Census reports provide a snapshot of what's happening in a community, and the 2012 data on agriculture shows some positive trends for farmers in Whatcom County.
The latest set of data, released May 2 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, indicates an increase in farm acreage, a significant rise in the number of farms and a 9.4 percent jump in market value of products sold compared to 2007. The agriculture census is taken every five years.
When it comes to the farmland acre numbers, local experts recommend comparing the current report to five years earlier with a grain of salt, because the way it's extrapolated can create a bit of volatility. However, the longer-term trend shows Whatcom County is maintaining its agriculture land, said Chris Benedict of Washington State University's Whatcom County Extension office.
"If you look at some of the other counties in Western Washington, you see farmland being lost to other development," Benedict said. "2012 looks almost like 1997 (in terms of farmland acres), but the market value is up (more than $115 million) for the same period."
Henry Bierlink of Whatcom Farm Friends agreed, saying the trend of maintaining farmland acreage is an important one, particularly given the loss of farmland that took place in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. For years the organization has advocated maintaining a threshold of at least 100,000 acres in Whatcom County, because the organization believes dropping below it could threaten the critical mass of the local agriculture industry.
Two economic factors played a role in improving numbers between 2007 and 2012, according to Bierlink: The agricultural economy prospered while commercial and residential development slumped because of the overall economy.
Having the total Whatcom County farm market value jump from $326.5 million in 2007 to $357.3 million in 2012 was a pleasant surprise, Benedict said, given that time period involved a global financial meltdown that's taken years to recover from.
"Considering what happened in those years, these are really solid numbers," Benedict said.
Across Washington state, the census counted 37,249 farms in 2012, generating $9.1 billion in sales. Tree fruit and berries led the way in sales, followed by the grain and dairy categories.
In the U.S, 2.1 million farms generated $394.6 billion in sales.
Dairy and berries continue to dominate the Whatcom County agriculture economy. According to the census data, $193 million of dairy products were sold in 2012, up from $186.5 million in 2007.
Crop sales totaled $119.8 million in 2012, up from $99.9 million in 2007.
"2012 was not as bad a year for dairy," Bierlink said, noting that if the census had used the 2011 totals, it probably would have been lower than the 2007 total.
Raspberries continued to be the largest crop locally, but blueberries are gaining ground. In 2012 raspberries were harvested on 7,994 acres, up from 7,579 acres in 2007.
Blueberries were harvested on 3,104 acres in 2012, up from 1,770 acres in 2007. In 1997, Whatcom farmers harvested blueberries on just 482 acres.
Favorable prices for blueberries plus increased market demand domestically and abroad has fueled the blueberry boom.
While they remain a small portion of the overall agriculture sales, certified organic product sales grew substantially in Whatcom County. The report indicates organic sales totaled $13.4 million in 2012, up from $4.1 million in 2007.
OPPORTUNITY TO GROW
The agriculture census numbers suggest a change is taking place in the size of farms in Whatcom County.
Between 2007 and 2012 the number of small farms (selling less than $10,000 in product a year) increased 23.8 percent. The number of mid-range farms (selling between $10,000 and $249,000 in products) was flat during that period, while the number of large farms (selling more than $250,000 in products a year) declined 10.3 percent.
The growth of the small farms can be seen at the local farmers' markets as well as small stores and restaurants. The opportunity is there for the small farms to grow into mid-size farms to serve larger regional customers, such as grocery stores and hospitals, said Derek Long, executive director at Sustainable Connections.
"Some have the capacity to grow but don't want to take the risk," said Long, noting that not only economic factors but the whims of Mother Nature play a role in that conservative approach. The Sustainable Connections organization has a farming program that supports new farmers as well as connects consumers and food buyers to local farms.
Jeff Voltz of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center agreed, adding that another hurdle is the complexities of the distribution system. It is one thing to transport products to the local farmer's market, but it's a significant step to try to serve a business like a regional grocery store chain.
The NABC has worked to address the problem with regional food hubs. Such a hub helps improve marketing and distribution of northwest Washington farm products. For example, the Puget Sound Food Hub allows retail customers to buy direct from several local farms with one payment and one delivery. That makes it easier for a store that wants local products to put in one order rather than working with several farmers, Voltz said.
Moving forward, Long expects local and regional farming to continue to grow.
"Generally speaking, farmers are seeing increased demand and are getting higher prices for their products," Long said, adding that this benefits not only the local farmers but the Whatcom County economy.
A SNAPSHOT OF WHATCOM COUNTY AGRICULTURE
Here's a look at some of the key statistics from the 2012 Census of Agriculture report, released earlier this month. A full report can be found at agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/:
Acres of farmland
Number of farms
Total market value
2012: $357.3 million
2007: $326.5 million
2002: $287.9 million
1997: $241.6 million
2012: $193 million
2007: $186.5 million
2002: $159.9 million
1997: $166.1 million
2012: $119.8 million
2007: $99.9 million
2002: $76 million
1997: $44.2 million
Harvested raspberry farmland (acres)
Harvested blueberry farmland (acres)