Cooperative effort keeps fertile land in farms

Steve Brown/Capital Press ÒFirst MikeÓ Gregoire, left, husband of Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy plant rhubarb during the Orting Valley Farm Tour on May 21. Though rhubarb is only a minor crop in the region now, in years past Pierce County was known as the ÒRhubarb Capital of the World.Ó

Easement reserves land for organic farms


Capital Press

ORTING, Wash. -- Dan Hulse started farming in 2003, working at an organic farm in Puyallup, Wash. The next year, he and his wife, Kim, leased 5 acres near Enumclaw and started a home-delivery service for their vegetables.

But the high price of land dimmed their hopes of ever owning a farm.

"Five years ago, we had no prospect for land we could live on and purchase," Hulse said.

Now the 30-year-old is proud owner of Tahoma Farms, one of three organic operations carved out of a former dairy in the Orting Valley, about 15 miles southeast of Tacoma.

Emma Ford, the dairy's former owner, wanted the land to continue in agriculture, and she was alarmed by the encroachment of urban development, said Pat McCarthy, Pierce County executive.

The county partnered with the nonprofit PCC Farmland Trust and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office to ensure the 100 acres would remain in farming.

A farm tour May 21 celebrated the creation of the farms, which are already in production.

"The project serves the county in several ways," McCarthy said. "It saves farmland, it produces local organic food for the community, it encourages a new generation of farmers and it demonstrates a new model of farming."

Kathryn Gardow, conservation director at PCC Farmland Trust, described how the farmland preservation process works.

A landowner can sell or donate an agricultural conservation easement to a conservation organization or a government body. Assessing the value of that easement determines the price or the tax benefits available under federal and state law.

The "highest and best use" is housing development, and much of the fertile Orting Valley has already been converted to that use, Gardow said. The value of the easement is that fair-market value minus its agricultural value.

The easement purchase was funded by $619,092 from Pierce County and $580,399 from the state Recreation and Conservation Office, said Kammie Bunes, senior grants manager at the office's funding board.

PCC Farmland Trust's role included attorney time in drafting the easement, and the trust also found farmers willing to buy the land.

Now Tahoma Farms, which grows strawberries and vegetables; Crying Rock Farms, which produces hops and pastured pork, lamb and rabbits; and Little Eorthe Farm, which raises alpacas, sheep, ducks, chickens, bees, row crops and fruit, are settled in and distributing their products through community-supported agriculture programs.

Joel Blais, of Crying Rock Farms, acknowledged how the efforts of many people made it possible for him to farm.

"I feel like the caboose at the end of a very long train," he said.

Carrie Little, of Little Eorthe Farm, described her joy in working "this beautiful, outrageous soil."

Hulse said that the soil, which supported 300 head of dairy cattle until 2006, tested very high in nutrients.

"We don't expect to need to amend the soil for several years," he said.

The agricultural easement requires that the land be kept in organic production in perpetuity, according to PCC Farmland Trust. Also required are annual stewardship visits and periodic events and educational farm tours.

The trust, which monitors compliance with easement restrictions, listed the benefits of an organic conservation easement:

* It permanently protects farmland at risk of development and ensures organic food can be grown near population centers.

* It reduces the purchase cost for future buyers.

* It can provide the farmers with tax benefits, including property and estate tax reductions.

* Organic certification ensures that no non-organic pesticides, fertilizers or animal hormones enter waterways or negatively affect wildlife.

Ann Kirby, who has lived in the area 45 years, was among the many visitors during a recent farm tour. While she said she was pleased to see the preservation efforts, "It's sad to see farmland in this valley become warehouses. It was a source of produce for so long."


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