New type of Earth-conscious farmer sprouting up in South Sound

I’m prone to the occasional impulse purchase at the grocery, hardware or big-box store. The latest was a pint of California-grown strawberries from a food stand on Olympia’s west side last weekend.

Looks can be deceiving, and these strawberries were just that — bright red and inviting, but disappointing in taste. They weren’t sweet or juicy. It reminded me why I usually wait until the Spooner Berry Farms crop from the fertile Chambers Prairie soils along Yelm Highway hits the fruit stands in June. I supplement with the 25 or so strawberry plants I have growing at Horsefeathers Farm.

I saw those California strawberries in the refrigerator Friday morning, pushed to the back of the middle shelf and destined for use in a smoothie – blended with blueberries left in the freezer from my last year’s crop – or, if all else fails, the compost bin.

The rhythm of the South Sound berry seasons – first the strawberries, then the raspberries, marionberries, blackberries and blueberries – will be upon us soon. The fresh-grown berries from South Sound farms serve as a tasty reminder that commercial agriculture still has a sizeable, albeit shrinking, foothold in Thurston County, generating annual income of $117 million in 2007.

“Agriculture has always been a big part of the Thurston County economy,” said Don Tapio, a well-respected WSU area extension agent and third- generation farmer in Rochester. “Agriculture continues to be in transition in Thurston County, but it’s very much alive today.”

Tapio teamed up with Kirsten Workman, a WSU small-farms extension educator in Mason County, last week to talk about the past, present and future of agriculture in South Sound as part of the “Spring Into History” lecture series at the State Capital Museum.

Back to strawberries. Tapio pointed out that strawberry production once was omnipresent in South Sound. He read from a 1934 notice in the Centralia Chronicle in which farmers put out a plea for about 3,000 berry pickers, reminding them they wouldn’t lose their Depression-era welfare benefits if they toiled in the fields.

“Back then, school was adjourned when it was time to pick the strawberries,” Tapio said, recalling trips his family made to the berry processing plant in Grand Mound to sell strawberries.

Relying on the U.S. Census of Agriculture (1939-1954), Tapio shared statistics that showed hundreds of dairy farms in South Sound, with many farms keeping herds of 10 to 20 cows.

“We have less than 10 dairies today,” Tapio said.

The same held true for poultry 60 years ago, with more than 600 poultry farms selling eggs in Thurston County. That number dropped to 450 in 1954 and continued to decline in the decades that followed, as more and more farmland succumbed to development.

According to a Thurston County farmland inventory recently completed by the South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust, the county has lost 90,000 acres of agricultural land since the 1950s to other uses.

Today’s farmland base is about 70,000 acres, or about 15 percent of the county land base. About three out of four of those acres is within 3 miles of an urban growth area.

While the average age of a Thurston County farmer is 57, a new breed of farmer is emerging. Workman likes to call that breed the “New American Farmer.”

The New American Farmer is likely to have a close connection to the consumer, selling at farm stands, at farmers markets or through community support agriculture (CSA), in which people buy a share of the harvest and receive a box of fresh food and flowers each week that varies with the growing season, Workman said. They also might sell to restaurants, local food co-ops and local grocery stores.

“The New American Farmer is economically, environmentally and community conscious,” she said. “But you can’t draw a picture and say what that farmer looks like.”

The New American Farmer relies more on organic fertilizers and less on chemicals. Thurston County ranks third among the 17 Western Washington counties in the number of certified organic acres, with 2,900.

The recent inventory also revealed that about half of the farmland in Thurston County contains or sits next to important fish and wildlife habitat, which might make the properties eligible for federal conservation programs but also can put pressure on the farmers to manage their land for wildlife habitat, not crops.

Someone in the audience asked Tapio what’s the best way to preserve farmland.

“Purchase and transfer of development rights,” he replied, referring to government programs that pay farmers the real estate potential of their land.

“Protect the farmers, not the farmland,” Tapio said. “When you get down to the third or fourth generation on a farm, they don’t let go of the family farm.”

That was Tapio speaking from the heart.


After singing the praises of Mother’s Day plant sales by South Sound schools and nonprofit groups, I’d be remiss not to mention the success of the DirtWorks Demonstration Garden plant sale May 16.

About 1,000 people flocked to the DirtWorks garden behind Olympia’s Yauger Park, compared with 600 a year ago, said Cori Carlton, Thurston County Master Gardener and Master Composter program manager.

The group spent $15,000 on ornamental plants and shrubs, trees, berry plants and vegetables. The tomato plants – I bought four – sold out in three hours, and 3,700 vegetable starts left the garden, headed for backyard vegetable plots.

Good prices, good quality and good causes – the money supports the three demonstration gardens tended by the Master Gardeners Foundation of Thurston County – is a winning combination.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444