Commercial farming in the Skagit Valley began in earnest in the 1880s after much of the Skagit River's floodplain was walled off behind dikes, converting a maze of marshes, streams, and open channels into some of the most fertile farmland in Washington. Early non-Native settlers found success with oats, hay, barley, and potatoes. Later, vegetable seed, hops, green peas, strawberries, rhubarb, tulips, and daffodils became vital crops. In 1895 the Washington State Legislature allowed landowners to organize into diking districts, which were responsible for maintaining the dikes and protecting the farmland behind them. But dike failures were common, and flooding along the Skagit was (and remains) frequent. By 1960 there were 12 dike districts in Skagit County tasked with maintaining 95 miles of dikes and levees. Today about 90,000 acres in the floodplain are classified as farmland, and Skagit County is responsible for 3 percent of the state's agricultural sales.
The Skagit River
The Skagit River is one of Washington's prized natural resources. From its headwaters in British Columbia to its mouths on Puget Sound, the river stretches 158 miles and drains 3,130 square miles of land, transporting as much as 4.5 million tons of nutrient-rich sediment each year. By the time the Skagit reaches Sedro Woolley it is nearly at sea level, where the valley widens to "a flat, fertile floodplain formed by continual river sediment transport and by historic lahars from Glacier Peak, most notably an event about 5,900 years ago" ("Skagit Basin Overview"). Experts have identified several soil types in the floodplain; the most common, called Skagit, consists of silt loam, silty clay loam, and a small amount of very fine sandy loam. It is exceptional for crop farming.
As the Skagit River meanders through the floodplain, it turns to the southwest at Burlington, makes a dramatic bend, called the Avon Turn, at Mount Vernon, then splits downriver into the North Fork Skagit and the South Fork Skagit before spilling into Skagit Bay. The reclaimed land between the forks is Fir Island.
The entire floodplain is vast, covering 90,000 acres in an irregularly shaped area about 11 miles wide (from east to west) and 19 miles long. Before diking began in the late nineteenth century, at least half of the delta was perennial wetlands composed of tidal or freshwater marshes and open channels. These were known as the Skagit Flats, the Beaver Marsh, the Swinomish Flats, the Samish Flats, and the Olympia Marsh. "The Skagit, the Samish and the Swinomish flats are reclaimed from the salt water," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 1902. "This covered them twice each day and left them bare during tides, until high dikes were built to keep it out … The Beaver and the Olympia marshes were formerly covered by pools of fresh water, between which sluggish streams wound their way in devious channels. Muskrats burrowed in their wet soil and alders grew in thick jungles. These have been drained into the Samish river and into salt water through the tributary slough. In sections, this work is still in progress, and more land is being reclaimed each season. Like the flats, they are productive of enormous crops of oats and hay" ("Newcomers At Work …").
'Everyone Was Diking'
The first dike in Skagit County was built on the flats near La Conner in 1863 by a pair of enterprising settlers, Michael H. Sullivan (1840?-1912) and Samuel Calhoun. According to author Janet Oakley's account for HistoryLink:
"[Calhoun] was familiar with diking marshland and decided to settle on an open area he had spotted from a tree up on a forested ridge. When he came to build a cabin, however, he discovered he wasn't alone. Up the slough later named for him, Michael Sullivan was already clearing and diking his claim. The two men decided to help each other. First they worked on each other's cabins, then they undertook draining and diking Sullivan's 40 acres. They used shovels and wheelbarrows as there were no oxen or horses. They worked at low tide when water wasn't pushing up the slough. The mud of the marsh was hard to handle but standard practice was to make a dike eight feet wide at the base and four feet high. Behind it a trench and sluice boxes under the levee helped to drain water from the fields. When they were done, they worked on diking Calhoun's claim" (Oakley).
It took only a few years for Sullivan's efforts to pay off. He grew and exported the first crop of oats from Skagit County in 1868, and around 1870 he raised a crop of barley and sold it for $1,600 from his dock on the slough. Sullivan proved the farmland potential of the flats, and by 1873, "few acres on the flat were left to claim. Everyone was diking" (Oakley).
Alas, with farmers doing their own construction work, dike building remained haphazard. Farmers heaped up the earth with shovels and wheelbarrows "or with scrapers drawn by teams of horses, making the sides of whatever slope and the tops of whatever height seemed good to them ... The objective in each area was to make these particular levees so strong that a flood would break some other dike instead … Experts noted that the dikes were built too close to the river, their sides were too steep, and the cross sections too narrow for safety" (Skagit Settlers, 169).
In 1895 the Washington State Legislature allowed landowners to organize and create public diking districts. These districts were granted the power of eminent domain, the power to assess taxes "against district properties proportionate to the benefits the properties receive from the creation of the dikes," and the power to issue bonds to fund construction of the dikes (RCW 85.05). Skagit County farmers formed seven separate diking districts by 1897. Each district elected its own commissioners, who managed budgets and oversaw the work. Cooperation between the districts was sporadic and would remain so for more than a century. At first, "there was no consensus about the method of building the dikes or their ideal configuration. Mother Nature provided the means to judge what did and did not work. Every major storm or flood imparted a lesson in how and where to situate an effective dike. By the turn of the century the lower Skagit and Samish river delta areas had an extensive network of drainage ditches, dikes, levees, and tide gates to protect agricultural land from flooding and tidal inundation. By the 1960s the valley's complete flood protection and drainage infrastructure was in place, essentially as it exists today" ("Dikes & Drainage").
By 1990, the diking districts in Skagit County were tasked with maintaining 56 miles of levees and 39 miles of sea dikes. By 2021 there were 12 districts responsible for about 147 miles of levees and dikes "crisscrossed by nearly 380 miles of drainage ditches and served by approximately 130 tide and flood gates. In many areas the drainage system is shallow and drains only the top few feet of land" ("Dikes & Drainage").
The Valley Prospers
Newcomers swarmed to the Skagit Valley around 1900, lured by stories of mild weather, abundant crops, and genuine opportunity. Many acquired land in the flats and built farms from the ground up. "The agricultural district of the county lies largely down the river from Mount Vernon," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 1902. "The towns of Fir and Skagit City are the centers of farming communities, nearly all of whose present members have come, during the past few years, from the East. The rich lands near these two towns, both of which are on the banks of the Skagit, are held in the main by Scandinavians. Most of these men came from Minnesota and the Dakotas, with an occasional one from Iowa and Wisconsin. They are thrifty and have produced wonderful results from their places. They have brought many of their countrymen from the Middle West the past two years" ("Newcomers At Work …").
Traveling the wagon route from Mount Vernon to La Conner, the Post-Intelligencer reporter saw prosperity all around:
"Along ten miles of county road one cannot see even a fence out of repair. A large amount of blooded stock is coming into the valley. At a recent sale an Eastern mortgage company parted with about 100 head of blooded heifers and bulls. This sale was held at Mount Vernon and farmers came in hundreds. The stock was snapped up eagerly at good prices. Nearly every farmhouse now has a piano. New buggies and other evidences of prosperity are frequent … The government demand for oats and hay has brought the price of the former to $26 a ton, and this alone has made many men rich in the Skagit valley" ("Newcomers At Work …").
Oats, hay, barley, and potatoes were primary crops during these early boom years. Farmers had to pivot in the 1910s and 1920s, when the coming of the internal-combustion engine softened the demand for oats, a vital commodity during the days of oxen and horses. Meanwhile, farmers were becoming more knowledgeable about sustainable methods and the benefits of crop rotation and diversification, and soon vegetable-seed farming – growing seeds for other farmers and gardeners to plant – joined potatoes and hay as mainstay crops.
Commercial seed farming began in the valley in 1885 when Alvinza Gardner Tillinghast opened a mail-order seed company on the flats. He soon relocated his business to La Conner and began contracting with local farmers to grow cabbage for seeds. "This was the start of an unbroken run of producing small-seeded vegetable seed crops that eventually would be sold in over 90 countries around the world" ("Commercial Seed …"). Seed production in Skagit County would expand beyond cabbage to include, among many others, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, Chinese mustard, Chinese cabbage, collard, kress, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, spinach, beets, turnips, and flax.
Farm labor was readily available. For pioneer farmers living along the river, "Indians with large canoes could be hired for moving heavy freight or harvest crops on short trips across the river or on longer ones up and down the stream" (Skagit Settlers, 1). Beginning in the 1870s, the yearly hop harvest brought workers from farther afield. "Sometimes the pickers were townspeople, often whole families, but usually they were Indians, either local or from British Columbia. They came in family or tribal groups in their canoes and set up their camps near the hop fields much as they had formerly done on their summer food-gathering expeditions" (Skagit Settlers, 99). Later, larger farms in the valley employed a few year-round hands, and "in summer practically every farm had harvest crews" (Skagit Settlers, 158).
Beyond field crops, potatoes, and vegetable seed, farmers found success with celery, rhubarb, strawberries, and many other crops. Commercial egg and poultry farming in the valley began about 1910, and both dairy and beef cattle were ubiquitous. Still, owning and operating a farm was fraught with uncertainty. According to Skagit Settlers -- the Skagit County Historical Society's telling of the years from 1890 to 1920 -- any hopes for prolonged prosperity were dashed when World War I ended in November 1918.
"In 1920 it was obvious that farming in Skagit County was changing, but what the new patterns were to be was not clear. The end of World War I brought a collapse of agricultural prices which hit very hard. Although the Great Depression did not strike the national business community until the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 the depression on the farms of the county started in 1920-21. In Skagit County the farmers met it by tightening their belts, improving their dairy herds and their agricultural methods, banding together in cooperatives, refinancing their mortgages under liberal Federal Land Bank terms, and keeping their faith in their rich land, their favorable climate, their own hard work, and the future" (Skagit Settlers, 110).
Inundated by Floods
Skagit Valley farmers suffered additional hardships in December 1921 when the river, running dangerously high from a weeklong rainstorm and agitated by strong winds, broke through a levee at Burlington. "The scene north of the city was one broad expanse of water 3 to 6 feet deep," the Mount Vernon Herald reported, and reached as far west as Avon. Levees broke and caused more flooding in Conway, Milltown, Stanwood and the Skagit delta. The highway out of Mount Vernon was impassable "for anything but boats" ("A Look Back …"). Destruction of houses and barns was extensive, and many cattle were lost. A severe cold front then moved into the valley, and "it was possible to ice skate for miles over parts of the delta" (Skagit County Grows Up, 10).
Several major floods were recorded prior to 1900, including one in 1897 that washed away farmland and most of the town of Sauk City. The crudely built dikes, coupled with the vagaries of rain, wind, and snowmelt, imperiled residents up and down the river. In Skagit Settlers, editor Margaret Willis described the sense of danger when the river ran high:
"The flooding river runs yellow; the current is swift and carries a great deal of driftwood and there is a steady and menacing roar as it rushes through the trees and bushes outside the dikes and eats at its banks at every bend. It is a never-to-be-forgotten experience to stand on top of the dike with the angry river lapping over the edge of the roadway, many feet above the quiet fields and homes inside" (Skagit Settlers, 170).
Dike failures were frequent, and floods continued after the flats were sectioned off behind them. Many flood-control proposals were considered over the years and deemed too costly. Following costly floods in 1917 and 1921, the U.S. Congress ordered "the beginning of flood studies that since have generated enough reports to, ahem, dam the Skagit" ("Awash In Trouble"). One idea, first proposed in the 1920s and revisited often, was to build an outlet for the river at the bend near Mount Vernon that would drain excess water to the northwest into Padilla Bay. The $4 million price estimate in 1936 was dismissed as too high. By 2007 the estimated cost was $300 million. In 1979 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to make major improvements that would have raised Skagit County dikes, but the project required voter approval for local matching funds and was trounced by a 3-to-1 margin at the polls.
In the upper Skagit River and on its Baker River tributary, five dams were built by the middle of the twentieth century to generate electricity for cities in Western Washington. However, these five dams have limited utility in controlling floods, as downriver from the five, "the Sauk River tributary is a Wild and Scenic River, by federal designation, and can't be dammed, meaning 40 percent of the Skagit is 'unregulated,' in federalese. We can't control the Skagit by turning a valve" ("Awash In Trouble").
In November 2006, weather forecasters predicted a tropical "Pineapple Express" storm would drop at least eight inches of rain along the Skagit River watershed, creating dangerous flood conditions. A potential calamity was dodged when the storm veered south from its projected course, flooding rivers in Snohomish and King counties instead. Wrote The Seattle Times:
"That kind of downpour would produce a torrent of 200,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) downstream, even with the Skagit and Baker river dams doing all they could to hold the flood back. Skagit County levees can contain only about 155,000 cfs. Above that, they give way ... Here's what officials feared might happen: More than 30,000 people living in the floodplain would have to be evacuated. Water would fill the bottom lands below the town of Concrete and pool to 10 feet deep from Burlington to Fir Island near the river's mouth. A river would fill Cascade Mall. Auto dealers would be awash. The proposed site of a Wal-Mart superstore would be 8 feet under. Interstate 5 would close, its Skagit bridge threatened by a torrent of logs. Highway 20 to the west would be submerged, cutting off Fidalgo and Whidbey islands. The trestle of the Burlington Northern mainline would be washed away ... Damage, by Corps of Engineers estimate, would be $1.2 billion" ("Awash In Trouble").
The possibility of a disastrous flood continues to vex Skagit County decision-makers. The county and the cities in the floodplain -- Sedro Wooley, Burlington, Mount Vernon -- have invested in numerous flood-control measures. In 2018 the diking districts organized into the Skagit Draining and Irrigation Districts Consortium to, among other things, coordinate flood control and flood response. As scientists warn of rising seas and more dramatic weather events tied to climate change, it's hard to know if these efforts will be sufficient. Moreover, "the scientists who calculate what constitutes a 100-year flood readily admit that, despite such advances as satellite telemetry and computer modeling, there's still plenty of guesswork in what they do" ("Sizing Up Great Flood …").
An Agricultural Oasis
Change in the valley accelerated in the years between the world wars. Field crops such as oats, alfalfa, barley, corn, and wheat continued to thrive, but some farming sectors were lost. Hop growers and orchard farmers fell away as advances in transportation and irrigation pushed those industries to Eastern Washington. Rhubarb farming gravitated to Sumner in Pierce County.
Large-scale commercial fruit processing began in 1920 with the opening of the Burlington Canning Company. "That season 35,000 cases of berries, fruits and vegetables were canned or preserved and sold on the local market. In 1921 they packed and shipped 100,000 cases. ... Commercial growing of fresh vegetables began when the Bozeman Canning Company of Montana bought out Mount Vernon's Broder Canning Company in 1926 ... the plant specialized in canning peas" (Skagit County Grows Up, 16). Peas, canned or frozen, would help drive the local economy for more than 50 years before fading consumer demand decimated the market for Skagit County peas. The last pea-processing plant in the county closed in 2009.
During World War II, farmhands were in short supply as Skagit County men went off to war. A 1942 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico resulted in the Bracero Program, which brought millions of guest workers to the U.S. on short-term contracts. Braceros came to the Skagit Valley in large numbers, mostly to help harvest the hay and pea crops, and many stayed on and settled in the area after the program ended in 1947. In the 2019 census, 18.6 percent of the county's residents identified as Hispanic/Latino.
In the 1950s, tulips became synonymous with Skagit County. Bulb growing began in 1906 when Mary Brown Stewart planted tulips for commercial sale. Another newcomer, H. L. Willis, planted commercial daffodils, but it wasn't until World War II and the arrival of bulb growers from Holland that bulb farming proliferated. Soon the valley was ablaze with colorful springtime flowers; today about 1,000 acres of tulips and daffodils are grown each year, yielding an estimated 20 million bulbs and 75 million cut flowers. Skagit County is the runaway leader in tulip growing in the U.S., accounting for about 75 percent of the nation's commercial production. A tulip festival was introduced in 1984, and by 2019 it was luring an estimated 300,000 visitors and $65 million in annual revenue to the county.
Potato farming continued to be a money-maker. In the years before World War II, Skagit farmers found markets for their spuds "in the Pacific coast cities and in Hawaii and the Philippines. In some years potatoes were even shipped to the Middle West" (Skagit County Grows Up, 15). Many decades later, in 2019, potato farming was more popular than ever, with 12,000 acres (mostly reds, yellows, and fingerlings) under cultivation, a 13 percent increase since 2000. Acreage also expanded after 2000 for blueberries, Brussels sprouts, and blackberries, and by 2019 there were 109 crops under commercial cultivation in Skagit County, running the gamut from artichokes and cucumbers to bamboo, sod, Christmas trees, and marijuana.
Competing Interests on the Skagit
In 1996, Skagit County voters approved the Farmland Legacy Program, which paired local money with matching public grants and private donations to pay for conservation easements, thus keeping parcels of land in perpetual use as both farmland and wildlife habitat. In 1999 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted out sections of a levee on the Skagit's Deepwater Slough, opening 200 acres of wetlands to the tides. In 2016, Congress earmarked $99.3 million to restore "256 acres of estuarine marsh, shrub and forested floodplain in the North Fork Skagit River Delta. This project involves lowering an existing levee and shore armoring, excavating channels and constructing a new levee alignment. It will provide tidal connectivity and critical habitat to the Sound's largest and most productive river; the site is part of the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon Recovery Plan" ("Fed Action …").
Some delta landowners resisted returning any farmland to nature. If anything, farmers would rather preserve farmland than relinquish it. When six dikes along the Skagit suffered major ruptures in November 1990, floodwaters covered Fir Island for 40 days at depths up to 10 feet. Repairs on the island took months and damage was estimated at $30 million. "Some people say that Fir Island ought to become an entire floodway, tear all the dikes down, and it's not worth fixing," said Rep. Rob Johnson, a Democratic state legislator from Mount Vernon whose family farm was flooded. "That's completely radical. There's 8,000 acres of good land out here" ("Disaster's Effects Linger …").
The land-use issues came to a head when Puget Sound Chinook salmon were listed as threatened in 1999. While diking the Skagit had created an agricultural oasis, rearranging the delta's landscape had slowly decimated the habitats for Chinook, along with steelhead and bull trout.
In particular, the loss of Chinook habitat greatly diminished a spiritual core of Coast Salish culture. After the Treaty of Point Elliott was signed in 1855, Native Americans in the lower valley were consolidated into the Swinomish Tribe, and by 1873 had been moved to a reservation on nearby Fidalgo Island, "where poverty was extreme and tuberculosis was rampant" (Skagit Settlers, 12). The treaty affirmed the Natives' right to take fish at their usual and accustomed grounds and stations, including the Skagit River, but "diking isolated more than 90 percent of the delta from riverine and tidal influence, leading to dramatic losses in freshwater wetlands and estuarine habitats ... Diking also dramatically changed the processes that created and maintained remaining habitats ... These changes affected a wide range of species, including Chinook salmon, which particularly rely on estuarine habitats" ("Skagit Basin Overview").
The listing of Chinook salmon as threatened triggered the formation of the Skagit Water Resource Inventory Area, which produced a number of collaborative, cross-agency initiatives such as the 2007 "Salmon Strategy." That report began with a gloomy overview of Skagit River salmon:
"If the state of the salmon is an indicator of overall watershed health, then our watersheds are sick. Skagit River Chinook salmon stocks have been declining since at least 1935. Despite occasional short-term increases, the long-term trend for Chinook populations is inexorably negative. Where Chinook catches once numbered in the tens of thousands, in the 1990s they fell to several hundred. Given climate change and increasing conversion of habitat to human uses, the prognosis for long-term species survival -- absent decisive action -- is poor. That's why Skagit County is now engaged in a proactive program to restore salmon habitat and encourage recovery throughout the Skagit River watershed" ("Salmon Strategy").
Into an Uncertain Future
Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing to save a treasured way of life for Skagit Valley farmers. The task is daunting. In 1987 the average age of a farm proprietor in Skagit County was 50. By 2007 the average was about 56, and by then 41 percent of farms in the county were classified as "residential or lifestyle" farms, meaning their owner's primary occupation was something other than farming. Another 20 percent of farms were owned by retired farmers. "This means that 61 percent of the farms, which cover 26 percent of the land in farms in Skagit County, are not oriented toward commercial agriculture production, but instead are oriented toward people's well being by providing a place to live and spend leisure time" ("Economic Indicators ...").
The population of Skagit County tripled from 1970 to 2020. Property values jumped. The heart of the valley is 65 miles from Seattle, even closer to Vancouver, B.C., and the land is ripe for development. In 1989, community activists helped kill a proposed 280-acres theme park on the flats, and county zoning laws require a 40-acre minimum lot size on land zoned for agriculture, holding back residential development for now. But the remaining Skagit farmers "confront additional economic pressures from unpredictable crop prices, competition from corporate agriculture, and climatic uncertainties. The toll on Skagit agriculture can be measured by the loss of farmland: More than 150,000 acres were farmed in the 1940s; today it is down to 93,000" ("Skagitonians ...").
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.