Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Rules and roadblocks make farmland difficult to farm
Bruce Ramsey's editorial column tells the story of Steve Capeder, who would create a destination farm in King County if only the regulators weren't so difficult.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Steve Capeder wanted to be a farmer in King County. An Issaquah native, he spent the first half of his career in Florida as a builder-developer. He is 42, a fitness buff and supporter of organic food. Two and a half years ago, he bought 89 acres of hillside and bottomland in the Snoqualmie Valley, with a plan for a farm. Now he plans to sell.
"I can't farm," he says.
That's not quite right. He could farm. But there are so many obstacles to creating the kind of farm that could pay for the land at King County prices.
"The key to survival in farming," Capeder says, "is value-added. If you grow blueberries, you make blueberry jam or blueberry mead." You grow tomatoes, you make salsa.
Another key is to sell directly and capture the retailer's markup. A Fall City farmer sells fresh eggs for $5 a dozen. Others sell raw goat's milk for $12 a gallon.
A third idea is agri-tourism. Make your farm a place for people to visit, like the Remlinger Farm in Carnation. Capeder wanted a herd of milking goats and one of cows. Maybe a cheese cave, like in Europe. A farm tour, a cafe and a shop to buy cheese and some of that high-value goat's milk. Maybe a place to hold weddings.
Do all these things, and maybe you can pay for your land.
Capeder's plan treats farming as a business, and not as an endangered species.
"He's got a great idea," says Julia Larson, the county's coordinator for rural economic strategies. Several other farmers have had similar ideas, she says, and have made them work successfully.
But King County's regulations make it hard to do so many things from scratch. A neighbor wanted a cheese cave, Capeder says. She couldn't get a permit. Capeder got a double-wide mobile home for free to use as a shed. The county required a septic field, even though he wasn't planning to hook it up for water.
To pave a driveway, the blueprint — one sheet — cost $1,000. The county, which funds its permit department through fees, wanted $22,000 to review the one sheet. Capeder hired a lawyer, and they settled for $10,000.
"You've got to go through the hoops," Capeder says. "You spend six months, you think you're through, and there's another hoop. It wears you down. I know so many people who have given up on their projects."
A farmer needs a permit even to clear a ditch. There are rules and rules. One effect of all the rules on farmers is to put the land into the hands of non-farmers.
"I have one billionaire neighbor, and another hundred-millionaire neighbor, who use their land as private parks," Capeder says.
He takes me on a neighborhood tour. On one property is an equestrian pavilion, abandoned. On another is a private duck-hunting club. Across the river is a private airstrip.
"Most landowners now simply cut their grass and sell the hay," Capeder says. It's not a farm. It's their yard. Almost all the "farmhouses" built on vacant agricultural parcels in King County in the past 10 years have been at least 4,000 square feet, and some are 15,000 square feet.
The new owners "protect" farmland physically and ruin it economically.
Capeder still wants to be a farmer — a real one. He considers his future. His land, which once supported a dairy, can be divided into four 20-acre "farms," with sites for four "farmhouses."
He thinks of Skagit County. Land is cheaper there, and government is not run by city people.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org