Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy

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A South Sound nonprofit preserves farmland in perpetuity

STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN

washing carrotsThe gravel access road at Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy cuts a path through sloping fields, all the way down to the

Chehalis River. Row crops stretch out to the west of it, where Genine Bradwin and Colin Barricklow grow vegetables and, beyond them, grains such as wheat and triticale.

“The soil is stickier here,” Bradwin muses as she blasts bunches of carrots with a stiff jet of water. The longtime farmers are still getting used to this land — and the changes they’ve seen in the produce since they moved their operation to the Rochester farm in 2013. The crops are strong and abundant, she says. “Things grow larger at this field.”

The two are the owners of Kirsop Farm, which Barricklow founded in 1996 on leased land 20 miles north in Tumwater, one of Olympia’s tri-city neighbors. For two decades, they grew organic produce on acreage next to their house, renting more land nearby as they expanded. Like many first-generation farmers, they didn’t own the land they worked.

“There was a little bit of a sense of impending doom,” Bradwin says. “Something could happen, and we could lose access to the fields that we need.”

In the summer of 2012, South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust, an Olympia-based nonprofit, offered Kirsop Farm a partnership in a land preservation deal that would give them long-term land security. Barricklow and Bradwin signed on. The deal went through the following year.

meadow road“The new place offers us the kind of security that we couldn’t have created on our own,” Bradwin says. “It’s a lot of our dreams come true: having enough land and having permanent access to it.”

Farmland is typically protected through conservation easements, in which a land trust buys the development rights from a landowner, often in exchange for a tax benefit. It’s an effective way to protect open spaces, but traditional easement arrangements don’t always keep the cost of land from rising. If the price for conserved farmland is too high, it will be out of reach for startup farmers. And a wealthy buyer who converts a stretch of land into a scenic rural estate can put the land out of production permanently.

Farmland “is not going to be sold, for the most part, to beginning farmers who are going to continue the legacy,” says Addie Candib, former philanthropy and outreach coordinator for South of the Sound. “Somebody has to step in to fill that gap.”

Land trusts are experimenting with modified easement agreements that address affordability and farmer access. But South of the Sound was founded on an alternative model. Since its inception in 1997, the group’s goal has been to keep working lands affordable and active through the community land trust model. More often used to secure affordable housing, the strategy allows buyers to purchase a house but not the land beneath it. In a deal that involves working lands, a farmer can purchase structures on the property and lease back farmland from the land trust.

At Scatter Creek, Bradwin and Barricklow bought the white farmhouse at the edge of the road, a milking parlor, and two barns. A renewable 99-year lease with the land trust gives them (and their heirs) access to the land in perpetuity.

Leases like this one are enforceable. A land trust can require its occupants to use sustainable practices and continue growing food, which supports both jobs for farmers and the security of the regional food system, an important tool at a time when local food production and land availability have a sketchy alliance.

“Since the 1950s, Thurston County alone has lost over 75 percent of its working lands,” Candib explains. A county report concluded that if current trends continue, the area will lose another 32 percent of its agricultural lands by 2035.

Troubling data is echoed on a national scale. The average farmer in the U.S. is just over 58 years old. According to a report by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a full two-thirds of the country’s farmland is expected to change hands over the next two decades.

The Scatter Creek arrangement is South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust’s first land deal, and the biggest to date. The land trust collaborated with the nonprofit Creekside Conservancy to secure grant funding to pay for the 149-acre former dairy and cattle run. One hundred acres of the parcel is designated as farmland. The remaining 49 are set aside for river-corridor conservation, including protection of salmon habitat.

“One of the things that we really wanted to do with Scatter Creek was to demonstrate that farmland preservation and wildlife conservation can take place simultaneously,” Candib says. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

As the anchor tenant, Kirsop Farm leases 66 acres of land. The financial partners tapped Enterprise for Equity, a nonprofit that provides business training for limited-income entrepreneurs, to be its secondary tenant. The group has a short-term lease on the remaining 33 acres for their farm incubator program.

“Our role is to create an environment for beginning food producers to get their footing, to get grounded enough in the business of farming that they can move on to larger pieces of land,” says Executive Director Lisa Smith.

Evan Mulvaney was the first of their graduates to work the land where, with a microloan from Enterprise for Equity, he ran a five-acre vegetable production business. After only two seasons, he established accounts with more than two dozen restaurants and wholesale customers in South Sound, Chehalis River Valley, and Seattle. This year will be his debut season on his own land, a 90-acre farm in Montesano, purchased with a combination of his earnings and crowd-funded capital. At the new Hidden River Farm, Mulvaney will run vegetable and pastured-pork operations and offer help to other young farmers.

In January, two more Enterprise for Equity graduates started farming at Scatter Creek. A successful, revolving-door training ground for beginning farmers is an important part of the framework that the partners envisioned when they laid plans to create an agricultural hub. Smith says they hope the farm and the many projects it supports will be a magnet for producers and a connection point for local consumers.

“What happens when a rural community has multiple businesses operating collaboratively?” she asks. “People are employed. There are multiple positive impacts on the community when rural businesses are operating successfully. That’s what we hope for on this incubator farm. This will grow into a hub where not just the farmers on our incubator farm, but farm communities in the region will be able to join and connect in many different ways.”

Their vision is already materializing. Kirsop Farm and nearby August Farm converted the milking parlor into a certified chicken-processing facility. A local 4-H group raises cows, pigs, and sheep out of a loafing shed they rent from the land trust. Other farms rent space for hay and equipment storage.

There’s still a lot of work to do, and it can seem like an uphill battle — properties nearby have already been turned into subdivisions. But Bradwin sees promise for the Scatter Creek property and the region as a whole.

“The land trust is having success,” she says. “I’m really hopeful that there’s going to be a snowball effect of prosperity for the organization so they can preserve more, that they can keep on grabbing that land and locking it in.”

farmers

Jennifer Crain writes about the production side of the regional food system from her home in Olympia. Learn more about her work at jennifercrain.com.

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