Saturday, April 4, 2020
April 4, 2020

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Donnelly: Productive Heritage Farm could be enhanced

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Do most of us, especially kids, know where our food supply comes from? Likely not. As the rural and urban worlds divide, city people lose their connection to the land. They take for granted the complex needs of a local food supply — fertile land, water, birds, bees and human knowledge of the best farming methods.

Clark County owns a unique asset — the 79-acre Heritage Farm — where these elements unite in a tranquil setting along 78th Street in Hazel Dell. The question county councilors now aim to address is whether Heritage Farm can become fiscally self-sustaining. Recent council deliberations on the subject are raising alarm among farm supporters fearing unintended consequences.

At Heritage Farm, a plethora of organizations perform good deeds. The result is the closest thing in our county to the embodiment of Utopia envisioned by idealists centuries ago. In 1873, Clark County designated Heritage Farm as a poor farm, where the impoverished could improve their lives through farming. The parcel’s dedication to the poor continues to this day.

Today, WSU Extension (under a contract with the county) manages 84 community garden plots and conducts agricultural research. The Clark County Food Bank cultivates 10 acres using volunteer labor from Churches in Partnership. The Master Gardeners Foundation hosts a yearly plant sale to help fund advanced knowledge of how to garden better and more productively. Partners in Careers assists veterans, the Pacific Northwest Queen Bee Rearing Club maintains a small hive, and Clark College uses the farm for some of its classes. Birds thrive in the farm’s wetlands.

Visitors who walk the multi-use trail often praise the farm’s uniquely peaceful aspect. Based on society’s aspirations, Heritage Farm may be the best used land in the county.

But back to budget reality. The county council is tasked with poking through every nook and cranny of expenses to shore up the general fund. So, the councilors are justified in trying to make the farm self-sustaining — but carefully.

Council Chair Eileen Quiring has stated repeatedly that there is no plan to sell the farm acreage. Fears that such a plan may be in the works echo from 15 years ago when pro-farm activists united against a plan to sell the property.

Now, discussion centers on the 2019 Draft Update to the 2010 Farm Master Plan, largely completed last July. The draft has been laboriously vetted: three public meetings, input from a Farm Advisory Team, two community meetings, an online questionnaire, communications with a 274-person email list, presentations before numerous neighborhood associations and the Historic Preservation Commission, two work sessions of the council itself, a work session and a hearing before the Planning Commission.

That is thorough vetting and the 2019 Update Master Plan should be adopted. The council should not waste efforts tinkering with the farm’s broad guiding principles or objectives.

Future efforts should go toward a business plan to chip away at the infusion of county funds to support the farm. The county spent approximately $565,000 on the farm in 2018 and slightly more in 2019, of which $310,000 went to WSU Extension.

On the positive side, the farm is highly productive; 500,000 pounds of vegetables have been produced over six years, supplying 60 food pantries. Community contributions from various sources — grants, fees, in-kind — total over $2 million per year. But these value-added contributions largely bypass the general fund.

Creative minds at county and farm should brainstorm revenue enhancement for the general fund, possibly from many small schemes. Hoping to find a “silver bullet” is unrealistic. To maintain the farm’s unique value, many hands make light work.

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