Defining a vision for future of local farms: In or out?

Market-based systems that will conserve fertile farmland for generations to come are needed in the county

Shawn Morrill

The best way to predict the future is to create it. This age-old advice rings true more now than in any time in recent history for many local industries. Workers in sectors like health care, energy and technology are doing just that. So where do local farms fit in? For many local farmers, creating their own future is an ideal that seems out of reach. From the perspective of many regional food producers, the foundational support necessary to rebuild a future for farming and a robust regional food system does not exist.

Fertile and irreplaceable farmland is being lost to urban growth. For small and mid-size farms, middle markets don’t exist; there is little infrastructure for processing or transport, and there are few systems for aggregation of product or pooling of resources. These intermediate steps, that once were well-established in the region, have been swept away leaving many farms at a standstill.

To compound matters, farmers lack certainty about the future of their land. Unlike many other counties in Washington, market-based systems for farmland conservation do not exist here. Farmers and owners of agricultural and rural lands have repeatedly asked the county for an array of tools to support them, generating the kind of certainty that would make investment viable. Without these integral supports there is no certainty about the future of farming in Clark County. New investments are limited and the system is stuck in stalemate.

In order to rebuild a robust regional food system, farms need a future with availability of suitable land. Like any entrepreneur, startup farmers of today want to grow their business, provide jobs and contribute toward economic development in their communities. Similar to stories of successful technology companies who begin in the founder’s garage, many of today’s farmers start their businesses on tiny pieces of land and, like other successful businesses, they will outgrow their startup space and need access to greater resources.

One of the barriers to growth of our local and regional food system is the lack of infrastructure. This is spurred on by lack of certainty about land use. Farmers, rural land task forces, health departments and food policy advocates have recommended that the county provide specific market-based tools such as TDR’s, PDR’s, and Agriculture Production Districts. For nearly ten years these recommendations have been largely ignored.

Investors and entrepreneurs are needed to step in and learn about the opportunities surrounding urban-influenced agriculture. However, like farmers, investors need certainty about availability of future resources. This lack of certainty is like a floodgate and our county is the gate keeper. The Clark County Comprehensive Growth Plan update is an opportunity to solve these problems and the time to weigh in is now.

As a business community, we can help. Together we have a strong voice. Now we have an opportunity to support our local farmers and help them protect their lands for their own families and future generations.

Local farmers, the Clark County Food System Council and several other community groups have spent years doing the work to understand and identify these issues. The community has provided policy makers, including the Clark County Board of Commissioners (now Councilors) with specific solutions and recommendations which, to date, have not been incorporated into action.

I am calling on all businesses, citizens, economic development and government agencies, to join us and help define a collective vision for the future of our region’s food system.

The time is ripe and you can help! Supporting this is easy. Visit ClarkFoodSystem.org for more information, specific actions, talking points and detailed reports.

Shawn Morrill is a member of the Clark County Food System Council. He can be reached at shawn.morrill@gmail.com.

Photo by Anni Becker 

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