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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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In Skagit County, farm owners split over proposal to stop hosting weddings

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The Saltbox Barn, seen from the air, is an events business, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Mount Vernon, Washington. The married couple who owns it risks going out of business if a code change in Skagit County goes through, prohibiting wedding venues from operating in the county where it is zoned for only agriculture on farmlands.
The Saltbox Barn, seen from the air, is an events business, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Mount Vernon, Washington. The married couple who owns it risks going out of business if a code change in Skagit County goes through, prohibiting wedding venues from operating in the county where it is zoned for only agriculture on farmlands. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

In Skagit County, agricultural land use is taking center stage as the community battles over a code-change proposal that could limit what activities farms are allowed to host.

Through its Agricultural Advisory Board and Planning Commission, Skagit County is vying to restrict agricultural land only to farming and limit agritourism. The county proposal would ban activities such as weddings and other celebratory events and require special permits for activities such as U-Pick.

The proposed changes are pitting farm owners against each other as one side argues for protecting farmland exclusively for agriculture, and the other says the code changes would kill livelihoods and hurt the community. The debate further unfolded during a three-hour public meeting last month.

“Businesses like farm venues bring economic benefits like keeping local populations employed while promoting knowledge and an appreciation of the land and agriculture,” Jessie Anderson, co-owner of Mount Vernon’s Maplehurst Farm that bills itself as an outdoor event and wedding venue, said in the meeting.

Other farm owners, many of whom have owned land for generations, contended that event venues were hurting their activities. They cited examples such as being asked to avoid typical farming tasks such as putting fertilizer on the soil because it would smell bad for visitors.

But most important, supporters of the proposal want to protect farmland in Skagit Valley, said Randy Good, a dairy farmer and cattle rancher who is a former member of the county’s AAB.

“Nonagricultural activities such as weddings, concerts and meetings are going to interfere with the right to farm if these venues are allowed,” Good said at the public meeting. “Agriculture in Skagit County as we know it today will be gone forever.”

Michael Hughes, owner of Hughes Farms and chair of the AAB, agrees. Hughes wants to preserve the area’s agricultural core instead of bringing development to the area. Hughes’ farm plants, processes and stores potatoes.

“The primary purpose of agricultural land was the production of food,” Hughes said in an interview.

The rift among farm owners about the future of Skagit County emerges as they see the changes in the agriculture area that produces “about $300 million worth of crops, livestock and dairy products on approximately 90,000 acres of land,” according to research from Washington State University.

A 2021 survey contracted by the county describes the changes in the area as orbiting toward a small number of very large, profitable operations and a large number of very small operations that focus on agritourism and other supplemental activities for their income.

But there is a third group that is caught in the middle of these two business models, said Kate Smith of Washington State University Skagit County Extension.

While large farmers can sell enough quantities of produce to wholesalers to make a profit, small farmers that can’t produce as much may opt for a direct-to-consumer model through, for example, farmers markets. Middle-sized farms get squeezed out, said Smith.

The code change might define the future of agriculture in Skagit County, so the contention stems from the different needs of the farms’ business models, she added.

The proposal

The agritourism discourse began in 2018 when dairy farm Samish Bay Cheese filed a docket application to allow for limited food service aside from the primary use of the farm, according to Sarah Ruether, a long-range planning manager with Skagit County.

Public comments at the time recommended the county deny the docket item and requested more study on agritourism. The Skagit County Planning Commission voted that agritourism be a high priority item for the 2019 long-range work plan. The Board of County Commissioners agreed.

Between 2019 to 2023, the county’s planning commission contracted with a consulting firm to carry out studies on agritourism, evaluated public response on policy options and then moved on to create code language first recommended by the AAB.

Last April, the AAB, a 12-member county commissioner-appointed board recommended the proposal to the county. If the county adopts the proposal, agritourism events such as weddings, celebratory gatherings or parties that would turn a property into an event venue would no longer be allowed.

The proposal gives agritourism a new, more restrictive meaning and seeks to shrink the number of annual special-use permits used for agritourism events, such as U-Picks, from 24 to 12. Hughes said event venue operators have not followed the special-use permit code regulation.

Before the AAB made its recommendation, the county carried out an agritourism survey, released in January 2023, that collected 651 responses from residents. The survey showed 68% of residents felt weddings should not be prohibited, “but rather allowed to help keep farmers farming, particularly with some conditions.”

Anderson of Maplehurst Farm said she thinks the code-change decisions are being made by a small group that does not take into consideration the opinion of other residents.

Small farms, big concerns

Small-farm owners who have relied on event revenues are concerned.

Among them are Brock and Katie Clements, owners of The Saltbox Barn on Fir Island, who said in an interview that they fear the proposal could put them out of business. The Saltbox Barn is on a 56-acre farm, 97% of which is used for agriculture while the remaining 3% is the event venue, according to the Clements.

Some of the income from hosting events and weddings goes toward refurbishing buildings, Brock Clements said.

In addition to income loss, Katie Clements worries the proposal would hurt the public connection with farmland.

“It’s going to be out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “We want to be the connection for the farmers and the public, and get the public and future generations caring to preserve the farmland.”

This connection with the public can bring in income for a farm and lead to “future potential purchases as people that are visiting learn about all of the unique crops products that our farmers are producing in the area,” WSU’s Smith said.

Anderson said she fears the proposal would dent Skagit County’s economy as it would push locally based wedding professionals out of business, many of whom are women. The proposal only affects land-use regulations and does not address those concerns.

While the proposal may divide the community, Hughes said, the idea is “to help promote and sell products produced on the farm.”

Help wanted

At the risk of going out of business, small operators are asking the county for help. The county declined to disclose if it will provide assistance for these operators, and the code-change proposal does not include aid.

One of the people asking for help is Nick Cecotti, owner of Vanderveen Farm in Mount Vernon. He said at the public meeting he believes in protecting the farmland, but he needs supplemental income to keep his business. “Help us get there so we can keep going,” Cecotti said. “That’s what we’re after is keeping our farms going.”

Jessica Nguyen-Dacey said the proposal would jeopardize the 50-acre farm Briarwood Estate, which she bought this year. She said she was planning on turning part of her property into a wedding venue to fund necessary renovations to historic buildings.

“It’s hard to start if you are not a generational farmer,” she said in an interview. “How do you create code that’s sustainable for a generation for years to come?”

Nguyen-Dacey said the income from farming her land “is not enough to support the cost to run a property like this.”

Some farmers such as Angelica Hayton, owner of Hayton Farms on Fir Island, think there should be a middle ground. Hayton said she fears the proposed code would hurt her farm’s business because venue visitors would no longer be there to buy her produce.

“The farm venues haven’t interfered with our farming, and I believe they provide a valuable service to our community,” Hayton said. “I’m worried that the new code will harm my farm and other local small businesses.”

One middle ground could be ensuring event venues are not adjacent to farm operations and using exclusively local farms’ products to cater the events, WSU’s Smith said.

Other farmers who support the code proposal say their operations have been affected by venues. Mikala Staples Hughes, who works at Sakuma Bros. Farming and Processing as the director of quality and technical services, said at the public meeting that farmers have been asked to avoid farming activities.

“These challenges are paired with the already complicated nature of farming as we are at the mercy of wind, rain and crop maturity,” she said.

Smith said the process “isn’t quite over yet” since community members will have more time to publicly comment. But a middle-ground discussion should be centered on ways to increase local farms’ income, she said.

The community will have until Aug. 17 to submit public comment. The Planning Commission will then vote on a recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners. Once the recommendation has been finalized, the county commissioners will review it and decide on final action for agritourism.

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