Sprawl of the Wild: Skagit Valley Faces Crunch in Growth

Skagit County is flocked with scrawled roadside signs advertising baskets of freshly picked raspberries. Paint-chipped barns squat between the prolific rows of cucumber and cabbage fields. Amidst this cornucopia of agricultural productivity, a Windermere "For Sale" sign haunts a nearby stretch of a plowed cornfield.

Developers are eager to dip their shovels in this beacon of natural beauty, too.

Caught in the middle of Vancouver, British Columbia and Seattle's ever-expanding metropolitan grasp, Skagit County is becoming a haven for commuting dot-commers, empty nesters, and industrial developers. The county's population is expected to double in 20 years, leaving the local community wondering how far their welcome wagon supplies will stretch. And farmers are bearing the brunt of it.

Vital to both economic and ecological health, Skagit County farming produces more than 80 crops, shipping spinach, cabbage, and beet seed to the furthest corners of the world. Their celebrated Tulip Festival attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year. The diverse landscape acts as a migratory rest stop for more than 30,000 snow geese and 1,300 trumpeter swans, while the Skagit River produces important runs of all five species of salmon.

But troubled by corporate agribusiness, slashes in profit, and vanishing processing and fertilizer plants, farmers are facing increasing pressure to swap their property rights for something a little more…stable.

"Agriculture is a way of life. You like the challenges and the risks," commented Skagit County Commissioner and fourth generation farmer Ken Dahlsted. "But it gets hard when your neighbor sells his land and moves down to Arizona."

"Agriculture is a way of life. You like the challenges and the risks," commented Skagit County Commissioner and fourth generation farmer Ken Dahlsted. "But it gets hard when your neighbor sells his land and moves down to Arizona."

Skagit Valley fell prey to potential developers in 1989 when plans were drawn up for a Knott's Berry Farm smack in the center of the valley. Grassroots organizations fought against the development-and won. Bob Rose, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, has worked to protect the valley and its farmers ever since.

"It's gone from 'let's save land,' to trying to ensure the long-term economic health of farmers in the valley," said Rose.

In other words, farmers need the economic incentives to keep farming. SPF is working to implement a grass-fed beef program that will create a new market for the local farming industry. In addition to promoting ecological sustainability, the program will supply greater profits to all players.

Consumers are using their dollar power-as well as their palates-to step up to the plate. Supporting locally grown produce has become a popular, even trendy, phenomenon that ties more people to the food they purchase. Puget Sound Fresh stickers identify farm products that are grown within the 12 Sound counties and can be found in both Safeway stores and the produce stand down the street. Amazon.com bought a slice of Skagit Valley farmland, hiring farmers to grow and market the organic produce to upscale Seattle restaurants.

Even local developers are working to protect farmland and limit sprawl. Jeff Hansell, Principal of Hansell Mitchell Homes, grew up in the area, and his extended family has firmly planted their roots in the Skagit's soil. His housing designs are used to maximize space while retaining the aesthetic beauty and functional value of nature. "When I drive through the neighborhoods, people wave to me-and they use all their fingers," he kidded.

"Growth is going to happen," he continued. "Our job is to do it right." Since farmland is in the wide floodplain, it's not a good place for development, he explains. However, it's becoming difficult for farmers to ignore the calls from other eager developers.

The communities agree that Skagit Valley farmers are an inherent part of the charm that still pulses through the verdant fields and quiet towns. But as Dehlsted said, "If there's no one to farm, the land goes to weed."

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