The substantial increase in home prices has led many Seattlites and developers to move away from dense urban areas and toward more rural places, like Snohomish County and Duvall, to get more “bang for their buck.”
Willow Fultz — who is from Des Moines, south of Seattle but in the same King County, and a soon-to-be graduate of Central Washington University, which is east in Kittitas County — is preparing for a career in agritourism. With a goal of 15-25 acres, Fultz wants to own and develop farmland for metropolitan families to tour and learn about farm life.
“I want to stay close to my parents and my partners’ parents, but farmland just keeps getting further and further away.”
Enumclaw, Covington and Maple Valley, all south of Des Moines but also in King County, are areas Fultz has her eyes on, but her search for affordable land hasn’t been fruitful.
“You’ll get these properties that don’t sound too bad, but then the property is full of timber, so it’s not accessible for farming,” Fultz said.
Fultz explained that the market for farmland in King County is narrow, and prices range from $300,000 for vacant lots with no amenities to $4 million luxury ranch homes. Fultz said graduates like her are at a crossroad of leaving behind rich state culture and starting not a new chapter but a whole new book in a foreign region that has more land options.
“Everybody wants that small piece of ‘I want to get away somewhere.’ And unfortunately, Washington has become the winning lotto ticket of beautiful green land,” Fultz said.
Persis Acworth, the farm manager of the University of Washington farm, has experience with the difficulties of being a first-time land buyer in the agriculture industry. Acworth purchased raw acreage in the green pastures of Union, Maine, where she started a 17-year-long career raising livestock.
Her land lacked the basic amenities of septic, electricity and running water. “That was the only thing I could afford,” Acworth said. “And that was quite some time ago.”
Acworth said that back then, she had to compete for land after the 9/11 attacks triggered a mass migration of people moving away from crowded cities, which led to inflated land prices in the Northeast.
Since moving to Washington in 2012, Acworth said she has seen another kind of ripple effect, this time due to big businesses moving in. “Southcenter [mall] in Seattle, that used to be all farmland,” she said. Acworth added that the wine industry is also purchasing sizable farmland chunks; for example, small-scale apple farmers in the Okanagan Valley are seeing their groves disappear as wineries swoop in and take over the rural land in that region north to Canada.
The high financial stress of maintaining these lands has contributed to an aging out of family-owned farms, leaving many people wondering where the next generation of non-corporate-owned farms will come from.
Acworth said one solution for small farmers just starting out might be a robust incubator farming network. Viva Farms, a nonprofit organization, currently has incubator farms set up in Skagit County and King County. The models mean farmers lease land for a set time period, pay an annual lease below the real estate market value and commute to the farm every day.
These farms function as cooperatives, Acworth said. Services and equipment — like tractors, walk-in coolers and organic certification — would be provided to the farmer. This would help take some of the financial burden off new farmers’ shoulders.
“It’s a step to establishing credibility, ownership and a brand name,” Acworth said. That is a support system she lacked when she stepped into the ag industry.
Acworth can see there are disadvantages to this way of farming. “As a livestock farmer, you cannot live remotely.” Pointing to the chickens she cares for at the on-campus farm, Acworth said, “Even they need to be checked on at least once a day.”
A person with a similar perspective is Bryce Henderson, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Ellensburg, Washington, who is witnessing his grazing landscape shrink. This sleepy farming community halfway between Seattle and Spokane has become a popular choice for retirees and Central University students in need of affordable housing.
“The unfortunate thing with rural America is a lot of people are finally starting to discover these gorgeous cool places, and they want to live there,” Henderson said. “Now we’re trying to have to raise animals and farm on more marginal, lower-quality ground.”
Henderson smiles as 13 of his cows, bellies swollen with pregnancy, slowly make their way up a grassy knoll. This December, Henderson has been keeping track of 30 expectant cows, assisting in their birthing and monitoring extreme temperature drops. A birth during freezing temperatures could easily kill a newborn within hours.
Flying Box Ranch is a small, family-operated ranch, but Bryce’s parents are nearing retirement age. Henderson, the youngest of three, is proud to take control of the family’s farm, while his older siblings chose to pursue other careers.
“It’s a lot more than just work; it’s a lifestyle,” Henderson said. “I feel like the definition of love is in the good and the bad. There’s days out here it could be blistering hot or pouring down rain … and things are just not working out. But I still love it.”
According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 727,906 beef farms and ranches operate in the United States; 91% of them are family-owned or individually operated. But family-owned ranchers often cannot count on getting a price for their cattle to survive from year to year. What profit is made is often put toward large real estate payments and, over the winter, feeding hay can cost $170 per head of cattle.
There are 2,100 large feedlots in the U.S., and four large meatpacking plants control 85% of the market. The profit ranchers get from selling their calves is dictated by giant conglomerates like Tyson Foods Inc.
Henderson said that this year, beef prices are low and expenses incurred to raise the cattle are very high. He worries if processing plants close or reduce capacity, he will see another wave of price declines, dropping his ranch income dramatically.
“Lockdowns affect everything,” Henderson said. “Even the lumber we use to build fence corrals is two times more expensive.”
Henderson wishes he could afford more land, but at the same time, it economically makes more sense to lease pastures out from his neighbors. Tucking his hands in his pockets, Bryce stares out at the sloping golden hills of Kittitas County and the snow-capped peaks beyond. He says, “It doesn’t get much prettier than that.”
Read more in the Jan. 27 - Feb. 2, 2021 issue.