Dick and Terry Carkner have spent 25 years working their rich Puyallup Valley soil, but they worry what will happen to it 25 years down the road.
That’s why they sought public money to keep Terry’s Berries, their 21-acre organic farm between Tacoma and Puyallup, from being sold to developers.
Pierce County is set to receive a $291,000 matching grant from the state to buy the development rights to Terry’s Berries and make sure it stays farmland. Likewise, the Legislature budgeted $750,000 in its recent session to preserve Orting Valley Farms, a 100-acre dairy operation just south of Orting.
The Carkners and the owner of Orting Valley Farms will get the funds as soon as the rights are finalized and a condition is placed on the land deeds.
The county would not release the name of the Orting property owner because she requested anonymity.
The grants are the first ones Pierce County Planning and Land Services has received from the state farmland preservation grant program since it began in 2005.
The program is distributing $4.7 million in legislative funds to 10 farmland preservation projects across Washington this biennium. In 2007, lawmakers awarded $4 million in grants, but none focused on farms in Pierce County.
Many farmers in Pierce County face pressure to sell their land to developers at a high profit, said Kimberly Freeman, a senior Pierce County planner. Preserving farmland promotes local food production while saving open spaces, she said.
“Once you develop soils like that, you don’t get them back,” Freeman said. “This keeps the most productive soils in the county in production.”
Pierce County lost more than 80,000 acres of farmland between 1987 and 1997. The County Council responded in 2004 by designating about 31,000 acres as agricultural resource lands to limit development.
Across Washington, the number of operating farms has dropped 50 percent since 1950. Total farm acreage statewide is down 17 percent in the same period.
The problem is that most farmers can’t afford to pay as much for productive land as a developer can, and most farmers who want to sell can’t do it for less than market price, said Ryan Mello of the Cascade Land Conservancy.
By buying development rights, the county will ensure that no residential or commercial developer can use their resources to buy a farm and convert it to a different purpose, Mello said.
“These landowners shouldn’t have to choose between selling their land to development or going to the poorhouse,” Mello said. “This is just a brilliant win-win situation so that they get fair market value for their land without having to turn it into a strip mall.”
State Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said the community value of local farmland shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I think it’s just wise planning to look out for yourself and make sure you don’t develop yourself out of safe and healthy communities,” McDonald said. “We should try to be self-sustaining – and of course, keeping open spaces is good, too.”
Dick Carkner of Terry’s Berries said he’s pleased the county and the Legislature care about the future of his soil, which feeds local farmers markets and has been in production since the 1940s. He just wishes there was more government funding available for other projects in the Puyallup Valley.
“The market system is not going to protect farming – that’s just the way it is,” he said. “Our goal is to protect this farmland in perpetuity. The thought of having it ever developed into warehouses and condominiums or whatever else is very distressing to us.”
Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058