Small farm resources squeezed from several directions
By STEVE BROWN
Small farms are an important part of Washington agriculture, accounting for 90 percent of the state's farms but only 10 percent of market value, and resources to help keep them viable are few.
Marcia Ostrom, who leads the Small Farms Program at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, described the situation as a "perfect storm."
"We have pressures from all directions in program cuts," she said. "Everyone's working harder to spread resources across the state."
Ostrom's program is part of Washington State University Extension and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. The small farms team includes people from WSU, state agencies and non-governmental organizations who provide research-based information and educational programs for farmers, consumers, decision-makers and others involved in local food systems.
When state budget constraints forced the Washington State Department of Agriculture to eliminate its Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program in 2011, an important connection for small farmers was lost, Ostrom said. Following that came cuts in other state and federal support. WSU overall has cut spending by 40 percent over the past five years.
Ostrom has adapted to the new reality by focusing on coordinated efforts among WSU and its partners.
A survey found that small farmers learn most of what they need to know from other farmers, and their top priorities are marketing assistance and soil fertility management. Teaming up with Tilth Producers of Washington, the WSU Small Farms Team has offered farm walks, bringing university specialists onto working farms and showing practical successes in the business and the practice of farming.
In response to increased access to broadband services and increasing numbers of minority operations, "We hope to develop more online resources and multilingual programs," Ostrom said. "A lot of people want to farm who didn't grow up on the farm, or they come from other countries and are not familiar with U.S."
Incubator programs and business training programs "make the most of the resources we have," she said. Because WSU cannot have specialists in every county, they are asked to travel more.
"Creative new approaches will be required to address the needs of incoming and existing small farm operators, many of whom will constitute the next generation of Washington State agricultural producers," she said.