On April 8, 1985, the Lower Green River Valley and four other county Agricultural Production Districts are designated in the new Comprehensive Plan adopted by the King County Council. The Lower Green River APD is located along the Green River between the cities of Auburn and Kent in south King County. The valley boasts a rich agricultural past with success in lettuce, hops, and dairying, all while fighting the annual barrage of flooding along the river until completion of the Howard A. Hanson Dam in 1962. Development began to replace farmland at a staggering pace beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. King County adopted agricultural-preservation regulation in 1979. The designation of Agricultural Production Districts, where agriculture is to be the preferred land use and set aside from urban development, in the 1985 Comprehensive Plan marks another step in saving farmland. Completely surrounded by development, the Lower Green River Valley APD will bring respite to urban and suburban dwellers, and provide destination farmlands, but its farms will also face their own urban issues, including increasing stormwater runoff and light pollution.
The Green River Valley's Agricultural History
The Green River's course was changed during the early twentieth century, which also changed its surrounding landscape. Today, after flowing generally west from the Cascade Mountains, it turns north at Auburn, where it enters areas zoned for light industrial and retail development and then flows through Kent before eventually becoming the Duwamish River, which flows into Elliott Bay in Seattle. The Green River Valley's rich agricultural heritage began with the aftermath of the Osceola Mudflow more than 5,000 years ago, which left behind rich fertile land. Native Americans cultivated berries and root crops in the valley. Later, early non-Indian settlers brought potatoes, onions, and other vegetables to the area. By the late 1870s, hop farming consumed the valley farmers. Hops, used to flavor beer, were cheap to produce and high in demand, and farmers gained great wealth from the crop until an aphid infestation in 1890 destroyed everything. Farmers turned to berry production and dairying after the aphid turmoil. Elbridge A. Stuart's (1856-1944) Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company, later the famous Carnation Milk Company, was an early leader in the valley's dairy industry. Although the valley was fertile with prime farmland, annual flooding caused constant angst and frustration.
In the 1920s, the valley's agricultural production was booming. Kent became known as the "Lettuce Capital of the World." First-generation Japanese immigrants, the Issei, were able to lease farmland from U.S. citizens, and a large population was found in the valley. By 1920, Japanese farmers produced half the milk Seattle consumed, and more than 70 percent of the fruits and vegetables for Western Washington. World War II, however, changed the valley community and its agricultural future. The Issei and Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were moved to internment camps under Executive Order 9066. After the 1942 internment, 1,600 acres of their farmland was redistributed to others. Farming remained a priority during the war, but with labor shortages and other war-related concerns, crops suffered. The years following the war were expected to improve for farmers, but the valley's flooding problems only worsened.
Annual flooding in the valley was common, especially during the months of November and December. When warm Chinook winds arrived the snowpack in the mountains melted and heavy rains ensued. Logjams frequently occurred in the river, which also resulted in valley flooding. On December 11, 1946, flood waters spread throughout the valley, causing Kent families to evacuate and farmers to move their herds from the saturated valley to higher ground. It was not until early 1959, not soon enough for area farmers, that construction of the Howard A. Hanson Dam began east of the valley, a project that would eventually put an end to the annual flooding. Despite a November flood that year, which caused more area damage, the dam was completed in 1962.
Although the dam prevented threats from flooding, it raised the threat of urban encroachment upon the agricultural landscape. Developers viewed the dam as reliable protection for land downstream, which they then saw as fit for development and ready for the taking. Major transformations took place in the valley during the 1950s and 1960s, including construction of the parallel State Route (SR) 167 and Interstate 5 transportation corridors through the valley. Because the land was not susceptible to constant flooding and could be used for other purposes, changes in zoning occurred and the City of Kent began annexing land. Between 1953 and 1960, the city grew from one square mile to 12.7 square miles. The Boeing Aerospace Center entered the scene in 1965, followed by other warehouses and manufacturing plants.
Disappearing Farmland and County Response
By 1979, only a small portion of the Lower Green River Valley remained in active farm operation, with a lot of the land that was not yet built already spread with gravel in anticipation of its development or left undeveloped but taken out of farming. The fast conversion of the landscape interrupted its natural drainage. Between 1957 and 1979, nearly 20,000 acres of farmland had disappeared, and the lower valley transformed from an agricultural community into an industrial center. The 1980s and 1990s would see even further decline in farmland with the entrance of tech firms and an outlet mall in Auburn.
To address the rapid disappearance of farmland in the Green River Valley and throughout King County, a Farmland Preservation Program was enacted in 1979 under which the county could purchase development rights, helping keep land in agricultural production. Six years later, when developing a new Comprehensive Plan to guide land use and development throughout King County, the county took another step, establishing five Agricultural Production Districts in which agriculture was designated the preferred use: Snoqualmie Valley, Sammamish Valley, Lower Green River Valley, Upper Green River Valley, and Enumclaw Plateau. The King County Council approved the new Comprehensive Plan, which included the five designated APDs encompassing a total of 41,000 acres, on April 8, 1985.
Lower Green River Valley Agricultural Production District
The Lower Green River Valley Agricultural Production District was designated in two sections, separated by SR 167. A last vestige of agriculture in a largely urbanized region of south King County, the district is composed of two small sections of unincorporated King County lying between the city of Kent to the north and the city of Auburn to the south and southeast. The meandering Green River forms the district's northern and eastern sides as it flows northwestward from Auburn to Kent.
With the overwhelming concern for the future of agriculture in the Lower Green River Valley, the findings of a 2009 county report brought some encouragement. It found that 75 percent of the total land in the 1,403-acre district was permanently preserved through the Farmland Preservation Program and that 52 percent of the land was owned by farmers. The Comprehensive Plan specifically called for the Lower Green River APD to remain in unincorporated King County, as opposed to being annexed by the cities of Kent or Auburn. The district's success in preserving land through the Farmland Preservation Program provided further incentive to maintain the area for agricultural use. The primary land use in the APD was for market crops, with 58 percent of the land devoted to that use, which had increased in the valley since 2006. Livestock and forage used nine percent of the district's land; other uses, such as for residential and support structures, occupied seven percent; and forest/uplands were six percent of the district.
Farms Increase, Some Problems Persist
Agriculture in the Green River Valley has seen its share of ups and downs. Once a leader in hops and lettuce production, the home of acclaimed dairy products and their processing plants, agriculture all had but disappeared by the late twentieth century. But then the farms began to sprout again. Between 1987 and 2007 there was a 64 percent increase in the number of farms in the area, from 1,091 to 1,790. The valley, sandwiched between cities, has relied on the efforts of the Farmland Preservation Program and the designation of the Agricultural Production District to remain flexible and viable throughout the past decades.
Of the five APDs, the Lower Green River was the last to follow the trend toward smaller farms. Instead, unused acreage in the district was acquired by larger established farms as they expanded. In order to succeed in a competitive market, some farms in the Lower Green River Valley Agricultural Production District diversified, while others focused on a single specialty crop in a niche market. Many farmers added community-supported agriculture (CSA), under which customers from around the region purchase a subscription to seasonal crops, to their marketing tools. For example Whistling Train Farm, with strong agricultural roots as a descendant of one of the original farms supplying Pike Place Market, has used the CSA box as a successful element in its business plan.
Although present-day farmers haven't had the extent of flooding as in pre-dam days, drainage issues due to runoff from neighboring development has been a threat to crops. Being surrounded by urban development allows for those neighbors to visit as customers but can also create other issues such as trespassing, light pollution, and traffic. Sidetrack Distillery and R & R Farms were two operations that took advantage of their proximity to urban areas. Sidetrack Distillery began offering u-pick blueberries, a lazy-river farm and distillery, and a stunning garden venue for weddings and events, while R & R Farms saw success in selling fruit and vegetable produce in a covered outdoor market and at nearby farmers markets.
A persistent problem that has faced King County farmers even with the preservation programs and designations has been farm succession. Washington farmland is among the most expensive in the country. The value of agricultural land has increased exponentially, making financing a purchase extremely difficult and so severely limiting the entrance of new farmers into the market. Recent estimates indicated that over the next decade, approximately 70 percent of farmers would retire without a successor. In 2016, King County's Local Food Initiative and Kitchen Cabinet strategized to help reduce this number by offering beginning and economically challenged farmers land for lease. The target was to bring 400 new acres of land into food production each year for the next 10 years, beginning with acquiring 47 acres in the Lower Green River Valley Agricultural Production District.