“If you’ve been around paying attention at all, you’re going to hear about development,” said Holly Hansen from Vancouver’s Second Mile Food Hub, who points to areas like Ridgefield, where homes are sprouting on former farmland, and in other areas like Vancouver, where the new growth comes in the form of warehouses.
“That’s the pressure,” she said. “The builders here pretty much have the upper hand. We’re losing our farmland like crazy.”
“It’s not common to have a city that’s surrounded with agricultural potential,” observed Justin O’Dea, regional agriculture specialist at Washington State University Extension’s Clark County office. This region has the highest-quality soils in the state, he said.
“Once it’s paved over, it’s not realistic that it’s ever coming back into farming,” O’Dea said.
Evan Gregoire runs Portland Seedhouse. He’s been farming for years in the Portland area and now leases 2 acres in Ridgefield.
“It’s hard to find property I can afford in Ridgefield,” said Gregoire. It’s a common complaint among younger farmers who aren’t operating generational farms. Most likely, they don’t own land, he said.
So for now, Gregoire trucks in his starter plants and supplies. Then he trucks out his harvest. It may sound appealing to some, but it’s not his ideal.
Helen Boldt and her husband own Velvet Acres Farms, a generational farm outside of Orchards that her husband has lived on for 74 years. Helen Boldt grew up just down the road.
In her childhood, the area was open. And while she still describes her farm as in the country, development has slowly moved its way in. Traffic has created headaches. Drivers don’t want to wait for tractors or deal with the visitors to her farm’s business.
“They want you to be here, but they don’t want to put up with you,” said Boldt.
Over the years, the Boldts have felt pressured to sell their land. They already sold half.
“People are always trying to buy it,” said Boldt. The couple have 40 acres left, and they don’t intend to sell. They’re passing it on to their daughter, who works with them on the farm.
Kelly Peters and her husband, Patrick, co-own Flat Tack Farm in Brush Prairie.
She and her husband are leasing 2 acres — space they actually share with another local farm.
“Finding space is pretty tough,” she said.
Peters and her husband looked for land of their own but couldn’t find anything they could afford. Plus, most of the land they could lease, they couldn’t actually live on.
“The hardest part of farming in Clark County is land prices,” said Peters.
Then there’s housing and balancing the needs and costs for labor. It all combines into a grim outlook for local farmers.
“If Clark County doesn’t do something about it pretty quick, there’s going to be a shortage of food,” said Peters.
One proposed solution is urban farming: roof-top farms, backyard farms, indoor farms and other cultivation done within an urban setting.
Gregoire is curious about urban farming, but the reality is a different story. He doesn’t grow vegetables at his Vancouver home, but he does propagate his plants there.
“Vancouver’s just not used to it,” he said. “People like nice lawns and rhododendrons.”
The farmer said he once got a complaint from the city of Vancouver because he’d left some tubs in his front yard where he’d been cleaning vegetables. The city said it looked unkempt. Now, he tries to keep the farming materials at his home neat and tidy.
“That may be true somewhere in the country,” he said. “It’s not true here.”
The issue is complicated, he added.
“The reality for farmers is this: we’re not a Kansas, we’re not even in Eastern Washington or Eastern Oregon where you have large industrial farmland that is able to profit,” said Medvigy.
“Everything we do is about trying to balance and do the right thing,” he added. “We need homes. There’s no question about it.”
The county’s population topped 500,000 in the last Census. It was less than 130,000 in 1970.
“The biggest challenge is the sheer pressure of developments and competing interests from urbanization,” said O’Dea.
The county is in a unique situation, he added. It’s isolated. The area is directly tied to the Willamette Valley ecologically, and yet it’s cut off because of the political border between Oregon and Washington.
“There is no legal way to stop people from moving here,” said Morris. “And if they come here, they want to live somewhere.”
‘We’re all squished’
Land use is a timely topic, as the Clark County Council is updating its 2025 Comprehensive Plan, which will look at where to designate land for development and where to keep it set aside for critical uses, like agriculture.
“The current issue is that we’re all squished,” said Noelle Lovern, spokesperson for the Building Industry Association of Clark County.
“There really is no straight answer,” she added. “We have to continue to collaborate, especially in the planning process because that informs a lot of the solutions for these challenges.”
For that, Medvigy encourages public testimony and letters sent to the council. He said he is expecting a letter from the Washington Farm Bureau, an association that advocates for farmers in the state. The county received one recently when deciding on the county’s population projections.
In the meantime, Medvigy maintains that the county is supporting farmers. It’s looking at potentially putting an easement on existing farmland to conserve it. It’s creating a committee of small farmers to better inform the county on issues affecting them. It’s also considering expanding rural businesses’ ability to host events like weddings.
Haldeman says the home values for the houses surrounding her property went up several years ago because they offer an orchard view, and yet she still feels the pressure to sell her family farm since being absorbed by the city of Vancouver.
“It seems so odd to me that we own the property, and we have to worry about being pushed out,” she said.
In the end, Medvigy said, property owners have the right to use their property, whether it’s to subdivide their farm, sell it to a developer or keep it going.
“We want farmers, we want open spaces and we’re going to do our best to preserve it,” he finished.
“As my grandfather used to say, land is premium because they’re not ever going to make any more of it,” added Lovern. “How do we put all the things that we need as a community in a space that makes sense and that keeps our quality of life? I think we all have to struggle with that.”