“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.
“I’ve been told to live in the country many times before,” he said.
Peters said farming in a backyard is limiting.
“If you wanted to be a full-time farmer, it’s really challenging to produce enough to pay yourself full wages,” said Peters.
Gregoire’s seen vacant lots around town and debated talking to the property owners about growing on them. He thinks the region would be better served with a program that connects farmers with landowners and says landowners should consider letting small farmers grow crops on their vacant spaces — for a reasonable price.
For a farmer who will only make $30,000 on an acre of land, $10,000 in rent for that acre isn’t worth it, Gregoire said.
Boldt says farming locally is diminishing.
“I really feel that the government is trying to make it so difficult for farmers that they’re hoping they’ll just all sell out,” she said, pointing to another generational farm nearby that lost its water supply.
“Our county is not friendly to farmers,” she said.
Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy said it’s untrue that the local governments want to push farmers out.
“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.
This has created what O’Dea calls a loss of critical mass.
“It’s difficult for farmers to be able to collectively advocate for policies that either protects them or helps bolster their growth in some way,” he said.
Across that political border in Oregon, there are strong statewide protections for farmland. That’s not the case here.
“It’s sort of a loophole, in a sense, for development on this side of the river,” said O’Dea. “Developers don’t run into the same policy barriers as they would otherwise in Oregon.”
In 1990, the Washington Legislature passed the Growth Management Act, requiring cities and counties to manage growth by designating critical areas including wetlands and agricultural lands, as well as urban areas planned for development. The local governments must prepare regular comprehensive updates addressing the area’s growth needs.
Betty Sue Morris served in Washington’s Legislature in the 1990s and as a Clark County commissioner until 2008.
“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.”