The Dirt Issue 26 – Fully Functioning Agriculture

Posted on April 25, 2018
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Ask any farmer in the Skagit Valley what makes this area so special that it’s known as the Magic Skagit and you’ll hear answers like the soil…the climate…the topography…and, very probably, the farmers. All of that is true. What’s also part of the formula is the structure of the industry here in the valley. It’s a structure that has been lost elsewhere in the Puget Sound region. It’s the structure that makes farming of nearly every description thrive here in the Skagit Valley.

You may have noticed there’s very little unused farmland in the Valley. The area is intensely utilized to achieve maximum output while maintaining soil fertility, often yielding two or even three crops per year. It’s the reason such a relatively small region produces such a significant output. This is where fully functioning agriculture is so critical.              

Getting the food you eat from the farm to your table takes a web of resources and skills from many participants. It is a function of how well those skills and resources combine that make farming both worthwhile and profitable. Making the most out of Skagit farmland is, of course, first and foremost for the farmer. But, helping that farmer succeed, especially when time and weather constraints are critical, is the work of the farmer plus a vast array of agricultural support firms, individuals and systems.

To be fully functioning, everything a farmer needs in order to produce must be close to hand. That means equipment dealers and qualified mechanics; large-animal veterinarians and artificial insemination services; dealers in seed, fertilizers and crop protection products; a vibrant research and verification authority; farm supply outlets, product aggregators, shippers, and marketers. It often means agronomists and crews of experts to assist with preparation, planting and harvesting by providing equipment, personnel and expertise.

It’s a precisely balanced infrastructure that thrives here in the Skagit Valley because opportunities to support such services abound. 

Agricultural stability

Commercial agriculture is not feasible or efficient without large, unencumbered acreage. By working to keep farmland—contiguous, accessible farmland—at sufficient quantity for viable, marketable output, the Skagit Valley region has been able to maintain a critical mass without which the fully functioning infrastructure would fail.

Such failure is clear elsewhere in the Puget Sound region. The once vibrant Kent and Puyallup Valleys are both telling examples. While isolated farming still exists, it isn’t of a quantity to attract or maintain all the support that merits the description fully functioning. Yielding to urban development pressures, these richly abundant agricultural lands have become a distant memory. As our famous Protect Skagit Farmland bumper sticker says, “Pavement is Forever.“

Fully functioning gives a farmer options

The Skagit Valley is home to a wide and growing array of farming operations, from specialty and row crops, dairy and livestock, organic and conventional, and everything in between. Having a wide range of available support allows the farmer to choose the business model that best suits the size of the operation and future goals.

Here in the valley are examples of vertical integration where the farm controls more functions along the food chain as, for example, a wash-and-pack operation or cold storage facilities. These value-added functions are accessory uses, subordinate to the primary function of the farm and in support of it.

Another approach is horizontal integration. It’s where one, two or more farms, essentially doing the same thing and looking to maintain the same spot in the food chain, either formally combine as in a merger or acquisition, or combine in a cooperative venture that shares costs of production and marketing to benefit from economies of scale and the multiplier effect of commanding a more significant share of output.    

These business models, and many others, are possible here in the Skagit Valley because all the components required to succeed in a farm business are in place. Some analysts refer to a circumstance like this as a “cluster.” A cluster is a group of farms, support businesses and institutions located in a specific region and linked by mutual interdependence. Whether called a cluster or fully functioning agricultural valley, it’s a big part of the Magic Skagit.