Pierce County: Farmer feels squeezed

Eijiro Kawada; The News Tribune

Pierce County, WA - 1/3/03 - Ron Inglin plans to move his dairy farm near South Prairie to Eastern Washington next year because continuing his family business in Pierce County has become too expensive.

It means that Inglin's youngest son, 2-year-old Paul, won't be a fourth-generation Pierce County dairy farmer, and that the county could lose another 340 acres of productive farmland.

Such consequences could have been avoided if Pierce County had farmland preservation programs that King and Thurston counties have adopted, said Monty Mayhan, manager of Pierce Conservation District.

"Generally, Pierce County is the last one to pass conservation measures," Mayhan said.

Interest in farmland preservation has grown nationwide since a 1997 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, which experts say surprised many people because it showed farmland disappearing at an alarmingly rapid rate.

The census showed that the nation lost 13.7 million acres of farmland between 1992 and 1997. During the same period, Pierce County lost 7,882 acres of farmland, or 4.3 acres daily.

Since the census, local and state governments nationwide have pumped public money into buying farm development rights to save the land from getting paved. Preserved farmland increased by 85 percent since 1998 to 1,135,941 acres nationwide.

It's a different story in Pierce County, which has spent public money to preserve just two farms in its history: a 48-acre farm on Anderson Island and a 12-acre farm in Edgewood.

King and Thurston counties have spent public money to preserve 12,880 acres and 940 acres, respectively. Most of the preserved land is in the Green, Sammamish and Snoqualmie river valleys and on the Enumclaw Plateau and Vashon Island in King County, and in the Nisqually Valley in Thurston County.

Efforts to bring farmland preservation programs to Pierce County are under way. Pierce Conservation District is urging the Pierce County Council to tax property owners a minimum of $5 per parcel annually to buy development rights of existing farms. It would be called Resource Conservation Fee.

"It's going to be just a drop in a bucket," said Rich Hines, outreach coordinator for American Farmland Trust. "But we would be doing something."

The Inglin farm

More than 40 years ago, Inglin's grandfather began the family farm with 40 cows. The herd grew to 100 cows during his tenure. Then Inglin's father took over, and he had 400 cows when Inglin took it over 1 1/2 years ago.

Inglin increased the herd to 450 cows, but sold 100 of them in August to pay the bills.

"It's getting so tough around here," he said.

A combination of falling milk prices and stricter environmental regulations has made Inglin's dairy farm unviable.

His milk sold for $17 per 100 pounds when he took over the business in June 2001. It is down to $10.60 per 100 pounds. Inglin said there's too much milk on the market.

On top of it, the state Department of Ecology requires that Inglin install a $120,000 lagoon to prevent cow manure from running into South Prairie Creek, which abuts his farm. He also would lose 22 acres along the salmon-bearing creek as a buffer zone.

Inglin said he has to make his operation bigger to compete with larger farms, and his current farm doesn't have the capacity to do so. In Eastern Washington, he could run a bigger farm cheaper.

After he purchases land in Eastern Washington, Inglin plans to use his South Prairie farm for a few years after he leaves to raise his heifers. But he doesn't know how long that could last.

"Probably, if I move out of here, it'll never be a dairy farm again," he said. "With a right deal, we might sell (the land). In 10 years, it'll be all developed."

Pierce County had more than 100 dairy farms in the early 1960s. It is down to 10.

Resource conservation fee

The Pierce County Council is expected this year to review the Resource Conservation Fee proposal, which will tax property owners $5 per parcel, plus 10 cents per acre for parcels bigger than one acre.

The fee would collect about $433,000 annually. Half of it is earmarked for purchase of development rights of farms, and the other half is designated for agricultural support programs for farmers.

Mayhan said this money could have helped Inglin either stay in Pierce County or, at least, preserve his farmland after he leaves.

The fee also would collect about $253,000 for six salmon recovery projects in Pierce County.

The cities of Tacoma, University Place, Lakewood, Fircrest and Puyallup so far have passed resolutions urging that the county adopt the program. Puyallup is the only city that showed specific interest in farmland preservation, Mayhan said.

If adopted, the fee would bring in federal matching money. Congress passed the Farm Bill in 2002, which would dole out $10 billion in the next 10 years for purchase of development rights.

But the money won't come to Pierce County without the proposed conservation fee.

"I'm not convinced that the entire amount should be levied," said county Executive John Ladenburg.

He said purchasing development rights doesn't help farmers. In King County, in fact, some preserved farmlands are not active because farmers retired anyway.

"That doesn't make sense to me," Ladenburg said. "Let's preserve farm business."

Ladenburg's idea calls for the county to buy development rights on a year-to-year basis as long as farmers are in business. And he wants to spend money on helping farmers run their business.

The County Council in December adopted "Right to Farm" ordinance to protect farms located in urban areas. For example, an existing farm cannot be sued as a nuisance.

Why some care

Doug and Donna Tait of Buckley placed conservation easements on their 64-acre farm about two years ago, and made arrangements with Cascade Land Conservancy to preserve it as an agricultural property.

The couple did not donate the land for preservation. They gave the conservation agency the authority to enforce the restrictions they put on the property's deed. And they donated $25,000 to the conservancy for possible litigation to protect the land.

The restrictions prevent a future land owner from subdividing the farm or building a nonagricultural structure there.

"They are not making any more land," said Doug Tait, a retired physician, when asked why he placed the easements on his property. "This used to be a beautiful county years ago."

In Puyallup, preserving farmland means preserving the city's heritage, said Darrell Barstow, a city councilman.

"We don't want to lose that, and we want to hang on to it as long as we can," he said.

To promote agriculture and local produce, Puyallup plans to build a farmers' market building downtown and boost its already-successful Saturday morning events.

"Our present society has a busy lifestyle," Barstow said. "When you can have farmland and open space, it helps to have calming effects for the whole community."

Whether a person is in a farm or outside a farm looking at it, preserving farmland is all about lifestyle for those who care.

"It's not a job; it's a lifestyle," said Inglin, who vows never to go out of farming, wherever his farm would be. "This is the only thing I've done."

Eijiro Kawada: 253-597-8633


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