With harvest season upon us, here’s how Whatcom farming is changing

Strawberry season starts in Whatcom County

Strawberries are the first berries to be harvested during berry season in Whatcom County, Wash. While many local farms produce for grocery chains, many also offer u-pick options for people to pick their own berries.
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Strawberries are the first berries to be harvested during berry season in Whatcom County, Wash. While many local farms produce for grocery chains, many also offer u-pick options for people to pick their own berries.

As the summer harvest season heats up, a look at the data shows that the number of farms in Whatcom County grew about 1% from 2012 to 2017. But a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent report released this year, shows several changing trends in farming:

Smaller farms are making a comeback

The number of farms smaller than 10 acres nearly doubled in 2017 compared to a decade earlier, according to the census survey, which is done every five years. In 2007 there were 400 small farms. That number grew to 701 by 2017.

The rise of value-added, locally owned products in the past 10 years is one likely factor. There’s also more infrastructure in place to support small farmers, including more farmer’s markets, programs put together by Sustainable Connections and the founding of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center.

There wasn’t much change for large farms with more than 500 acres; in 2012 there were 43 and in 2017 there were 42.

But, there were fewer mid-size farms between 50-499 acres in the past five years: In 2012 there were 388 and by 2017 there were 307.

More farmers in all age groups

A rise in small farms has also meant an increase in the number of farmers. According to the 2017 data Whatcom County had 2,982 farmers, up 75% from five years ago.

Perhaps encouraging for long-term industry growth is the rise in the number of young farmers. The number of Whatcom farmers under the age of 35 totaled 239 in 2017, up from 89 in 2012.

Much of the growth in farmers numbers came in the 35-64 age group, rising from 1,111 in 2012 to 1,793 in 2017. The number of farmers over 65 also rose, from 502 in 2012 to 950 in 2017.

There are also more women in farming in Whatcom County: In 2012, 19% of farmers were women. In 2017, 44% of farmers were women.

Strawberry industry shrinks

U-picking and buying strawberries at local stores remain popular Whatcom County June tradition. But, farmland devoted to commercial strawberry growth continues to shrink. The census estimates Whatcom County had 162 acres of strawberries in 2017. That was down from 307 acres in 2007.

Mike Boxx of Boxx Berry Farm said he’s not sure why that is happening but believes there are a couple of factors creating this trend. One is that the price of commercial strawberries has remained about the same for the past 10 years but expenses have gone up. Also, raspberry and blueberry commercial harvests have become more mechanized, while strawberries continue to be hand harvested.

Global markets impact blueberries, raspberries

Whatcom farmers had 8,573 acres devoted to raspberries in 2017, about 300 acres more than 10 years earlier. Given the challenges in the past two years, particularly with low prices and rough winters, there is a concern that the raspberry acreage could start shrinking.

While still trailing raspberries overall, blueberries have quickly gained ground in recent years. An estimated 4,535 acres were devoted to blueberries in 2017, up from 2,662 acres in 2007 and 482 acres in 1997.

Whether that blueberry growth continues may depend on the global market. This year U.S. frozen blueberry inventories are low, according to a post on the Fresh Fruit Portal website, which could lead to increased demand.

Milk still tops Whatcom sales list

While experiencing a drop in sales, milk remains the biggest Whatcom agriculture commodity in terms of sales.

In 2017 dairy farmers tallied $180.5 million in milk sales, a decrease of 6.5% compared to 2012. It was also slightly lower than its 2007 sales total, according to the census.

Dairy in Whatcom County has struggled in recent years because farmers continue to get low prices for the milk. With lower U.S. production this spring the USDA is expecting a possible rise this year and in 2020. If prices rise as predicted, it would be the highest milk price since 2014.

Other tidbits

With all sized farms, there were 1,701 in 2012 and 1,712 in 2017.

The market value of agriculture products sold in Whatcom County was $372.9 million in 2017, a 4% increase compared to 2012.

Percentage of farms in Whatcom County that are organic in 2017: 2 (twice the national number of 1%).

Percentage of farms in Whatcom County that are family-owned: 97.

Percentage of farms that have internet access: 84.

Whatcom County’s largest crop by acreage: Hay, taking up 34,330 acres, which is just slightly less than the size of two Bellinghams.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.