The Dirt Issue 19 – Skagit Valley Ag Outside the Ag Zone

Posted on August 31, 2017
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We’re all familiar with the lush, abundantly-productive farmland of the Skagit Delta. Zoned Ag-NRL (Natural Resource Lands), it is comprised of world-renowned prime farmland. But, you’d be wrong if you thought that was the entirety of Skagit agriculture.

There are pockets of agriculture all around us

The truth is there is a significant amount of agriculture on parcels outside the ag zone and we’re the first to say that’s a very good thing. These parcels are chiefly found in two other county-wide zones, Rural Resource and Rural Reserve, both of which permit agriculture as a land use. These designations are designed to maintain certain rural, open space characteristics of the land while protecting it from pressure to convert to other uses, such as development.  

All part of the big picture

The USDA has compiled statistics on agricultural producers spanning decades. By 2011, the data was pointing to an unsustainable future: 30 percent of farm operators were at least 65 years old, but only five percent were less than 35 years old. It wasn’t that younger people weren’t interested. It was that, all too often, they just couldn’t get a foothold.

For a farmer just starting out, prime farmland is expensive. Because capital is typically limited if not downright scarce, the beginning farmer can’t compete with an established farmer looking to expand.  So, while financing remains the number one barrier to entry for a beginning farmer, securing land is a close number two.

Here’s where land outside the ag zone comes in

The first task is to identify what’s farmable. As part of a larger grant centered on the incubator-farm program of Viva Farms, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland has been conducting a study with Kulshan Environmental Services to identify parcels zoned Rural Resource and Rural Reserve than could be agriculturally productive. 

These potentially farmable parcels are not just arable, but of sufficient size and accessibility to make sense as farmland. Identifying them is the first step toward securing land that is more affordable and more manageable for beginning farmers.

How much land are we talking about?

Current analyses show some 9,100 acres actively engaged in agriculture within Rural Resource and Rural Reserve zones east of Fidalgo Island. Over 2,500 acres are cultivated in various crops, while the remainder is in hay/silage or pasture/hay. Those 9,100 acres represent about 42 percent of the potentially farmable parcels, if the threshold is parcels larger than one acre. Of course, larger parcels, and even more desirable contiguous parcels already established in agriculture are the ideal, but depending on the farming operation proposed, there are potential “launch pads” for beginning farmers within Skagit County.

It’s easier some places than others

That doesn’t mean there aren’t restrictions. Some jurisdictions in the U.S. protect the activity of agriculture with right-to-farm ordinances wherever agriculture is pursued, as long as it’s a permitted use within a zone. In Skagit County, such protection (defined as protection from nuisance lawsuits while following normal agricultural practices on farmland) applies only to Natural Resource Lands such as Ag-NRL and Rural Resource. Parcels located within the Rural Reserve zones do not have this protection.

There is another key factor in Rural Resource/Rural Reserve zoning: the residential density assigned to each. Rural Resource, like Ag-NRL, permits one residence per 40 acres. Rural Reserve, however, permits one residence per 10 acres with the potential for two residences if clustered per the provisions of the county’s CaRD (Conservation and Reserve Development) density bonus. This higher degree of development pressure can threaten both the size and nature of existing and future agricultural activity.

Now you know

So, next time you’re driving around anywhere in rural Skagit County, look around and note what you see. The farms might not line up one after another like they do in the deltas, but they all play an important part in the big picture: The big picture of continuing to secure local food production by supporting farmers at all scales and maintaining the local agricultural economy for future generations.