Thursday, February 19, 2009

GARDENING: Small farms growing rapidly in Clark County

Amateurs prosper as bigger operations fall by the wayside

Monday, February 16

Professional farmers, large and small, seem to get all the attention. But in Clark County, it's the amateurs who've really been delivering the goods.

Unsung, unorganized and unsupported by most federal subsidies, backyard fruit, vegetable and meat growers have been popping up in the county almost as fast as the biggest farms have been dying, new federal statistics show.

"This is something I'm doing because I love doing it," said Jacki Johnson, 64, of Ridgefield.

Johnson, newly retired and on the lookout for extra cash, said she earned $4,000 last year by selling plants at specialty shows and the Battle Ground Farmers Market for $5 to $15 apiece.

"I hope to make a little more this year," she said.

Johnson and her husband, Rick, own one of an estimated 1,943 farm operations in the county that brought in less than $25,000 annually in 2007, according to federal Census of Agriculture figures released this month.

That's up 36 percent from the number of small farms in 2002. All told, the little farms earned $5.7 million in 2007, up 33 percent from five years before.

Like many small business owners, Johnson discovered her market by accident. A longtime gardener, she started selling a few plants for a church fundraiser and for the Vanridge Garden Club.

People snapped them up and asked for more.

"It was a total and complete surprise," she said Monday.

Now, Johnson said, she works eight hours in the garden every summer weekday, then another eight hours at the Saturday market to sell her plants.

Big farms keep fading
Small-scale entrepreneurs such as Johnson have been succeeding in a time when, according to the same federal study, big farms are dying in Clark County faster than almost anywhere in the state.

Local dairy and produce farms with more than $100,000 in gross revenue continue to close amid competition from bigger operations and the rising value of developed land.

Between 2002 and 2007, 41 of the county's 94 big farms disappeared. So did $4 million of their $46 million in revenue.

Only three counties — Kitsap, Pend Oreille and San Juan — saw such a rapid drop in the number of big farms.

"Since '02, things have changed dramatically around here," said Brenda Millar-Stanton, a Felida produce farmer who also coordinates the Battle Ground market.

Millar-Stanton aspires to join a third group of farmers: those with small professional operations that bring in between $25,000 and $100,000.

That group grew 38 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the federal study, but their sales grew by only 11 percent, to $5 million.

Like many farmers, Millar-Stanton says the five-year Census of Agriculture is cursed by inaccurate data.

Some farmers refuse to participate, she said, because they fear being reported for tax violations. Others might claim farming income that doesn't exist, fearing that they might lose tax benefits.

Still, Millar-Stanton said the story told by the federal numbers is probably true: These days, a substantial and growing amount of local agriculture comes from small amateur farmers.

Johnson, the backyard entrepreneur, said she's not an environmentalist or a social revolutionary like some full-time local farmers.

She just likes gardening.

"I'm not one of those people who are a — a green person," Johnson said. "I'm a normal person. I grow things pesticide-free because I want to walk into my garden and eat what I see."

Small farms growing rapidly in Clark County
The Columbian, WA