King County's five Agricultural Production Districts (APDs), first designated in the county's 1985 Comprehensive Plan, represent a continuation of efforts to preserve rapidly diminishing agricultural acreage. In the five districts, the county set aside 41,000 acres of the best soil and farmable land, making agriculture the preferred and protected use. Despite mild weather and ideal growing conditions, county agriculture had declined rapidly during the second half of the twentieth century. With interest in preserving the local agricultural economy growing, voters in 1979 approved a Farmland Preservation Program allowing the county to purchase development rights from willing farmers to protect farmland from development. The Agricultural Production Districts designated five years later encompass much of the land included in the Farmland Preservation Program. The five APDs are Snoqualmie Valley, Sammamish Valley, Lower Green River Valley, Upper Green River Valley, and Enumclaw Plateau. With ongoing urban development in the twenty-first century, agricultural trends saw a shift toward smaller-acreage farms, and county APD policy worked to support nearby farmers markets and local retailers. County Comprehensive Plan updates cited the importance of coexistence between the urban metropolis and the Agricultural Production Districts and recommended strategies for mutual gains and collaboration.
Decline of the Promised Land -- Farmland
The combination of King County's mild climate and rich soils created cows that produced more milk and butterfat than anywhere else in the country, generating almost $20 million in 1977. Berries and ornamental horticulture thrived in the valleys. King County's agricultural economy provided jobs, scenic open space, and a source of food in an increasingly urban area, with opportunities to harvest at u-pick farms and purchase local produce at Seattle's Pike Place Market and at farmers markets throughout the county.
Despite county farms generating in excess of $40 million, agricultural activity declined significantly between 1945 and 1974, from 6,500 active farm operations to less than 1,100. This meant a reduction from 165,000 acres of farmed land to just 58,000 acres. The reasons for the decline proved to spiral in succession. Urban and suburban development had grown especially in formerly rural areas following World War II, which created an increased market value for future urban development on lands currently used for commercial farming or other open-space uses. The potential for development increased the price of farmland beyond what it could return in agricultural production, so that when older farmers sold their land upon retirement it was not available to young farmers at a reasonable price for farming.
Early Efforts and Farmland Preservation Program
Agricultural decline was not a unique issue facing Washington or King County, but paralleled national trends. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, King County attempted various approaches to preserve its agricultural land, and for the first time regulation was included in the equation. An agricultural zoning classification in 1963 was one of the first attempts, yet ultimately resulted in greater loss of farmland. The 1964 Comprehensive Plan guiding land use and development in the county identified land areas for the continuation of agriculture but was unable to stop the decline. Further strategies included a property-tax incentive, establishing a policy that certain soils should be reserved for agriculture, and similarly withholding prime agricultural lands from development. The 1975 Supplement to the King County Comprehensive Plan cautioned that the Lower Green-Duwamish and Sammamish valleys were especially threatened by urban encroachment and identified recommended agricultural zones, which would help to inform the boundaries of the later Agricultural Production Districts.
The county saw the beginnings of success from its early efforts in 1977, with the creation of the King County Office of Agriculture, the identification of eight county agricultural districts, and an advisory committee's recommendations on the proposed Agricultural Land Preservation Program. The county would employ rezoning options, permit reviews, and other means available to ensure the greatest agricultural potential of eight agricultural districts: Snoqualmie Valley/Patterson Creek, North Creek, Upper Snoqualmie, Sammamish Valley/Bear Creek, Lower Green River Valley, Upper Green River Valley, Enumclaw Plateau, and Vashon Island. An advisory committee, predominately comprised of farmers from five of the districts, agreed that a proposed preservation program by acquisition would ultimately be required for preservation of the county's agriculture and to enable the entrance of new farmers into the market.
The King County Farmland Preservation Program was approved with 63 percent of the vote in the November 6, 1979, general election. After years of trial and error, and for the first time in the nation, the public approved a $50 million bond program to preserve the county's farmlands. The program would purchase development rights from farmers while they continued to farm their land. Acquisition of the 33,000 eligible acres was to occur annually in rounds, according to the risk level posed by urban development. The first acquisition priority included 6,000 acres of food-producing lands most threatened by development, including 1,700 acres in the Sammamish River valley, 1,900 acres in the Lower Green River Valley near Kent, 2,200 acres in the Upper Green River Valley, and 1,700 acres of separated farmlands important in food production. The second acquisition priority included 15,000 acres in the Lower Snoqualmie valley, 3,700 acres in the Osceola and Enumclaw Plateau, largely consisting of dairy farms, and another 40 acres of other farmlands. The third acquisition priority included all other farmlands within the agricultural districts.
Designation of Agricultural Production Districts
King County's 1985 Comprehensive Plan divided the county into five major land-use designations based on encouraged locations for residential use, shopping, and economic development, and locations for the protection of rural areas and farmlands. Regulations to promote long-term agriculture, forestry, and extraction of mineral resources applied in designated Resource Lands. Within this designation, the plan established five Agricultural Production Districts, revisions of the eight agricultural districts established in 1977, with large lot-zoning and agriculture identified as the preferred use. Boasting the best soil and growing conditions in the county, the districts were also the last remaining areas of clustered farmland. The districts provided protection to agriculture through Comprehensive Plan policies, land use and zoning regulations, and the Farmland Preservation Program. Of the combined 41,000 acres in the five districts, about 27,000 acres were farmable, while the remaining acreage was forested or supported water bodies or farm-support structures. Despite encompassing only three percent of the county's total area, the districts contained most of its commercial agriculture. The five Agricultural Production Districts were Snoqualmie Valley, Sammamish Valley, Lower Green River Valley, Upper Green River Valley, and Enumclaw Plateau.
Establishment of the Agricultural Production Districts was intended to limit land-use conflicts with urban neighbors. Agriculture had proven to be most productive in large tracts of land within supportive communities, where conflicts such as trespassing, vandalism, and nuisance complaints from neighbors were restricted. The districts were designated based on criteria to maintain contiguous landscapes, including suitable soil, undeveloped land, parcels of 10 acres or greater, and agriculture as the predominant existing use.
King County's river valleys are rich in soil and agricultural potential, and also have some of the highest-quality salmon habitat in the county. With the federal listing of Chinook salmon as a threatened species and the best salmon habitat found within the Agricultural Production Districts, the county's 2012 comprehensive plan update added a policy to convene a watershed-planning process for each of the districts. Habitat protection was not to take precedence over agricultural productivity, but a balanced approach was sought by policy makers. Salmon-habitat-protection advocates and agricultural-preservation advocates each argued their cases. The contested issue has challenged nearby Snohomish County as well.
Snoqualmie Valley Agricultural Production District
The Snoqualmie Valley Agricultural Production District was the second-largest designated, at more than 14,500 acres. Located in northern King County, the district has an irregular shape as it circles around the City of Duvall and is segmented by the City of Carnation. It follows the Snoqualmie River Valley to Fall City. Challenges with water management have faced the area at least since members of the advisory committee for the proposed Farmland Preservation Program met in 1977. They expressed concerns over surface-water runoff and recommended implementing flood-control zones in the upland developments. Recent increases in flooding have caused impacts to district livestock, crops, equipment, and farmer income. Approximately 75 percent of the district is classified as floodway.
The 2009 Future of Agriculture Realizing Meaningful Solutions (FARMS) Report noted that 33 percent of the Snoqualmie Valley district's land was within the Farmland Preservation Program, and 44 percent of district land was farmer-owned. The top land use in the district was livestock/forage at 33 percent.
Sammamish Valley Agricultural Production District
In King County's wine country, located along the Sammamish River and bordered by Woodinville, Kirkland, and Redmond, the Sammamish Valley Agricultural Production District is the smallest of the five APDs, at just 1,083 acres. Although the Sammamish Valley members of the 1977 farmland preservation advisory committee disagreed on the criteria of need for contiguous blocks of land, capability of soils, and probability of agriculture to survive in the district, by 2009 nearly all the properties suitable for farming in the Sammamish Valley district had been preserved through the Farmland Preservation Program.
The 2009 FARMS Report noted that 75 percent the districts land was in the Farmland Preservation Program, with 32 percent of the land farmer-owned. Top agricultural land uses included sod farming (34 percent) and growing market crops such as produce and flowers for commercial sale (29 percent). Agritourism connected to the wine industry was particularly important to the district's character.
Lower Green River Valley Agricultural Production District
The Lower Green River Valley Agricultural Production District was designated to include two segments, bisected by State Route 167. The district is located in south King County along the lower Green River near the cities of Kent and Auburn. The district is the last small remnant of agriculture in the valley, which was once primarily farmland. Changes in zoning between 1957 and 1979 replaced nearly 20,000 acres of farmland with warehousing, manufacturing, commercial, and residential land uses. After witnessing the disappearance of farmland, the members of the 1977 advisory committee were primarily concerned with drainage issues on the remaining Lower Green River Valley farmland.
The 1,403-acre Lower Green River district is completely surrounded by urban development. Nearly all farmable land had been preserved by 2009, with 75 percent of the land in the Farmland Preservation Program. Farmers owned 52 percent of the land with the greatest land use in market-crop production (58 percent).
Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District
The Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District was designated to follow the Green River downstream from Flaming Geyser State Park near Black Diamond in southeastern to King County to the eastern edge of the city of Auburn. The Upper Green River members of the 1977 advisory committee were concerned with traffic and vandalism from the state park visitors affecting nearby farm operations. Steep slopes between the Green River and the Enumclaw Plateau and forested areas along the river were included within the district. Although these areas were not suitable for farming, they were preserved for their open-space qualities and benefits. The forest/upland land use made up nearly half of the district. Management guidelines were developed in 2004 for 922 acres of the Green River Natural Area, entirely located within the boundary of the Upper Green River APD. The natural area included mixed forest and deciduous upland forests, scrub-shrub wetlands, and hillsides too steep to farm.
As of 2009, 26 percent of the land in the 3,500-acre Upper Green River APD was preserved through the Farmland Preservation Program. Farmers owned 49 percent of the land, a high number considering that nearly half the land was not suitable for farming.
Enumclaw Plateau Agricultural Production District
The largest of the five districts at more than 20,000 acres, the Enumclaw Plateau Agricultural Production District is in southeastern King County between the Green and White rivers. Unlike the other four districts, it is located on a plateau rather than in a river valley with constant flooding risks, and is in the most remote area of all the districts. Because of its large acreage, the Enumclaw Plateau members of the 1979 advisory committee were primarily concerned with what portions of the expansive landscape should be preserved, as they noticed changes in usage with mixed residential-agricultural land use becoming increasingly popular.
Although the district had a large total acreage, only 24 percent of the land was preserved in the Farmland Preservation Program by 2009, and just 26 percent of the land was farmer-owned. With the top land use in the district being livestock/forage at 40 percent, this meant that much of the farmland was being leased by farmers, proving a higher risk for the future of the farmland.
General modifications to Agricultural Production Districts took place between 1989 and 2005, including slight adjustments of district boundaries, zoning regulations to minimize impacts to water quality, and bringing 129 acres in Sammamish Valley APD into compliance with the policy of having only one designation -- either agricultural resource area or rural residential. In 1994, King County adopted a new Comprehensive Plan to comply with provisions of the newly passed state Growth Management Act. At the same time the county created an Agriculture Commission to protect and enhance the agriculture industry throughout the county. In 2009, the Department of Natural Resources and Parks and the Agriculture Commission prepared the FARMS Report on the future of King County's agriculture in the five districts. Issues facing each of the districts were similar to those since their inception, including water management, economic support, land affordability, farmer succession, farm-city connection, and inter-local cooperation. The 2012 updated King County Comprehensive Plan and Planning Policies looked to the 2009 report for guidance in developing 30-year goals for management of resource lands including agricultural.
The report noted a high percentage of market crops in the Sammamish and Lower Green River APDs, which aligned with 2012 farm-operations data that revealed a trend toward smaller farms. Smaller-scale farms would be more suitable for supplying farmers markets and local retailers. More than 1,600 of the 1,800 county farms were less than 50 acres in size. This trend coincided with the broader "food revolution," in which many urban and suburban residents in the county and across the country looked to buy local, eat local and organic, and see the farmers who labored over their food. Seattle's food scene improved as restaurants sourced produce from local farmers. Overall, animal pasture and animal-product production still held the majority of land, with 7,600 acres of hay and haylage crops compared to slightly more than 1,000 acres of vegetables. Yet the types of agricultural activity across the districts showed that seasonal goods to be sold at holiday markets and produce for farmers markets were becoming more popular with county farmers. Horticulture and nursery production encompassed 1.4 million square feet of the county's agricultural lands.
The trend toward smaller farms correlated with the slight 4 percent decline in the economic value of the county's agriculture industry from 2007 to 2012. More than half of farms made less than $10,000 in profit so that the farmers required additional income outside of the farm activity. Products from smaller operations, avoiding chemical use and tightly packed animals as many consumers desired, could cost up to 50 percent more than those from their large-operation counterparts. Nonprofit organizations, such as the PCC Farmland Trust and Farm to Farmer, increasingly played a role in supporting farmers in obtaining financing, entering the market, and growing their success.
Ongoing Protection Efforts
Between July 2015 and July 2016, King County was the fourth-fastest-growing county in the nation according to census data. The cost of farmland had risen exponentially in the past 20 years. The emphasis of agricultural preservation had shifted slightly to focus on the farmer and community. Nonprofit organizations helped older farmers mentor eager young farmers entering the business. The 2017 update to the county's Comprehensive Plan paid special attention to regulations protecting agricultural lands, which changed tone from establishing complete separation between farmer and urban residents to calling for a synergy and collaboration between the Agricultural Production Districts and urban areas. The APDs would provide metropolitan residents with valued open space and local food, while urban areas aimed to minimize their environmental impacts such as water runoff and to promote infrastructure including farmers markets and access roads.
In 2016 King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) gathered experts to strategize for the ongoing protection of the county's farmlands and open space after expressing concern at their current state. The Washington State Farmland Preservation 2015 Indicators Report noted King County had one of the biggest declines in the Open Space Farm and Agriculture Program from 2011 to 2015 with a 6.7 percent decline. Enrolling in the program reduced property taxes, making farmland more affordable and reducing the threat of development. Moreover, less than half of the total land in the Agricultural Production District was enrolled in the Farmland Preservation Program. The Agricultural Production District regulations did not require that all land be farmed and, as farmers retired, more and more were selling to buyers using the former farms as rural estates.
Although these figures called for attention, another look at the issues revealed the Agricultural Production Districts may have been more successful than initially credited. For example, although only 26 percent of the Upper Green River district was enrolled in the Farmland Preservation Program, nearly half of the district's land was river or steep ravine topography and unsuitable for production. King County was ahead of other counties in ensuring that the agricultural districts were zoned for large lots, either 10 or 35 acres. Large-lot parcels are less appealing for developers and thus help preserve agriculture. And King County's shift in emphasis to the farmer and mentoring new farmers had helped reduce the high percentage of farmers selling to residential buyers.
Some 2017 statistics were encouraging for the districts, with an additional 282 acres added to the Farmland Preservation Program in that year through the help of easements. A comprehensive agricultural-land survey found that food-production acreage had increased by 1,900 acres over the preceding four years. Although great strides in agricultural preservation had been made through the Farmland Preservation Program and Agricultural Production Districts, the county set its sights on much more. The King County Land Conservation Initiative was launched in early 2018 with a goal to preserve 65,000 acres of the county's last most important lands over the next 30 years, including farmlands and community gardens for healthy local food.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.