In early 2018, King County and its partners launched the Working Farmland Partnership (WFP) to connect farmland owners with farmers looking to establish or expand their business. We interviewed Melissa Borsting, King County Project/Program Manager focused on the WFP, to better understand what the WFP means for local food, how the partnership works, and the successes and challenges faced by this project so far.
“The Working Farmland Partnership at its core is a collaboration to address the Local Food Initiative goal of 400 new acres per year in food production,” Melissa said. “PCC Farmland Trust, SnoValley Tilth, Tilth Alliance, King County, and the King Conservation District are the partners who helped launch the pilot year of this program.
“The WFP works to support new and existing farmers seeking access to farmland in a county where land is really expensive. It is hard to buy land and leasing can be complicated – the WFP actively helps to address this challenge,” she said.
In some cases it is just a matter of connecting interested landowners and land seekers. But in other cases there are challenges to getting a piece of property ready to be farmed. In these cases the WFP will launch a project team that can draw from resources throughout the region to address specific barriers such as drainage, road access, financing, and equipment needs.
A project team will spend time walking a landowner’s property and identifying specific issues and opportunities. They then connect landowners to resources to address any issues, help navigate permitting processes and regulatory hurdles, and assist with finding the right farmer to lease the property.
“Once a match is made, we encourage having a good, solid lease that is going to help both parties,” Melissa said. “We are certainly happy to work with landowners who have specific goals for their land and can provide resources so they can craft a lease that will meet their interests. If a landowner has specific concerns, those can get laid out and be clear to both parties.”
WFP’s one-on-one approach
“We have focused on creating a process that can really clearly understand participants’ goals and interests so that we can find the best match possible,” Melissa said.
Rather than using surveys, the WFP takes a one-on-one approach, using place-based, farmer-run programs to help connect farmers with land opportunities.
“We have found major value in getting to know landowners personally to glean how well, or not so well, those people would work with farmers we are trying to place,” she said.
Clear communication is key.
“When we talk to landowners we have to be careful we don’t overpromise and infer that we or the farmers will solve all of their problems,” Melissa said. “We also have to be careful to match farmers and landowners who are a good fit. If you find a match and it flops, the relationship between partners and the farmers and landowners is going to be challenged.”
She also said that having so many partners, especially partners who have farmers on staff, is very beneficial for finding interested farmers.
“We rely heavily on the partners we have to find farmers. SnoValley Tilth is on the ground, and they’re a group of farmers who has their own process of communication, outreach, and WFP promotion on their website,” Melissa said. “PCC Farmland Trust’s Farm to Farmer is a community-based, farmland matching program and is a key part of farmer engagement. Many people know them and come to them. They’re also very focused on outreach.”
A two- or three- way partnership sounds tough, but five? A five-way partnership isn’t simple.
“In this pilot year, we spent a lot of time figuring out exactly how this collaboration would work with different partners,” Melissa said. “Each partner has ways that they already engage in ‘land matching’ so figuring out how to maintain our own processes while finding ways to support each other has been the focus.
“It’s been great – one of the committees of the WFP is the Land Matching Working Group, which is made up of people who are on the ground talking to farmers and landowners,” she said. “This group ensures we are communicating often and that’s been essential. We will also be adding new partners in 2019 to continue to best serve farmer and landowner needs.”
One of the key objectives of the WFP is to strategically focus resources on bringing idle farmland back into production to meet the 4,000 net new acres goal over 10 years. King County’s 2017 agricultural land use survey identified over 5,500 acres of “farmable but unfarmed” land. The WFP is currently reaching out to owners of many of those lands to determine whether the WFP team can help return some of those lands to active food production.
“The survey identified potential landowners for us, and when a landowner is interested we walk their property alongside them to learn what the opportunities and barriers are for farming there,” Melissa said. “That helps us understand what type of farm business would thrive on the site.”
What are the next steps for the Working Farmland Partnership?
“Expanding on the project team model, outreach to landowners and farmers, and bringing in more partners – there are a lot of resources for farmers trying to find that right fit and we want to help make that connection,” she said. “I think identifying barriers and figuring out a path forward is important. We want to be a part of moving through some of these hurdles to local food production and really supporting farmers in the process. The Local Food Initiative encourages increased local food production but we can’t just say, ‘We need local foods, go farm!’ Recognizing farmland is a finite resource is essential. We need to understand how farmland is currently being used and get fallow land into production in a way that takes care of the land and the farmer utilizing it.
The Working Farmland Partnership recently received a regional food system grant from the King Conservation District that will keep the model going through 2019.
“With this funding we can take the lessons learned in this pilot year to get more properties ready for local food production and support farmers in finding the right site for their business,” Melissa said.
If you are interested in leasing your property for agricultural production, a farmer seeking land, or just wanting to get more information, please get in touch with a member of the Working Farmland Partnership.
- Landowners/farmers interested in land in Snoqualmie Valley: Sean Stratman, SnoValley Tilth, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Landowners/farmers interested in land on Vashon Island: Tom Dean, Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, email@example.com
- Landowners/farmers interested in land elsewhere in King County and general WFP information: Lily Gottlieb-McHale, PCC Farmland Trust, firstname.lastname@example.org