Stop fiddling around, save Pierce County farmland

From the editorial board

John Engfer uses a John Deere tractor to disc a field adjacent to Orting High School a decade ago. His mother, Barbara Engfer, decided to sell the family's 50-acre farm to developers. Her late husband's family had homesteaded the property in 1912.
John Engfer uses a John Deere tractor to disc a field adjacent to Orting High School a decade ago. His mother, Barbara Engfer, decided to sell the family's 50-acre farm to developers. Her late husband's family had homesteaded the property in 1912. Staff file, 2006

For more than a decade, officials have worked in fits and starts to prevent more of Pierce County’s life-giving farmland from being entombed under parking lots, warehouses and housing developments.

Now these preservation efforts are teasing us with another season of sweet possibilities, like a Puyallup Valley berry harvest in summer. But 10 years from now, will the storehouse be full of anything except studies, plans and promises?

After getting stuck in the mud last year, the county is looking again at the number of acres designated as agricultural resource lands (ARL). Under the state Growth Management Act, counties are required to adopt ARL standards and identify land parcels that have “long-term significance for commercial production of food or other agricultural products.”

Translation: Your children and grandchildren shouldn’t face a future where most every label reads “Grown in Mexico” or “Product of California.” They should have access to a cornucopia of locally produced goods like what you, your parents and grandparents took for granted.

An outside team of soil, crop, land-use and economic experts has issued preliminary findings about how to safeguard the county’s agricultural heritage.

Lest you think it’s all about rural nostalgia, consider the ag sector employs nearly 2,000 workers and contributes up to $100 million a year to the local economy, despite losing two thirds of its land base over the last half century.

Team members recommend tweaking ARL criteria in ways that would double the amount of land falling under the designation – from nearly 23,000 acres to more than 47,000.

They also advocate ditching the one-size-fits-all approach and dividing the county into four zones according to soil quality, terrain and prevailing uses. This wisely recognizes that the 50-acre-or-more commercial farms on the east side of Interstate 5 have little in common with the 5-acre-or-less hobby farms of the Key Peninsula.

Before the team turns its report over to the county next month, it’s been collecting feedback and getting an earful from local growers, landowners and conservationists. (You can take an online survey at (freshlookatpierceag.org.)

Skeptics would say the county’s focus on ARL is tantamount to fiddling while Rome burns. Or rather, frittering away time on the state’s growth-management bureaucracy while the Puyallup Valley and its famously rich, alluvial soils are lost to development.

There’s truth behind this anxiety. For a wake-up call, look at the ironically named Knutson Farms Industrial Park now being planned on the eastern doorstep of Puyallup. The 3-million-square-foot warehouse complex will obliterate land where daffodils and vegetables helped define the valley for nearly 80 years.

City officials and neighbors rightly anticipate flooding and traffic nightmares around the 160-acre development. (Today’s letter to the editor by James Clinton gives a glimpse of the angst.) But because the Knutson property lies in an urban growth boundary and is zoned for industrial use, ARL does not apply here.

Fourth-generation Puyallup Valley farmer Tim Richter sums up his views on county preservation efforts in four words.

“They’re a little late,” he told a News Tribune reporter.

The county is marketing its ARL reboot as a “fresh look at Pierce County agriculture.” Elected officials would do well to treat it with more urgency than they did a year ago, when the County Council voted to stick with the status quo. A new county executive and possibly new members on the council in 2017 could give the issue fresh eyes.

But a more comprehensive approach is needed to sustain the 50,000 acres that are now in active agricultural use, while allowing hardworking farmers to retire with dignity and a nest egg.

Public leaders must explore property tax incentives and exemptions for farmland and working farms. They should broker more creative opportunities for the transfer of development rights, like a swap last month that will preserve a farm near Orting while letting an apartment developer build in Tacoma.

They should foster agri-tourism, farmers markets and the farm-to-table movement. They should go to bat for conservation easements, and help solve drainage problems for growers being surrounded by development.

It will take steps like these to confront the rhetorical question raised last year by County Executive Pat McCarthy, who led a failed attempt to increase ARL acreage.

"Who knows if we have to feed ourselves in the future off of this land?”