Plan would help protect county’s working farms

The first rule of growing an economy and increasing jobs is to hold onto the businesses and jobs you have and help them grow. For Pierce County farmers, it is planting season, and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy has planted the seeds to grow our local agriculture industry. It is now up to county residents, the Planning Commission and the County Council to help it grow.

The market value of the agricultural products sold by Pierce County farmers is $90.9 million, an increase of $7 million since 2007. Our agricultural industry is now larger than the tourist economy generated by Mount Rainier ($33 million).

The total land in agricultural production is increasing, from 47,000 acres to 49,000 to meet the demand. Despite the urban nature of our county, we rank 19th in the state for market value of products sold.

As Pierce County’s Comprehensive Plan comes up for renewal before the Planning Commission on April 22, it is time for county government to recognize the value of the agricultural economy. The county executive has done just that. The proposal calls for conserving the county’s “prime agriculture soils” – the 61,000 acres that are not in urban growth areas or already committed to other uses in Pierce County’s Agricultural Resource Lands (ARL) Comprehensive Plan Designation.

Conserving Agricultural Resource Lands protects more than 1,800 farm jobs. It also creates an opportunity to grow the economy. This proposed revision to the Comprehensive Plan gives our farms room to grow over the next two decades.

Protecting working farms is cost effective, too. According to a American Farmland Trust’s research of Western Washington counties like Skagit and Pierce, for each $1 farmers pay in taxes in working farmlands, they use only 51 cents in public services while contributing 49 cents to the taxpayers in the county. Whereas for each $1 residential development and sprawl pay in taxes, they cost $1.25 in public services, police, fire and schools.

Setting aside prime soils for agriculture is a very low-cost way to provide infrastructure for agriculture expansion. It saves taxpayers money, protects farmers and creates jobs in Pierce County.

Pierce County farmers also grow good-tasting and nutritious food for local families. The berry fields, pumpkin patches and produce stands create memories for countless Pierce County families.

These prime soils provide the ability for local farms to feed us while droughts in California and on Midwest farms reduce agricultural production.

Some school districts and rural communities are concerned by the proposal. School districts are in a pinch. Over the years they bought rural lands anticipating growth and increased demand for new schools. They have a point, and their concerns have been heard.

This is not an impossible situation. We can have both schools and protect farmland. The county executive and her staff plan to offer an amendment to the Planning Commission to exclude schools and other publically owned land from designation as agricultural lands.

In addition, the Pierce County Buildable Lands Report documents that we have enough land in our urban growth areas for all of the non-farm jobs, businesses and housing anticipated over the next 20 years. Good legislation finds the middle ground that includes both sides of an issue.

For 20 years our Comprehensive Plan has curbed suburban sprawl and lowered the cost of extending public facilities and services while providing for local job growth. The seeds planted in 2015 to increase protection for working farms will help grow the agricultural industry and agricultural jobs. It will also help grow tasty local food for everyone including grocery stores, restaurants and our families.

Larry Bailey has farmed Clean Food farm in Pierce County for four years and has worked in agriculture for more than 10 years. Kirk Kirkland has represented Tahoma Audubon Society on issues concerning land use and suburban sprawl for 20 years.