Western Washington county looks to farmers for advice

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Pierce County, Washington’s second-most populous county, has appropriated $25,000 to re-establish an agriculture commission to advise county policymakers.

Reviving the commission, axed during the recession several years ago, will help county leaders understand challenges faced by the small percentage of the population in commercial agriculture, vegetable farmer Rosella Mosby said.

“The disconnect is real,” she said. “Anything that has some influence on agriculture should be run though an agriculture commission.”

The Farm Bureau, at the county and state levels, advocated restoring the advisory board partly in response to a debate in Pierce County over how much land should be designated “agricultural resource lands.”

Environmental groups said increasing the number of acres with that label would protect farmland from urban sprawl. Some farmers said that zoning — a mixed bag of benefits and restrictions — may preserve farmland, but it wasn’t enough to preserve the business of farming and complained about not being consulted.

After spending $230,000 on a planning consultant’s report last year to help it sort out the issues, the county council recently kept the number of acres designated for agriculture the same.

The episode was confusing, unproductive and may have been avoided if the county council had an advisory board made up of farmers, said agricultural consultant Daniel Muir, a Pierce-King Farm Bureau board member and also manager of his family’s wheat farm in Kansas.

“Without farmers, the public was missing information,” he said. “To me, nothing was ever accomplished.”

Other Western Washington counties — including King, Snohomish, Thurston, Skagit and Whatcom counties — have agriculture commissions. “An advisory board, made up of farmers and producers representing a wide variety of agricultural products, ag-related businesses and agricultural professionals from associated agencies, would serve the county and its farmers well,” Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller wrote in a May letter to Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier said.

The council adopted a proposal by Councilwoman Pam Roach in June to put the agriculture commission back in the county budget.

“We need to have an ag commission up and running to be a voice for farmers,” Roach said. “It’s an opportunity to shore up farmers in our area.”

The county code calls for the county executive to appoint seven voting members to the agriculture commission. Five must be producers. Muir said that the commission should include large and small producers, and organic and conventional growers.

“Our hope would be to submit a diversified list of farmers, but the point is they would be farmers,” he said.

“Not having an ag commission in this county leaves farmer at a distinct disadvantage,” Muir said.

“They (county leaders) don’t hear about the organic farmer who loves fish, but, by the way, that fish project, is going to crush his livelihood,” he said. “That story is not being told.”