When it comes to the top issues facing Skagit County farmers in 2018, Washington State University Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran says it can be narrowed down to three: water, labor and the economic viability of local farms.
McMoran, a fourth-generation Skagit County farmer with a master’s degree in agriculture and education, has a firsthand and academic perspective on the county's agricultural issues.
Here, he highlights the main concerns.
Over the years, Skagit County has transitioned from mostly pasture-based dairy farms to high-value crops such as potatoes, berries and vegetable seeds, McMoran said.
"Unfortunately, these new crops and hotter, drier summer temperatures increase the need for irrigation water with no avenue for Skagit farmers to receive additional legal water rights," McMoran said in an email.
The current water regulations employ a "use it or lose it" policy for agriculture, which means farmers can't sell leftover water rights to other farmers, McMoran said.
"In a perfect world, a farmer could implement new practices and use the water savings for other fields or crops or be able to sell that water to a neighbor," McMoran said in an email. "In the area of irrigation water law, there is much work to be done."
Opinions on agricultural water rights are diverse and contentious, McMoran said.
"If you want five different opinions, talk to five different farmers," he said. "But from a WSU perspective, there needs to be incentives within the system for water conservation as well as new technologies and water saving through those technologies."
Labor has become harder to find for Skagit County farmers, McMoran said in an email. Most farmers are short at least a few workers, and if a farm doesn’t have labor, crops can go unharvested.
To compensate for the shortage, McMoran said Skagit County farmers are increasingly turning to technology to reduce their labor needs.
"We're seeing tractors that have GPS technology," McMoran said. "We're just a few years away from tractors that are completely automated."
As technology has advanced, harvesting by hand has given way to machines operated by steam, internal combustion and electricity, he said.
"The farms of the future will have more robots and less people," McMoran said in an email.
He said he worries about the unintended consequences of this tactic.
"My fear is that someday the robots will no longer function and because we will have become so reliant on their assistance, the masses will go without food," he said.
There are 6 million people living along the Interstate 5 corridor between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, McMoran said, and data indicates many of them prefer to buy local.
According to a 2017 report on regional food systems, 87 percent of consumers say availability of local food impacts their choice of a primary supermarket, and 75 percent of grocery shoppers purchase local products at least monthly.
"There's a lot of money in the consumer preference to buy in the local area," McMoran said. "So we need to make sure we're meeting the needs of those consumers."
One way of tapping into that market is agriculture-based tourism, McMoran said, something that's beginning to show up in the county.
"It's a great piece for the puzzle and has some potential to bring in a lot of money," McMoran said. "We just have to make sure it's done correctly. Keeping our authenticity as an agricultural community is very important."
Many local farmers' financial strife stems from having to stand out in the global marketplace, McMoran said.
From apples to barley, Skagit farmers find themselves competing against large commercial farms all over the world.
While Skagit County has the advantage of producing crops such as spinach seed, which can be difficult to grow elsewhere, McMoran said local farms are still grappling with the consolidation and commercialization of farming.
"The larger the farm, the less cost-per-unit of production," he said.
This drives commodity prices lower, McMoran said, making it more difficult for Skagit County farms to remain in production.
"We realize that the Skagit County agriculture we know and love today may not be the Skagit County agriculture of the future," McMoran said.