December 20, 1999
SAMMAMISH VALLEY--When the Root Connection CSA Share Farm faced the possible loss of its 11-acre site, a small group of members got together and came up with an innovative solution--they bought the land.
"We knew how important the farm had been to our families," says Bob Atkinson, who serves on the group's management committee. "It's not only a source of fresh, local, pesticide-free food, it's a connection with nature, with the land. We were committed to seeing it survive."
That bold stroke was the beginning of FARM LLC (Farm Acquisition Research and Management, a Washington State Limited Liability Company). The group is working to preserve farmland and promote sustainable farming in the Sammamish Valley.
The group purchased the Root Connection Farm property, on Highway 202 south of Woodinville, in March. The Root Connection is the state's first and largest share farm, providing fresh, chemical-free produce to more than 500 families. Shortly after, the group bought the 11-acre site next door, now the Living Legacy Community Ranch. Both parcels are part of the King County Farmland Preservation Program.
This fall, the group closed on its largest purchase--a 47-acre piece of property on the northwest corner of NE 124th St. and Hwy. 202. After buying the property, FARM LLC sold development rights to the county, ensuring that the land will be protected as farmland forever.
But buying farmland is just the first step. FARM LLC is committed to protecting the environment and the local food supply by seeing that the land is used for sustainable agriculture and related projects.
Preserving the farmer, as well as the farmland
"Our goal is not just to buy farmland, but to see that it is actively farmed," explains Roger Calhoon, FARM LLC's general manager.
Much of the Sammamish Valley's protected farmland lies fallow, he points out, and is under increasing pressure to be developed. Deed restrictions, regulations, and lack of capital have made it difficult for farmers to earn a living from the land. For example, protected farmland cannot be divided and sold as small parcels. But with new intensive farming techniques, farmers can produce five times the yield per acre of traditional farms. They don't need--and can't afford--large parcels.
Another problem for farmers is that land owners generally lease on a year-to-year basis. The farmer has no stability or incentive to make long-term improvements to the land. That's where FARM LLC comes in.
"Farming on the urban/suburban fringe can be economically viable," says Calhoon. "Our goal is to bring together the resources that will make it happen."
FARM LLC will lease small parcels of land on long-term leases to qualified farmers. The group also will research the most effective methods of chemical-free farming and teach them to others. Long-term projects include orchards and berries, community "pea-patch" gardens, classes for beginning farmers and home gardeners, and a solar/animal-heated greenhouse demonstration project.
The LLC Ranch is already a bustle of activity. Adults and children take horsemanship lessons, attend composting demonstrations, or take animal or craft classes. The Root Connection Farmstore sells fresh-grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers. More than 25 preschool groups toured the Pumpkin Patch in October.
Although some media reports have portrayed the group as "Microsoft millionaires," only three of FARM LLC's 18 member-investors have Microsoft ties. Others include a doctor, accountant, scientist, writer, real estate agent, farmer, and homemaker. Individual investments range from "sweat equity" to several hundred thousand dollars. An elected management committee of eight members makes day-to-day decisions for the company. It's a lot of work, but anyone who's watched swallows circle overhead at twilight or knelt to pick fragrant basil or watched a child's face as she pulls a carrot from the ground knows it's worth it.
"The Sammamish Valley has some of the richest topsoil in the United States," says Claire Thomas, owner of the Root Connection Farm. "You have to believe it was meant to be farmed."
How you can help:
Christine Dubois is a member of the FARM LLC Management Committee.