On a recent afternoon, Carnation local and 12-year farmer Margaret Hindle cracks open a purple can of pomegranate sparkling water near her plot of land on the floor of the Snoqualmie Valley. A row of large cabbage showcased an even darker palate of purple behind her.
Hindle is one of some 22 farmers who has participated in the SnoValley Tilth’s Experience Farming Project, and the only current farmer at the project’s second farm. The Experience Farming Project, or EFP, is a program that was developed in 2012 and designed to give farmers with at least a season of experience the chance to work their own land. A big part of the program is access to shared equipment which can often price new farmers out of farming from the get-go.
For Hindle, that meant access to a first tilling and cover crop cycle when she started, which helps prep the soil for planting. This is the fourth year in a row where Hindle has been in the same place.
“I think the Experience Farming Project is great,” she said. “It’s a place where people can come and physically start farming.”
Hindle’s plot of land was busy producing a variety of vegetables including tomatoes, squash, onions and cabbage. The property is the second of two sites where the EFP has set up, with another at Stuart’s Landing. King County recently purchased Beyers’ Place to be used for the EFP’s second site.
County executive Dow Constantine recently toured the farm which houses a 20-acre field. About 10 acres are currently farmable and another five could be farmable next year with drainage improvements. Much of the acreage is filled with buckwheat, a cover crop that can be tilled to return nutrients to the soil ahead of edible crop farming.
Hindle said more farmers should be able to use the acreage next year. At 60, she said she’s slowing down a bit and didn’t go to any farmers markets this year. She instead opted to only sell to local restaurants and a direct-to-customer model. She also sells to nonprofits which provide food to low-income people who lack access to fresh vegetables.
Hindle said she wanted to get into farming earlier, but access to tractors and equipment like wash stations and coolers was a barrier.
“It shouldn’t take as long as it took me to get established,” she said.
Sean Stratman, one of the first farmers who started the EFP, said of the 22 farm businesses which have enrolled since 2014 some 17 are still actively farming. Farmers start with a small plot, usually between a quarter-to-half acre of land and can increase its size up to 2 acres if they stick with it. The program only accepts farmers who have experience, either through farming elsewhere or by going through a program.
Once farmers complete these, the EFP can give them a big initial boost.
“Having access to these while you’re having your farm business started allows the beginning farm business owner to invest resources in equipment, soil fertility, feeds, marketing material. It allows them to focus on the other up-front costs,” Stratman said.
The EFP is also considering longer-term leases and the possibility of paying farmers for creating equity for restoring and maintaining the soil. Often times farmers grow various crops throughout the season, boosting the productivity of the acreage.
“It’s not always about how many acres are being farmed — a lot of it is the intensity and the stewardship involved in the actual growing operations,” Stratman said.
Another hurdle small farmers face is the way the county structures farmland preservation. King County has been buying development rights as a way to preserve farmland. However, once those tracts are protected by the county they cannot be subdivided. While that keeps farmland from being developed, it can also hurt the chances of smaller farmers to purchase or lease farmland.
Much of the farmland in King County used to be dairy farms, which required much more land than small farmers could support. It can be difficult for smaller or new farmers to raise money to farm plots of land larger than a few acres. However, Stratman said the EFP is working on ways to get multiple farmers on larger plots.