When my grandfather’s uncle Charlie married in 1908, the local paper reported: “The groom, who is well-known in Port Townsend, is one of Blyn’s popular and prosperous young farmers.”
Now there’s a combination of words you don’t hear often: “prosperous” and “young” and “farmer”.
Census data show most U.S. farmers are older (average about 58), the majority need a second job to make ends meet and have no one in place to take over when they want to retire.
Here in Jefferson County, the younger men and women who produce the local veggies and meat we celebrate are often barely making their student loan payments, let alone driving a dependable rig or owning the land they till.
So, if we want small-scale farmers to continue to re-populate Jefferson County, we may have to make sacrifices.
1. If we don’t make misuse of farmland difficult and expensive, level, fertile land with adequate water gets quickly priced out of reach of any farmer, let alone young beginners.
Look no farther than Sequim for a sad example. Much of the Dungeness Prairie is U.S. Department of Agriculture “Prime Farmland,” a rating reserved for best-in-nation land where the best climate, water and soil are found on level ground that does not flood. Yet Clallam County and Sequim have encouraged the subdividing of these lands. Where once there were hundreds of farms and dairies, there are now subdivisions named for the very things ruined: “Sunland, Jennie’s Meadow, Cedar Ridge, Willow Creek.” History shows those acres will never come back into production.
Making it expensive and difficult to lay waste to farmland will demand backbone at the Jefferson County Courthouse. We’ll be asking powerful friends to stop building quick subdivisions on level ground. They’ll belly-ache and call us commies, while continuing to eat steaks raised on cheap government rangeland and shipped to market on our nationalized highway system.
It’s true that when counties fall down on the job, a Land Trust can sometimes step in, so by all means send Jefferson Land Trust a fat donation. But do so understanding no Land Trust can raise enough money to outrace developers if the county gives in.
2. We’ve got to embrace density and in our own viewsheds. Multi-story apartments, thoughtful clusters of townhouses and small-lot homes sharing a bit of open space are a powerful counterweight to land waste. If we price papermill workers and shipwrights out of town, farmland will be subdivided, paved and lost forever. Incentives to build up, up, up will save farmland and will attract families, which could help out with the shortage of caregivers for our abundant elder population.
3. We could re-think our objections to the cost of local food. Money you pay for a CSA subscription or for produce at a farmers market recirculates up to 18 times hereabouts, keeping the feed store, hardware store, equipment dealer and family retailers in business. Dollars you shell out for cheap long-haul produce circulate about one third as often, according to the American Independent Business Alliance. So buy those awesome local carrots. That money we spend with not-so-prosperous young local farmers keeps our retailers afloat and makes it possible for the young’uns making a start in Chimacum to start a family.
4. Almost all of the effort to diversify our economy to include sustainably grown food relies on consumers and citizens. If you built your retirement home in a farm area, you might think before waging all-out war on smells, sights and sounds of food production. The tillers of the soil aren’t extras in the movie of your life. Farming and livestock husbandry is a messy business, necessary before the cutie at the farmers market sells to you or Blue Apron delivers in a tidy box to your door.
5. Restaurant owners can play a powerful role by competing to add some muscle to their “Farm to Fork” marketing; If you proudly display farmers’ logos on your menu, add a little footnote telling customers the date and size of your most recent purchase. Sadly, there are restaurants that build their locavore brand with farm logos on their walls and menus, but rarely actually buy and use local goods. We can be a town that puts a stop to that, but only if restaurants voluntarily self-police.
And although I’ve been talking mostly about sacrifices we all need to make, let’s not forget it’s all in the name of good eats. Next time you see “local” on the produce bin, stock up. It’d be a great thing to bring “prosperous young farmer” back into daily use.
(Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader and has been known to roast a whole hog in a Caja China box at the member picnic of an Olympic Peninsula CSA).