Two Thurston County conservation groups last week announced a breakthrough in their 16-year quest to preserve local agriculture.
It came in the form of 147 lush acres.
South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust and Heernett Environmental Foundation/Creekside Conservancy on Oct. 17 purchased the land, which sits south of Rochester in a nook between Scatter Creek and the Chehalis River.
The land conservation team will partner with a family farm and a nonprofit. Together, the groups intend to safeguard habitat, assist up-and-coming farmers and keep agricultural land agricultural.
South of the Sound Board Chair Russell Fox described the Oct. 17 purchase as the “cornerstone” of years of work.
“I’m going to cry just talking about it,” Fox said during a tour of the property Tuesday.
With the purchase complete, South of the Sound is closer to fulfilling its promise to the community: secure, affordable farming opportunities for as long as the community can envision.
“If a farmer doesn’t inherit land or have a trust fund, it’s really hard to get started,” Fox said. “They might rent for five years, invest in soil then the owner at end of lease says he is subdividing.”
“This way, we can assure the community that the grower they see at the farmers market will be there for years to come,” Fox said. “It’s not going to huge development, it’s not going to become a bunch of McMansions.”
Following a traditional community land trust model, South of the Sound and Heernett hold the fee title to the land, and a local farmer — in this case, Kirsop Family Farm — holds a 99-year lease and owns some of the farm buildings.
According to board member Loretta Seppanen, Kirsop Farm will rent the majority of South of the Sound’s land and plans to grow food on a portion of the land in 2014. The farm will keep the rest of its land in hay production in the short term as it expands its existing local organic farming operations, with an emphasis on community supported agriculture.
Enterprise for Equity, an Olympia based microenterprise nonprofit, will rent the balance of South of the Sound’s land.
Enterprise’s Executive Director Lisa Smith described her organization as a training program for budding, low-income entrepreneurs.
Participants study the main areas of business planning, and those interested in farming have the opportunity to join the Agri-Preneur program, which, starting next spring, will use the Rochester property for hands-on training.
The remaining 15 percent is owned by Creekside Conservancy and will be used to preserve the Scatter Creek habitat.
According to Creekside Director Chanele Holbrook, Scatter Creek is “much more than just salmon.”
“This land sits on an aquifer. Through preserving the land, we’re helping the quality of the water, which becomes runoff,” Holbrook said. “And, in this location we’re helping a variety of species.”
Presently the land is in “pretty good shape.”
Creekside Conservancy wants to keep it that way — and teach others how to do so too.
“We envision school buses, local farmers stopping by, open houses,” she said. “We want to demonstrate a viable and successful conservation program.”
Agency leaders describe the four-entity collaboration as the first of its kind.
Conventional wisdom suggests multiple partners could complicate matters, but Holbrook is not worried.
“So often agriculture and conservation go head to head,” Holbrook said. “That’s not a concern here. From the get-go we all had similar visions.”
Fox takes pride in the collaboration: “I never thought our first project would be so multifaceted and have so many win-wins,” he said.
Sixteen years ago, Fox and other South of the Sound members failed to purchase a dairy farm they hoped to turn into a community land trust.
“We were too small, it was too complex,” Fox said Tuesday.
Over the years, South of the Sound membership has ballooned — they have 140 members now — but funding has remained an issue.
The country’s 2008 financial downturn provided the nonprofit an opportunity.
Valued at about $1.2 million 2008, the Rochester property’s market value tumbled, bottoming out this year at about $330,000.
South of the Sound and Heerlet purchased the property for approximately $230,000, according to the Thurston County Assessor’s Office.
“If land is turning rapidly we have no chance. So here, the recession was actually to our advantage, because the owners weren’t getting a lot of bites when they put it on the market,” board member Seppanen said. “While we were fiddling around trying to get the money together, they were still sitting on the market.
“We didn’t have any competition,” she said.
Asked if he is concerned about pushback from big business or developers, Fox said he is not.
“We’re not taking over the world,” he said. “Just this one little piece of land.”