Snoqualmie River Farm – still known to some as Beyers Farm – sits along the Snoqualmie River in the heart of the Snoqualmie Valley’s farming community. When the Beyers family decided to sell the land, they wanted to ensure it stayed in agricultural production. King County purchased the site as part of the Farmland Preservation Program in 2019, and it includes 20 acres of rich farming land that are now available to beginning growers who have their sights set on commercial agriculture.
To accomplish this mission, King County’s Farmland Leasing Program has partnered with SnoValley Tilth (SVT) to manage and place growers on Snoqualmie River Farm. The Local Food Initiative team talked with Dave Glenn, Executive Director at SVT, about how this land access model has enhanced one of their key programs, the Experience Farming Project.
Dave has spent his career pursuing conservation and education. He joined the SVT team one year ago, inspired by the organization’s history helping farmers become more sustainable in their growing practices. Since its start in 2003, the organization has always placed an emphasis on community building between farmers to accomplish its mission.
Dave says, “It was a group of farmers that were really interested in organic farming practices that came together, and it was back when there were a lot of people trying things out, and they were determining what works in these big river valleys that have their own their own little microclimates and growing conditions and soils. They were sharing and coming together and bonding with one another because farming can be pretty lonely…it was an opportunity for them to connect with one-another. And so that was the impetus for the organization – a networking and shared learning opportunity for folks.”
These peer learning opportunities are still central to SVT’s program offerings, including its Farm Services Program in which experienced farmers are positioned to lead workshops for other growers throughout the year. SVT’s other main program, the Experience Farming Project (a recipient of King Conservation District funding) encompasses its work at Snoqualmie River Farm and is focused on helping farmers have two key inputs to growing their business: knowledge and the land necessary to get started.
“The Experience Farming Project helps emerging farm businesses by providing them stable land tenure, stable where they’re able to grow their business for up to five years, without concern about land tenure and without them having to make significant financial inputs into the infrastructure needed for farming,” Dave says. “[At Snoqualmie River Farm] we have a handful farmers that are working side by side and sharing what’s working there, and how they’re how they’re dealing with pressure from pests and things like that. There’s really this neat network of peer learning going on.
“The site is really impressive, as is the community that’s grown up around it. These farmers are bringing their own skills and background and experience, and they’re problem solving with one another and helping each other. It’s not a competitive environment at all. It’s all about helping each other grow so they can produce.”
The organization also sees benefits for the land itself.
“SnoValley Tilth works to improve land that has been underutilized,” Dave says. “That has been our model for the Experience Farming Project sites that we’ve had, to help bring land back into full production while hosting farmers that are working on growing their own businesses.”
Dave says the partnership with King County has increased SVT’s capacity to do this work.
“The amount of support that King County provides through the agricultural program makes it possible for SnoValley Tilth do its work, so huge thanks to the county for helping make resources available, for making this land available to SVT and ultimately to the farmers who are working in the community. Our shared goal of returning acreage within King County to farming is perfectly aligned with the SVT mission to have more of our food grown locally.”
Dave says the Snoqualmie River Farm site in particular was a great match for this vision and has a strong level of biodiversity, which the sustainable growers from SVT appreciate.
“The Snoqualmie Valley has some of the best growing soil around, and so [Snoqualmie River Farm] being nestled right against the Snoqualmie River and with an incredible roughly 20 acres of farmable land that needed some infrastructure work, this fit the model that we were looking for,” Dave says. “We were looking for land that needed a little bit of work that we could help customize and make sure that the farmers could farm effectively there and then place farmers that needed a home.”
Access to land is especially important in King County, where Dave cites “the ability to purchase or lease land at affordable rates for farmers” as a major challenge for farm businesses that are trying to become profitable. At Snoqualmie River Farm, growers are responsible for purchasing some materials – such as tools, seed, and soil amendments – but are not responsible for any of the site’s infrastructure or maintenance outside of their own plots. SVT and King County have provided irrigation, a wash station, and cold storage for farm products that are waiting to be sold.
Dave says, “All of that [infrastructure] adds up to significant expense for new farmers, and so the Experience Farming Project lessens that burden just a little bit to get them a start. Then, as they graduate the program and go on to their own land elsewhere ultimately, there’s an opportunity for them to have grown their business sustainably so that maybe they have a little bit of money to be able to do that in the future. They’ll test out their farm business [at Snoqualmie River Farm] so they know it works.”
Growers have up to five years on their plots at Snoqualmie River Farm. Ranging in size from a quarter acre to 2 acres, the plots currently host seven different farm businesses. All of these growers are required to have some farming experience in order to qualify, such as having worked as an employee on a farm previously. Dave says SVT partners closely with organizations like Viva Farms that are more focused on training new farmers, and SVT sees its Experience Farming Project as an incubator of farm businesses that are preparing for the next step – their own land.
In addition to a strong culture of peer learning, SVT has staff member Sean Stratman who is dedicated to supporting the growers at Snoqualmie River Farm.
“Sean’s role is to help coordinate the needs of the farmers at the site,” Dave says. “So that might include plot selection on the site, making sure that they’re in the right location. Sean also helps connect growers to resources and is a knowledgeable farmer himself. For example, if someone’s tractor breaks, he will introduce them to the local tractor repair person. If they’re struggling with a particular crop, maybe he’ll introduce them to somebody who knows a little bit more about that crop, or maybe he’ll provide a little bit of advice itself. Ultimately, the growing is on the farmer themselves, but there’s this network of resources, starting with Sean as a connector.”
Once farmers have completed the program at Snoqualmie River Farm, Dave says that Sean and the team at SVT are prepared to help growers find their own land to lease or purchase that meet their needs.
“Success is different for every farmer,” he says. “For some farmers, this is a second job for them, and they’re comfortable with it being that. Other farmers ultimately want to be only farming, making a living at that, so we want to respond to individual desires of the farmers.”
Dave sees many benefits for farmers who choose to grow here in King County, especially strong market access.
“A lot of our farmers are choosing to grow with direct to consumer models, so they’re selling CSAs perhaps, at farm stands, at farmers markets,” he says. “Having so many people here locally is really important. You don’t have to travel far to get to market. I also think there’s an element of eco-conscious consumer culture here in our region. Folks like knowing how their food was grown and respond well to farmers that are using practices that are more sustainable, something all of our farmers are working to do.”
But the same population growth that help fill the farmers markets also contributes to a higher cost of living in King County, and Dave cites this as a challenge for farmers who are trying to be self-sustaining and make a living wage. Another challenge that’s especially pertinent for farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley is climate change. In one of last month’s heavy rainstorms, the front field at Snoqualmie River Farm flooded, and Dave says this is an ongoing challenge associated with cultivation in the area.
Not all of the farmable land at Snoqualmie River Farm is in production currently, but it’s a goal that SVT is working toward. Expanding the necessary infrastructure to accommodate more growers will take a few more years, and in the meantime, they are sowing cover crops to maintain soil health and prevent erosion in the face of floods.
Dave is optimistic about the expansion and the potential for Snoqualmie River Farm to help the next generation of growers launch sustainable farm businesses.
“Ultimately, what we what we’d like to see in the Snoqualmie and Snohomish River Valleys is a really thriving ecosystem of farmers,” Dave says. “And in the broader community, consumers who are excited about local food that’s grown with practices that are environmentally friendly and healthy for folks to consume.”
When asked about what’s been most personally rewarding about his work with SVT, Dave cites the response of farmers to the difficult events of the past year.
“The thing that I am in awe of farmers about is their resiliency,” he says. “Many farm businesses that were dependent on restaurant sales or other revenue streams that were interrupted by COVID pivoted and continued to feed our community. I’m impressed with the generosity of farmers, both with their knowledge, but also with their product. A lot of farmers are selling to nonprofits that feed people in need. And then of course with how hard they work. This summer we saw 110 degrees in the Snoqualmie Valley, and folks were either getting up at the crack of dawn or working late to try avoid the heat of the day…there’s just a remarkable resilience to farmers that has been a joy to be around over the last year.”
Dave says, “We hope that farmers are able to find profit and find joy in the work that they’re doing.”
To learn more about SnoValley Tilth and support their work, visit www.snovalleytilth.org/.