father.

Decades later, he’s still pruning the same trees.

“Somewhere my father is laughing at me,” he said, holding a pair of pruning shears in the orchard.

At its peak, more than 4,000 pear trees grew in the orchard. Today, about 30 remain after the price of the fruit dropped dramatically in 2000, and Baur said his family made the call to use tractors to pull out most of the trees and burn them in bonfires.

Economic lessons like that abound in Clark County’s farming community. Long intertwined with the region’s history and identity, farming has enjoyed decades of success with the rich soil and temperate climates, but for the last 40 years agriculture has been in decline.

The total number of farms in the county fell from 2,101 in 2007 to 1,929 in 2012, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. The market value of products dropped from $52 million to $50 million.

Valerie Alexander, the owner of Coyote Ridge Ranch outside of La Center, said that for about 20 years she’s been farming organic vegetables, fruits and eggs on a small farm and selling them to local markets.

“I barely make money as it is,” she said.

Since tearing up the trees, Baur said houses have sprung up on nearby farmland. Baur and Sue Marshall, his wife, sell the fruit from their remaining 30 trees through a U-pick and to Chuck’s Produce, but they end up losing money.

Dealing with growth

Clark County, with its proximity to booming Portland, is experiencing its biggest growth in population in a decade, driving up the price of land and putting more pressure on agriculture.

“Houses are a lot more profitable than carrots,” said Jordan Boldt, executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Market. “Where agriculture falls into that will be a really interesting situation.”

Farm advocates say that Clark County has reached a pivotal point. While there is some cause for optimism, they also wonder how, or even if, the county will preserve this part of its heritage.

The issue has caught the attention of the county council, and federal statistics show that farm incomes in Clark County are on the upswing, showing there is demand for locally produced food.

Paul Klitsie, the chef and owner of Willem’s on Main, said he buys local vegetables and meats for his restaurant knowing he can usually get just what he wants. He hopes that the area starts to take food more seriously.

“Big leaf spinach from a local farm, if you know how to cook it, will taste 15 times better than a bag at Fred Meyer, and there is a story behind it,” he said.

‘One-way ride’

Agriculture put down roots in Clark County in the early 1800s after the Hudson’s Bay Company set up its Fort Vancouver fur trading post, which included vast gardens. Later, settlers streamed into the area to produce hops, potatoes, hay, dairy products, poultry and beef, and fruit.

In fact, at one point here a particular fruit really shined: prunes.

Warren Neth, executive director of Slow Food Southwest Washington, said that prunes were such a large part of agriculture in the county in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s that the crop was celebrated by crowning a Prune Queen. The crop dwindled after the market for prunes withered and a blight struck, but Prune Hill in Camas remains a county landmark today.

The prune isn’t the only crop to have shriveled. In the last half-century, agriculture in the county has generally declined as more land has given way to housing as the population grew.

“Loss of good farming land serious problem,” reads the headline of an October 1971 article in The Columbian that described how rapid development was encroaching on farmland. Other headlines, such as “Farmers fight development” and “Does agriculture have a future in Clark County?,” also appeared in Columbian issues of that era.

A 2008 report written for Clark County by economic consulting firm Globalwise laid out how the sector has shrunk. The report found that the county hit its peak farm acreage in 1950 when 220,000 acres, more half the county’s land base, was used for agriculture. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the county’s net farm income reached a peak in 1973 at $54 million (adjusted for inflation). In 2015, total net farm income was $24 million.

Dairy farming, which has a rich history here, also has declined. When adjusted for inflation, the value of dairy products produced in the county in 1997 was $21.5 million. That dropped to $14.5 million by 2012.

Gordon Euler, a program manager with the county’s Community Planning Department, said that the county’s 2007 comprehensive plan, a state-required document that guides local planning, zoned 35,000 acres for agriculture. The 2016 plan reduces that to 34,000 acres.

“It’s a one-way ride to something else,” he said of the zoning changes. “There is always pressure to develop any land that’s flat and near a city.”

Six hundred of those lost acres are from the rezoning of the Lagler dairy farm along Northeast 117th Avenue in Brush Prairie into an industrial land bank. Local environmental advocates Friends of Clark County, along with Futurewise, a Seattle-based land-use group, are challenging the plan. They argue that it rezones too much farmland. The groups are also challenging the plan’s reduction of the minimum agricultural lot size from 20 acres to 10 acres, arguing that larger lots are needed to keep farming sustainable.

“I don’t want to give you an interview that’s all doom and gloom,” Dennis Lagler, co-owner of the Lagler dairy farm, said before declining to comment further. “But that’s what it looks like for dairy farming in Washington state.”

Small vs. big

Clark County’s farms have always been small compared with their Eastern Washington counterparts. In 1931, The Columbian ran a brief article with the headline “Farms Getting Smaller,” stating the average farm size had decreased from 63 acres in 1920 to 55 acres in 1930.

The 2008 report from Globalwise concluded that, “The historical farm statistics show that Clark County has always been dominated by small farms,” but it noted that “small keeps getting smaller.”

That trend holds true nationwide. According to the 1974 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the average farm size in Clark County was 87 acres. The most recent figures from 2012 put the average farm size at 39 acres. Of the 1,929 farms in Clark County, not even 10 farms are larger than 800 acres.

Marc Boldt (no relation), a former blueberry farmer who is now chair of the Clark County council, said that the county is getting away from commodity-based agriculture, where the producer grows essentially one crop and either makes or loses money.

He said there just isn’t land or capital for large-scale agricultural operations in Clark County and the future of local farming will be small. Boldt recalled his father working a day job and coming home to manager his family’s berry farm.

“We’re kind of getting back to that in a way,” he said.

But making farming economically viable will be difficult. The 2008 consulting report from Globalwise drew dour conclusions about its viability, citing the high cost of land, farmers being unable to access credit and an overall unprofitability.

“Demand by metropolitan area residents is growing for locally produced food and agricultural crops but this demand is not sufficiently strong to reverse the trends and allow farmers to expand with profitable operations in the county,” concluded the report. It also stated that: “Significant intervention by government is required if farms in Clark County are to be saved.”

Jordan Boldt, of the Vancouver Farmers Market, agrees that large-scale agriculture isn’t the future. But now he wonders how big a farm needs to be to stay viable.

“I’m really curious to see what the break-even point will be,” he said.

New roots

Neth, of Slow Food Southwest Washington, said that since World War II the country’s food system has been designed to support large-scale operations meant to produce the largest amount of calories. He said that small-scale operations haven’t been provided with the same infrastructure, but he said he hopes that will change.

In 2008, Clark County convened an Agriculture Preservation Advisory Committee that made recommendations intended to keep agricultural land in production. It recommended that the county establish special districts and create programs to transfer development rights of farmland to people who want to farm it.

“If you ask me it’s a do-or-die (situation),” said Marc Boldt. “We have to figure out how farmers can make money.”

Boldt, of the county council, said that the recommendations were ignored by the county. But he said he wants to revive its efforts and look into helping small farmers access equipment and capital. He also said that farming will come up as the county discusses updates to its comprehensive plan.

“It’s not just preserving agriculture for agriculture’s sake, which is important too, but it’s also a strategy for economic development,” said County Councilor John Blom. He said that preserving agriculture contributes to Clark County’s quality of life, which he said is important in attracting new employers.

Doug Stienbarger, director of the Washington State University Clark County Extension, said that farmers are increasingly selling directly to consumers or restaurants. They’re also making more money in agritourism and diversifying with value-added products.

Lyle Stanley, the owner of Gee Creek Farm, has adopted a similar strategy, offering bread, soups, herbal medicines and other products he sells at local markets.

“We make enough to get by but there’s not a lot of money left over,” he said.

April Thatcher, who co-owns April Joy Farm outside of Ridgefield, wrote in an email that agriculture is “resoundingly” viable and she and her husband live off of the income from selling organic vegetables, herbs and pork.

Baur and Marshall are also hoping to revive their farm by planting hazelnut trees, a crop that’s easy to maintain and harvest. They also noted that this isn’t the first time there’s been anxiety about preserving Clark County’s agriculture.

“My mom was fighting the same issues back in the ’70s,” Baur said.