On June 2, 2017, the Porter Reach Restoration Project is announced by the King County Natural Resources and Parks Department. The project will help reduce the risk of flooding on farmland in a portion of the county's Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District (APD) while also improving habitat for salmon. Development beginning after World War II and increasing in the 1960s had replaced the much of the county's farmlands. The Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District was designated in 1985 (along with four other APDs) in an effort to preserve part of the remaining cluster of farmland along the river north of the Enumclaw Plateau and east of Auburn. The Green River bisects the district, so that nearly half the district's land is river shoreline, ravine, or forested upland, all unsuitable for food production. The Green River Natural Site is located entirely within the Agricultural Production District. Although flooding tension on farmers was eased with construction of the Howard A. Hanson Dam in 1962, flooding continues to be a challenge for the district's farmers.
Preservation Efforts and Agricultural Production Districts
After a gaining recognition as the "lettuce capital of the world," a world leader in hops production, and a national leader in dairying, the Green River Valley saw its agricultural distinction diminish beginning with the infrastructure transformations of the 1950s and 1960s. Food-producing lands in the valley were replaced by warehouses, manufacturing plants, transportation corridors, and vacant land waiting for the next big development. By 1979, a small fraction of active farmland remained. Farmers, city dwellers, and local politicians alike were resolved to address the agricultural crisis facing not only the Green River Valley, but across King County. For the first time, regulations were approved in order to preserve the industry and stop the decline. In 1979, voters approved a $50 million bond issue to purchase development rights in order to preserve the county's dwindling farmland. The Farmland Preservation Program would purchase development rights from farmers who chose to sell those rights while they continued to farm their land. Acquisition proceeded through a series of rounds -- the higher the threat of urban encroachment on the agricultural land, the higher the priority for acquisition. A total of 2,200 acres in the Upper Green River Valley, largely consisting of food-producing lands, was designated for the first-priority round of acquisitions.
Much of the Farmland Preservation Program's lands were included in the designation of five Agricultural Production Districts that were part of King County's new Comprehensive Plan adopted in 1985. The plan divided the county based on major land use designations and included locations for the protection of farmlands in the Resource Lands designation. Within this designation, the county established the five Agricultural Production Districts where agriculture was to be the preferred use in the 41,000 acres that the five districts totaled in area. The districts contained the most suitable growing conditions available to farmers anywhere in the county and were the last remaining farmland clusters. The five APDs were Snoqualmie Valley, Sammamish Valley, Lower Green River Valley, Upper Green River Valley, and Enumclaw Plateau.
Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District
The Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District was the third-largest of the districts, at 3,500 acres in size. The district is bordered by another district, the Enumclaw Plateau APD, to the south, Flaming Geyser State Park and the City of Black Diamond to the east, and the City of Auburn to the west and along its northwestern edge. It is shaped as a long east-west rectangle following the flow of the Green River. The river divides the district into two general segments, flowing through the central axis of the district before it turns northward at Auburn. With just one main road through the district, SE Green Valley Road, it has maintained its quiet rural setting while development has grown outside its boundaries.
The district's distinct roughly rectangular shape based on the river and topography has influenced its agricultural production possibilities. The northern segment of the district, north of the Green River, has been predominantly preserved through the Farmland Preservation Program, whereas the southern segment, south of the river, is made up of steep slopes and forested areas that have been unsuitable for production. Although only 26 percent of the district, or 900 acres, had enrolled in the Farmland Preservation Program as of 2009, much of the land suitable for production was included in that statistic. Farmers owned nearly half of the land in the district, at 49 percent. The largest land use, due to the district's topography and river formation, was forest/upland at 47 percent. This included the 922-acre Green River Natural Area composed of mixed forest and deciduous upland forests with scrub-shrub wetlands. Located south of the Green River, and steeply sloped with wooded hillsides, it is unsuitable for farming. Other uses in the district, such as infrastructure, water bodies, and residential properties, made up 14 percent of the district, and livestock/forage and horse farms were both at 11 percent. Market crops were gaining ground in the western portion of the district, with seven percent of the district's total land use.
The Neely Mansion Association and King County cultural funding agency 4Culture partnered with filmmakers in 2012 to celebrate the Upper Green River Valley's agricultural heritage at the Neely Mansion, located just west of the APD. Built more than 120 years ago on Green Valley Road, from 1894 through the 1970s the building was home to five families of tenant farmers of Swiss, Japanese, and Filipino heritage. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been preserved to tell the history of early-twentieth-century agricultural successes in the valley and also present-day successes.
Development has continued to challenge the district's farmers since its creation up to the present. Just east of the district in the City of Black Diamond recent development has threatened of loss of farms from transitioning to estate homes, increased traffic, and landslide risk resulting from land clearing. With one road through the district that bicycles, vehicles, and farm equipment share, tensions grew when surrounding areas developed and traffic increased. In 2016, experts gathered to strategize for the protection of the county's open space. Although great progress had been made, concerns for the wooded acreage along river corridors subject to development and the lands in the Agricultural Production Districts not enrolled in the Farmland Preservation Program brought awareness to some that gaps existed in the conservation of the county's valuable land.
River Restoration and Marketing Adaptations
Another challenge for the Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District's farmers has been mitigating flood damage. Although the Howard A. Hanson Dam located upstream minimized the annual flooding risk, the district's location within a floodway renders flooding a constant challenge. On June 2, 2017, the King County Natural Resources and Parks Department announced a new effort to protect infrastructure and farms in a portion of the Upper Green River APD from river flooding while also improving salmon habitat, and work got underway soon thereafter. In an area often inundated during the river's high-flow events, the Porter Reach Restoration Project aimed to improve drainage and reduce flooding by elevating portions of Green Valley Road and installing a culvert. In addition, more than half of the 1,500-foot-long Porter Levee was removed, freeing the river to move across the floodplain, which, along with building a backwater channel and installing large woody debris, was designed to improve habitat.
Like the Upper Green River Valley, the Snoqualmie Valley APD is also located within a floodway and suffers constant flooding risks. King County initiated the Farm Pad Program in that district to help mitigate flood damage to farming operations by providing technical assistance for flood modeling and support for the construction of raised farm pads. Although the pads are not permanent fixes to the problem, the Upper Green River APD can look to their success as it continues its battle to preserve agriculture on well-drained soil.
As in the other four districts, Upper Green River Valley Agricultural Production District farms have adapted to changing markets and consumer trends. Some of the farms diversified their products while others focused on one specialty crop in order compete in the market and bring nearby urban customers to the farms. Many of the districts have featured their farms as a destination for the urban and suburban residents, offering u-pick produce, farm stands, petting animals, or community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes that allow customers from across the area to purchase a subscription to seasonal produce. Mosby Farms and Canter-Berry Farms are two such examples, each having won a finalist spot in the Rural Small Business of the Year award. Mosby Farms succeeded in diversifying with an indoor market, baked goods, a picnic area, CSA boxes, and offering school tours and hosting festivals. Canter-Berry Farms, which was homesteaded in the 1870s, specializes in eight varieties of blueberries.