Skagit County is losing farms, especially medium-sized ones, but is seeing new small farms sprout up.
That’s according to 2017 data released this month from the Census of Agriculture, a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey conducted every five years.
As of 2017, there were 1,041 farms in Skagit County, 33 fewer since the last survey in 2012, according to the results. The smallest operations, those with 1 to 10 acres, grew by 59, while the number of farms ranging from 10 to 500 acres decreased.
“The little organic sustainable farms are growing, as are the mega farms over 2,000 acres, but the middle is emptying out,” said Washington State University Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran.
The number of farms is declining nationally, too, according to a USDA news release about the data.
“(Farms) are selling out to their larger neighbors,” McMoran said. “It is concerning to me. I grew up in Skagit where there were a lot of medium-sized farms.”
In a five-year span, total farm acreage decreased by about 8% to 97,664 acres operated in Skagit County, according to the data.
To compete against larger farms, smaller players have looked to diversify their crops and some have turned to the organic market, McMoran said.
From 2012 to 2017, the value of organic sales in Skagit County increased by 170% to $28.5 million, according to the data.
Land costs continue to rise in the county, from roughly $7,500 an acre in 2012 to over $10,100 an acre, according to the census.
“If they don’t have some capital to help them get started, it’s very difficult for (new farmers),” McMoran said.
Another concern is aging farmers, he said. The average age of a farmer in Skagit County is 58.4, according to the data.
To address that, the WSU Extension is looking at potential grants to support programs for beginning farmers and ranchers, he said.
With the number of farms declining and rising land costs, there is a need to help farmers get up and running, said Viva Farms Executive Director Michael Frazier.
Since 2009, Viva Farm’s incubator program has provided access to land, equipment and training, he said.
This year, 27 farmers are leasing land through the program, Frazier said.
Francisco Cabrera said through an interpreter that he joined Viva Farms in 2016 after previously working on a farm for nine years.
Cabrera said he and his family currently grow vegetables on 9 acres, and he dreams of expanding the farm and adding employees one day.
“I can manage my own time,” he said of running his own farm. “I’m always learning and have the resources to support my family.”
The agriculture census identified 441 new and beginning farmers — those with less than 11 years of experience — who operated a total of 20,000 acres in the county.
Other notable data includes an increase in irrigated land, McMoran said.
“That’s going to continue, especially with climate change and warmer, hotter summers,” he said. “Our farmers are making sure they’re getting enough water to their land.”
In the labor category, there were fewer workers hired in 2017, and labor expenses were up by nearly $20 million, pointing to a shortage of agricultural workers, he said.
— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: email@example.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH