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Creating a land-access pipeline in South King County

Working with a network of stakeholders to help under-resourced farmers move from incubation to secure land tenure and beyond

Photo of Jessica Vu
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Forterra

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Food Innovation Network (Small NGO), King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks (Government), South King County Food Coalition / Elk Run Farm (Small NGO)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.forterra.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Seattle, WA

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

South King County, WA

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Forterra works across landscapes to ensure sustainability and livability for all of the region’s residents. South King County (SKC) faces significant economic and health disparities compared to the rest of the county, and Forterra has long prioritized working throughout the region on issues related to food systems, attainable housing, inclusive city-planning policies, community-based land stewardship, and more.

The members of the project team have played key roles in the SKC food system landscape for many years. We are intimately familiar with the challenges and opportunities that exist at the regional level, and have strong connections with individuals who live and farm in SKC.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

South King County (SKC) is a region directly south of Seattle, WA, located in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. SKC is wonderfully diverse, home to a significant population of immigrant and refugee communities that contribute to the cultural vibrancy of the neighborhoods that make up the region. This diversity is reflected in the types of cuisines consumed, the variety of businesses that line the streets, and the more than 180 languages spoken throughout the region. However, SKC also has higher poverty rates, higher food insecurity rates, and poorer health outcomes than the rest of the county, and residents of color face even greater disparities. Many parts of SKC qualify as “food deserts,” and even in areas where fresh produce is available, there is often a lack of culturally appropriate produce to meet residents’ diverse needs.

The SKC landscape consists of many urban centers connected by large areas of suburban and peri-urban neighborhoods. Rural areas exist, but much of the undeveloped land in SKC is at risk of development due to increased demand for housing and other amenities for a growing population. Despite the disappearance of farmland, there is a long history of farming in SKC, particularly in the fertile Green River Valley. However, the average age of farmers in King County is 55 and rising, and farmers of color make up only 10% of all food producers. These figures do not represent the demographic makeup of the region’s aspiring farmers: many members of the immigrant and refugee community farmed in their home countries and dream of continuing their livelihoods in the Pacific Northwest, growing food for their communities and passing their agricultural heritage to the next generation. In order to achieve this dream, however, these growers must overcome significant barriers to establishing farming businesses near their communities. In an immigrant and refugee farmer survey conducted by King County in 2018, all respondents indicated that they faced significant challenges to expanding their agricultural enterprises, specifically language barriers and lack of access to farmland, water, markets, and technical education.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

750000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Environment: Land for food production is at risk of development in SKC due to the need to accommodate a growing population. Between 2012 and 2017, the amount of farmland in the county as a whole decreased by nearly 5,000 acres. Without local farms, the region becomes dependent on food transported from large, industrial farms thousands of miles away, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions via transportation and environmentally harmful agricultural practices. In 2050, climate change will put even more farmland at risk, putting increased pressure on smaller amounts of land to provide for a larger population.

Diets: Many areas in SKC are considered to be food deserts, and SKC residents experience food insecurity at higher rates than the rest of the county. Additionally, many immigrants and refugees lack access to crops and ingredients that are staples of traditional cuisines. In recent years, we have seen growing interest in local food throughout the region, and if that trend continues alongside the increased threat of climate change, shifting diet preferences may further strain the local food supply chain by 2050.

Economics: Professions in small- and mid-scale farming are challenging due to economic barriers to accessing land and difficulties participating in markets at a scale that meets farmers’ distribution capacities. Most of the farmland in SKC is owned and managed by large farming operations, leaving few opportunities for small-scale farmland acquisition, and the cost of farmland in SKC is nearly three times the national average. Additionally, locally grown food is often unaffordable to the region’s limited-income residents.

Culture: Farming is a cornerstone of cultural identity for many immigrants and refugees who come from farming communities in their native countries. These farmers have dreams of growing food for their communities and passing their agricultural heritage to the next generation. However, cultural and language barriers often prevent immigrant and refugee farmers from securing resources that are meant to facilitate access to land and markets. If these barriers remain in 2050, future generations risk losing their connection to agriculture and traditional foodways.

Technology: As residents of one of the most prominent technology hubs in the country, we understand that technological innovations have never been better at connecting people to resources, yet we have not harnessed these innovations to address the needs of the local farming community. A current and future challenge will be to understand how to use technology to make it easier to find available farmland and close gaps between farmers and their consumers.

Policy: Regional policies exist to increase access to farmland, including public funding for farmland acquisitions. Specifically, King County’s Local Food Initiative established policy priorities around increasing access to land for under-resourced farmers. A strong network of food system stakeholders has worked to implement these policies, but has lacked the capacity and resources to carry out a collaborative vision with the community at a regional scale.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision is to establish a clearly defined land-access pipeline that allows under-resourced farmers in SKC to move fluidly from incubation to secure land tenure. We will achieve this vision by working with a network of food system stakeholders to develop programming and shepherd farmers through the different stages of the pipeline.

This vision emerged from years of conversation and partnership among stakeholders from across the food system spectrum. For the past several years, the members of our project team have played leading roles in convening food system stakeholders in SKC through multiple networks whose membership includes farmers, advocacy organizations, environmental non-profits, social service providers, public health organizations, government agencies, and more.

The land-access pipeline will address SKC’s food system challenges in the following ways:

Large-scale farmland acquisition efforts made possible through innovative growth management policies and increased public funding will conserve and transfer tenure of thousands of acres of farmland in SKC to under-resourced farmers. New financing models that use social-impact capital (private investments used to fund efforts that create social good in exchange for a modest return) will allow land conservancies to acquire farmland and transfer ownership to farmers over time, lowering barriers to land ownership.

With more land farmed by more farmers, more healthy produce will become available throughout SKC. Increased market opportunities for small-scale farmers, coupled with an increase in support for food access programming, will lead to greater access to affordable, healthy food among SKC consumers. Immigrant and refugee farmers are also able to provide traditional crops for their communities, increasing access to culturally appropriate foods throughout the region. These farmers will also have access to land and training opportunities to keep the tradition of farming alive in their communities.

Farming will become a more viable profession due to culturally relevant business training opportunities paired with hands-on farm incubation programming. After completing training, farmers will have access to progressively larger pieces of farmland to rent as they expand their farm businesses, while selling produce through a variety of market channels. New technologies will help close gaps between farmers and their customers, and policies bolstering funding for food-access programming will increase access to market opportunities for farmers and increase access to healthy, affordable food for SKC residents.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050, aspiring farmers in South King County have access to a clearly defined land-access pipeline that allows growers to move fluidly from incubation to secure land tenure.

Farmland is readily available for farmers from all backgrounds due to innovative policies and conservation efforts that have promoted smart growth within our existing development footprint and have increased funding for farmland acquisition by public and non-profit agencies.

Secure land tenure, including the option of land ownership, is feasible for under-resourced farmers due to the use of financing models that deploy social-impact capital to purchase land and provide long-term leases to farmers and/or transfer ownership to a farming entity over time. Policies and programming serve to incentivize uses of farmland that enhance access to land for farmers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is significant demand for local food in King County, and farmers have access to markets at a scale that matches their distribution capacity. As a result, small- to mid-scale farming is a viable profession for people from all backgrounds.

New and beginning farmers have access to capacity-building resources such as culturally relevant training opportunities; land for expanding growing operations; and seed capital.

SKC residents have access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods.

All of the above elements are collaboratively driven by a robust network of cross-sector partners all working towards the same goal: strengthening the local food system.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In 2050, we envision a SKC food system where the journey towards land tenure is not just a pipe dream: it’s a pipeline. Any aspiring farmer can progress along a clearly defined pathway to gain access to the resources they need to achieve their land-access goals, whether they want to grow food for sustenance, rent land to increase their business capacity, or become a landowner.

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Imagine a young farmer named Diana.

Diana grew up farming in her home country, and even though her current work schedule is erratic, she always makes time to tend to her crops at the community garden. Diana dreams of owning farmland, but even with her farming background and her reputation for having the most productive crops at the community garden, she knows that in order to achieve her goal of becoming a landowner she needs to go through more training and preparation to secure a loan. Last time she checked, the cost of a parcel of prime farmland near her home was far more than she could ever afford on her own. Diana told herself that one day she would cut back on her hours and enroll in a farm-training program to take the next step towards becoming a full-time farmer. However, ever since her landlord increased her rent, Diana needed to work as much as possible to make ends meet.

Diana’s friend invited her to a farming event that a group of local organizations was hosting later that week. The event happened every quarter, and provided a social space for aspiring farmers like Diana to talk with like-minded people and get resources from helpful agencies. She had heard good things about this event before, and decided to attend with her friend.

At the event, Diana met others who had similar farming goals as herself, but did not have the means to start a farm business and acquire land on their own. She also talked to a representative from a training program, who told her about an interesting “pipeline” program that would put her on track to be able to eventually own land. She had never been able to commit to any training programs due to work obligations, but this one was different: there were multiple sessions per week to accommodate her schedule, and they even offered materials in Diana’s native language. She decided to enroll in sustainable agriculture classes over the winter.

Once the growing season came around, Diana was offered a plot of land at the farm incubator. With a larger piece of land and new farming techniques under her belt, she was able to grow more food than she and her family could consume. She started to sell her excess harvest to the food hub on site, which purchased small amounts of produce from multiple growers and sold that produce at a weekly farmers market. She also started selling some specialty crops through a mobile app that allows her to sell directly to consumers. Diana also formed strong relationships with the other farmers participating in the incubator program.

After a successful growing season, Diana decided it was time to expand her farm operations. Her participation in the incubator program automatically qualified her for a long-term lease on publicly owned farmland, which she signed along with two other growers from the program. Because the property was preserved as farmland, Diana knew she could farm on the land as long as she wanted, but the lease allowed her to leave early should she outgrow the property. With the increased amount of growing space, Diana looked forward to growing more of the crops that her family and community members desired but had trouble finding at the grocery store.

Two years passed, and Diana’s farm businesses continued to grow. Diana was able to quit her job and work full-time as a farmer, and ran her own stand at several farmers markets in the region. Demand for local fruits and vegetables was at an all-time high, and a significant portion of her customers use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to pay for their produce. After consulting with an agency to develop a more streamlined business plan, she could tell that her dream of owning her own farm was within sight. The agency representative put Diana in contact with a non-profit land conservancy—another partner in the pipeline program that could help her overcome the final barrier to owning land: transaction costs.

The non-profit was familiar with Diana’s success in the pipeline program and agreed to purchase a piece of farmland on her behalf and transfer ownership to Diana over time through a “lease-to-own” agreement. The organization worked with Diana to identify a suitable piece of land and used revolving loan funds from a generous donor to purchase a 5-acre farm within a 15-minute drive from Diana’s home. Diana’s monthly “rent” payments contributed to the repayment of the loan, and the non-profit offered much lower interest rates than traditional financing institutions. The land conservancy also placed a conservation easement on the property, thereby preserving the land for agricultural use and significantly lowering the price that Diana will eventually pay for the property. The farming expertise and business acumen that Diana developed through the pipeline program, along with the favorable repayment conditions provided through arrangement with the land conservancy, allowed her to take ownership of the farm within seven years.

In the end, Diana achieved a goal that was once just a dream. She is a significant contributor to a robust local food economy, continues to learn from a community of like-minded farmers, and grows healthy food for her family, friends, and neighbors—all while running a highly profitable business and responsibly stewarding the land for future generations.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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good project!

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