Three decades ago, a grassroots movement to protect farmland in Skagit County was started.
Those involved wanted to ensure the area’s farmland — declared by the federal government in 1925 as the best in the country — was not paved over and lost to development, and that agriculture remained viable.
Those efforts led to the founding of the Skagit County Farmland Legacy Program in 1996. In its 25th year, the county-led program has permanently protected about 13,500 acres.
That is about 16% of the roughly 89,000 acres designated as Agricultural-Natural Resource land in Skagit County.
The program, which is similar to others throughout the country, protects farmland through the purchase of development rights. The money to purchase those rights primarily comes from the county’s conservation futures tax.
Agricultural-Natural Resource landowners can sell their development rights and place their property under a conservation easement. The easement permanently restricts use of the land to farming.
Landowners continue to own their land, and can rent or sell their property, but the easement stays with the land.
Allen Rozema, executive director of the nonprofit Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, said the county program is the most active and successful farmland protection program in the state.
“It’s helping keep farmers on the ground and keeping farmland intact,” he said. “It’s a tool to keep farms profitable, and a tool to keep land in agricultural production in perpetuity.”
Rozema said loss of any farmland hurts all local farmers because it limits the practice of crop rotation in Skagit County.
The roughly 80 crops grown in Skagit County are rotated from field to field each year to preserve soil quality and prevent disease.
In addition to protecting land, the program also serves as a financial tool for farmers, and is a way to keep a farm in the family.
Landowners have used funds from selling their development rights to buy land and equipment, boost farm income, reduce debt, and to pass a farm onto the next generation, according to 2017 report on the program.
There are other benefits, too.
Protecting farmland preserves open space and rural atmosphere, supports food production and the agricultural economy, reduces sprawl, limits development in the floodplain, conserves soil and provides wildlife habitat, the report states.
Skagit County has protected the second-highest number of farmland acres in the state, behind only King County, according to a 2021 report from the American Farmland Trust that looked at farmland conservation programs throughout the country.
The county recently created a new position — agricultural lands coordinator — to oversee the program. Sarah Stoner was hired for the role last spring.
Stoner said Skagit County’s program has been successful because of the ongoing funding it receives from the county’s conservation futures tax for farmland preservation.
“We have our Skagit residents and our county commissioners to thank for their foresight 25 years ago,” she said.
In 1996, commissioners enacted the conservation futures tax, following a survey that showed strong support from county residents for farmland protection and the use of tax dollars to do it.
Stoner said the 13,500 acres protected are owned by about 150 landowners. Another 500 acres are in the process of gaining protection.
She said the county has spent about $23 million, including $13.4 million in conservation future tax revenue, to purchase development rights over the past 25 years. State and federal grants and private fundraising have contributed another $9.5 million.
Two appraisals are conducted to determine the value of a development right.
The land is appraised with a development right, and then without it, and the landowner is paid the difference between those two amounts. The landowner is compensated for permanently extinguishing the development right on their property.
Stoner said the county has set aside $1.8 million for the program in 2022.
Taking advantage of the program
As the price of farmland has gone up, potato grower Jerry Nelson has used the Farmland Legacy Program to help reduce the cost of buying land.
“If I buy (land) and sell the development rights, it goes toward lowering the price,” he said.
His farm, Norm Nelson Inc., based in Burlington, has the most acres of any landowner who has participated in the program. Nelson estimates his farm has 1,600 acres in the program — about 11% of the total acres protected.
He said another benefit of the program is it limits residential development on farmland, helping reduce potential conflicts between farms and their nonfarm neighbors.
By selling their development rights, landowners give up their right to build a single-family home on a minimum lot size of 40 acres — which is allowed on Agricultural-Natural Resource lands under the county’s zoning regulations.
Under the conservation easement, landowners can construct new buildings only for farming purposes, such as barns and crop storage sheds. They can also build roads for agricultural uses.
However, the program limits impervious surfaces (pavement) to 2% or 5% of the total acreage, and prohibits subdivision.
Scott DeGraw, a farmer and chair of the program’s advisory committee, said those interested in the program should educate themselves on these restrictions.
For example, the program wouldn’t work for a farmer who wanted to build a house or other nonfarm building on their property in the future, he said.
“You do need to plan accordingly,” he said.
DeGraw said the program sees two major groups of applicants: farmers looking to invest in land, and farm widows and widowers.
He said the second group often uses the program to keep their family’s land in agriculture, rather than sell it off.
“We love to see families who are willing to do this for the long-term sake of agriculture in the valley,” DeGraw said.
A key 285 acres preserved
Sitting in his living room last month, David Pierson looked out over the large field of Brussels sprouts growing across the street from his house. The land, off Cook Road just west of Interstate 5, is part of the 600 acres his family has farmed for four generations.
Today, he rents the land to Skagit Valley Farm, a large-scale vegetable grower.
A portion of that land — 285 acres — recently became part of the Farmland Legacy Program. The county paid Pierson $680,000 to forgo seven development rights on the property.
Pierson said if his family was to sell the land in the future, the conservation easement would prevent the new owner from dividing the land into seven 40-acre lots and building a home on each.
“The $5 million mansion on 40 acres from the Seattleite, we’re stopping that,” he said.
The land is significant for farmland preservation in Skagit County in part because of its location.
On the east side of I-5 sits a Starbucks, a gas station, a bikini barista stand, and several chain restaurants — a high-development area where the potential for farmland to be lost to development is greatest.
Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, which focuses on farmland preservation near high-development areas, raised some of the funds to protect the Pierson land.
Rozema said protecting the property also discourages sprawl. He said developers lose economic incentive to put in infrastructure if they cannot build on the 285-acre piece of land.
Pierson said the area has been a hot spot for development ever since I-5 was constructed in the early 1960s. He said his parents had their door knocked on by everyone from home builders to golf course developers.
In the late 1980s, a developer’s proposal to build a agriculture-themed tourism development of 30 to 50 acres of the land faced swift backlash from the farming community. The controversy ignited a farmland conversation movement that ultimately led to the creation of the Farmland Legacy Program.
Pierson said his family was surprised by the backlash at the time.
“It kind of really showed just how much the general public values the farmland,” he said. “It opened the eyes of people and brought up the question ‘What can be done to justifiably keep farmland owners from selling off valuable, food-producing farmland to development?’”
Ken and Sue Christianson were among the farming families who came together to oppose the tourism development in the late 1980s, and were founding board members of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland.
Ken Christianson said the county’s program has had a significant impact in limiting the selling of farmland for development. He said other areas of the county, not core farming zones, are better suited to development.
“The tillable ag land really is a limited resource, and we should continue to shepherd that for the common good of the local area and the country,” he said.
Sue Christianson said one of the questions county residents asked themselves when the farmland preservation movement took hold was whether they wanted the Skagit Valley to look like some of the communities south of Seattle.
“That was all farmland, and now it’s nothing but warehouse after warehouse,” she said. “I can recall someone saying ‘Do you want to look like that?’ No, we don’t. We like the valley the way it is.”