The last of the autumn sun warm on your back, the crunch of an apple just off the tree, the contented cluck of chickens — farm life has enticing aesthetics. But for Key Peninsula farmers trying to make a profit, the financial struggles, often invisible to nonfarmers, can be overwhelming.
“Nobody makes money. When you see them at the farmers market, someone else in that family is working,” said Minter Bay Dairy Goats owner Wendy Webster, who found a niche selling her Nigerian dwarf goats to zoos and preschools.
Pierce County has a long agricultural history dating back to the days of the first white settlers. As Seattle and other cities expanded, outlying areas such as Fife and the greater Puyallup River Valley were plowed and planted to feed those workers, along with the growing population as a whole.
Farms have always been larger and more numerous in the eastern part of the county, where rich alluvial soil helped crops such as hops, flower bulbs, berries and Christmas trees thrive. In contrast, on the Key Peninsula, historical crops included huckleberries — a woodland native — as well as shellfish and timber, which are also harvested without any plowing and planting required. But even the relatively larger farms in eastern Pierce County have always been dwarfed by the sprawling farms of the midwestern United States.
While Pierce County does not keep data on the status of farms on the Key Peninsula specifically, it is clear that farms throughout the county are disappearing. According to PCC Farmland Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting area farms, 70 percent of farmland in Pierce County has been lost since 1950, with nearly a third gone in the past two decades alone. It is no coincidence that the price of farmland in Pierce County has also doubled in the past 10 years.
However, according to Robert Allen, senior economic development specialist for Pierce County, these numbers may be misleading, as throughout history, farms were at the mercy of development.
“Even in the 1930s and 1940s, when the amount of farmland in the county was at its peak, people who worked at industrial jobs in Tacoma and Seattle would buy a tract of land, clear it for farming, then when they were tired of farming, sell it off to developers,” Allen said.
Today, maintaining a small farm serves a variety of purposes for farmers, only one of which may be to make money.
“For many people, farming is partly a lifestyle choice, partly a source of income and often partly a way to carry on a family tradition. Farms exist on a continuum between heavy industrial-scale operations and small, niche producers or people who just mow their fields and sell the hay,” Allen said.
While the upfront cost of buying or even leasing land in Pierce County is formidable, additional costs also pile up quickly. Large equipment such as rototillers, tractors and combines, as well as the associated insurance, fuel and repair costs and covered storage space can put new farmers into debt from day one. Livestock costs include labor, fencing, veterinary care, feed and bedding. This is all before farmers purchase seed and fertilizer, or set up a watering system.
Interested in getting your farm certified as organic? The certification process will likely cost you an additional $1,000 at minimum. Then there is the cost of advertising, permits, transportation, fees at the farmers market, as well as the expense of paying an employee at the market to sell vegetables all day.
Local farmer Christine Schlicht, of ChristiPaul Farm on Victor Road, gave up trying to make a living off her land long ago.
“I really didn’t run my farm so much for profit but as a tax benefit,” Schlicht said.
Schlicht uses local Facebook groups and word of mouth to advertise her beef and produce, and travels to several farmers markets with her eggs and handmade jewelry.
After all the financial hurdles have been cleared, there is still the pressure to set prices that match the local grocery stores.
“We bought goats, understanding that there was a market, but people were unwilling to pay a market value for the processed animal,” Maureen and Greg Sikora, owners of Gentle Giants Meadows Ranch in Vaughn, wrote in an email to KP News.
As many farmers do, the Sikoras tried a variety of livestock in order to increase profits.
“It became apparent that in order for the farm to be self-sufficient, we had to diversify. We invested in chickens, bought the appropriate permits and became egg producers — well, the chickens did. We covered our costs and made a minimal profit selling off the farm for many years. We tried selling at the farmers market but, the cost of the stall, the permit and the Department of Health requirements made it difficult and not financially viable,” the Sikoras wrote.
Paul Fisher of Rusty Wheel Farm in Vaughn had a similar experience. Fisher has raised pigs for the past three years, selling pork at farmers markets and through the Fresh Food Revolution Food Co-op in Vaughn and the Kitsap Fresh Co-op.
“We had to build all the infrastructure. It was quite an investment in fencing, water, etc. It cost a lot more than I expected. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I wasn’t already collecting a pension. It’s not a big money-maker,” Fisher said.
Some of local farmers’ most-loyal customers often turn out to be other farmers. Sherie McMullen of Maplebrook Farm sells eggs and produce from her farm but purchases locally grown meat for herself. “I want to support local whenever possible. It’s expensive but I understand what the farmer has to pay to offer such well cared for and butchered animals,” McMullen said.
For other consumers, the inconvenience of traveling to farmers markets or seeking out farms selling directly to customers is too time-consuming to be worthwhile.
“So far, most of my purchases have been eggs. I would like to buy much more. It’s hard to know where, when and what,” said Leila Luginbill.
Why, with all the expenses, do small-scale Key Peninsula farmers keep on farming?
“It’s fun,” Fisher said. “Pigs are amusing, very intelligent animals. It’s like having a field full of pets.”