The challenge to Washington family farms

person walking in dirt
A labor shortage and other regulations are making it harder for family farms in Washington to remain solvent. Photo:

There are roughly 35,700 farms in Washington state, according to 2017 census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That figure represents the loss or consolidation of 1,400 farms since 2012, when there were 37,249 farms; almost 90 percent of them were considered “small” by the USDA. Among the potential causes for this trend are a growing number of challenges farmers face including labor shortages, state and federal regulations and an urban-rural disconnect reflected in statewide public policies.

For family farmers such as Mike and April Clayton with the second-generation family-owned Red Apple Orchards in Orondo, the situation makes it less likely they will be able to hand the reins over to their kids. The State Supreme Court’s Hirst decision regarding water wells would have squashed any plans to build them a house on the property, had the legislature not addressed it in 2017.

“Our foreman built a house out by us, and he wouldn’t have been able to do it if the Hirst decision had remained,” Mike Clayton told Lens. “I always thought we would do whatever we could to get the kids to stay. April and I are starting to wonder if it’s going to be a viable business for them. Our kids are young, so we got some time.”

It’s a question other family-owned farms have already answered with a “no.” Or, the children grow up and find better prospects in urban areas. That was the case when Rep. Mary Dye (R-9) who with her husband Roger purchased wheat farmland from a farmer after his son chose not to carry on the family business.

“We picked up a piece of it (the farm),” she told Lens. “The old people are having a hard time finding (younger) people. We’re being driven further toward consolidation of farms. The people that are left on the ground are great, but we continually make it harder and harder (for them).

One of the things that can deter kids from taking over the family farm is the growing costs associated with farming. Rosella Mosby with Mosby Farms in Auburn’s Green River Valley told Lens that she and her husband Burr Rosella spend $20,000 a year alone on the Food Safety Program.

“It’s a huge amount of money…on a program that we didn’t have 10 years ago,” she said. “My husband has this good analogy: they used to turn over big stones to find things to regulate, and now they’re turning over these tiny pebbles.”

Labor policies can also affect small family farms that don’t participate. Many Washington farm workers come through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural visa program, which the state Employment Security Department manages in part. According to a 2018 ESD report, the average hourly wage in agriculture in 2016 was $15.29. However, farms that hire a combination of domestic and foreign workers for the same jobs must pay them the same minimum wage.

This means that the Claytons and other farmers that only use domestic labor must pay the same rate as the H2-A program, or else “all the local people will go over to the corporate farm,” Mike Clayton said.

Rosella Mosby said that certifications or regulations add to their business overhead, but a globalized market means the price is capped, regardless.

“Berry growers in the Skagit Valley are competing with berries from foreign markets that don’t have expensive labor. We have expensive labor. They’re able to produce berries for far less than we are. They’re dumping on our market for far less and…we can’t compete with that. When you can’t afford to sell your produce, it’s a bummer.

“One thing that irks me the most is the perception that farms are charities, that we’re living this lifestyle,” she added. “At the end of the day farms are businesses, and the business end of the farm is what allows a lifestyle where we have those few moments in between to enjoy it at the end of a hot day.”

Other hurdles include land-use restrictions. Rosella Mosby said they had to discontinue a seasonal produce stand due to a state Health Department policy “that makes zero sense for an agricultural situation. We would have had to put in a well and a water treatment system before we could even apply for a six-month farm stand. For us, it’s not even feasible. It’s not even worth it. We had an opportunity to have a direct connection with our local consumer, our neighborhood consumer, and that was taken away because of a regulation that we couldn’t use spring water to wash our floors off.”

However, the labor shortage is perhaps the biggest problem facing Washington farmers. The number of workers using the H2-A program has increased by 1,000 percent since 2009, but the state continues to lack adequate funding to manage the applications. This session lawmakers passed SB 5438, which originally would have imposed a new worker fee on farmers that use the program, who already pay a fee at the federal level. However, that provision was removed before the bill cleared the legislature.

Like the Claytons, the Mosbys don’t use the H2-A program. However, Rosella Mosby said it still affects them when larger farms can’t get enough guest labor and hire out the limited number of domestic workers available.

“The existing program is a dinosaur,” she said. “It predates the desktop computer and the mobile phone. Agriculture is always going to change, and our needs are always going to have to adjust. People don’t come and go like they used to.”

The reality on the ground isn’t always reflected in legislation due to what many farmers regard as a disconnect between urban lawmakers and policies that impact them. A part of that is the difficulty of enforcing statewide regulations in a geographically and economically diverse state.

However, Dye says the other part of it is lawmakers who don’t understand the industry or how it works.

“When legislators step into this space, they’re always after the fact and more disruptive,” she said. “They don’t create stability and certainty. You’re discouraging the guy who grows your food.”

Other statewide proposals have been interpreted as outright hostile. SB 5693 introduced this session would have required certain farmers to annually disclose efforts to “evaluate and address risks of slavery, peonage, and human trafficking,” among other things.

Although the bill never cleared the Senate, it still drew outrage from the agricultural community that viewed it as a “guilty until proven innocent” measure. At a Feb. 15 public hearing in the Senate Committee on Labor & Commerce, Washington State Dairy Federation Executive Director Dan Wood described it as “one of the worst bills I have seen and one of the biggest messes of legislation I have seen in 35 years.”

“For the language in the bill to assume that our team is not valued was pretty offensive,” Rosella Mosby said. “If there’s some bad apples out there, they should be dealt with. But for there to be…legislation that includes all farmers across the state, because there’s a couple of bad farmers out there, isn’t fair to the rest of the farmers who are doing the right thing.

“I never ever hear anything positive about agriculture,” she added. “Everybody’s picking on us.”


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TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper. His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.


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