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Farm Bureau sprouts

Ten years ago, 11 dairy farms dotted the rural landscape of Whidbey Island. Today, only one dairy remains.

At least one local farmer predicts that there may not be any commercial farms of any kind left in Island County in another 10 years.

In an effort to prevent that from happening, a group of farmers joined together and recently started the Island County Farm Bureau, becoming the 24th county Farm Bureau in the state. The county has been without a Farm Bureau since the early 1930s, forcing local farmers to join the organization in other counties that may not have the same concerns and issues.

The Farm Bureau provides education, training, and health insurance to its members. But most importantly, it is a unified voice speaking to elected officials at all levels.

The farmers feel they need a voice now more than ever. They are being killed off by razor-thin profit margins, development pressure, transportation costs and even age. Intrusive regulations haven’t helped.

“We never before have been at such a pivotal point in agriculture,” said Ron Muzzall, a North Whidbey farmer and member of the Farm Bureau board of directors. “We have the cheapest, safest food supply in the world.”

That can’t last, he said, when the plastic on a loaf of break costs more than the wheat in the bread or when dairy farmers are getting the same price for milk as they did 30 years ago.

Muzzall started the effort to bring back the Farm Bureau, even after he closed down his North Whidbey dairy farm and sold his dairy cows.

“A culmination of things forced us to reassess the future of agriculture here,” he said. He and his wife, Shelly, still raise beef cattle and sell under their own brand, 3 Sisters, and raise vegetable seed crops, but it’s barely a living.

“I’ve been farming here for 20 years,” he said. “I feel less optimistic about agriculture here than I have in the last 20 years.”

He hopes that the Farm Bureau can help change that. Members range from a honey producer to families that farm over 100 acres. The group expects at least 160 members, most of which will likely be small-scale farmers or hobby farmers. Farm Bureau president Don DuBois, for example, described himself as a hobby farmer. Secretary Cherry Dennis and Treasurer De Dennis live on a small North Whidbey farm.

But farmers of all sizes have many of the same concerns, especially in such a unique environment. Whidbey has a fast-growing population, transportation limitations, a Navy neighbor, uneven soils, and of course, it’s an island.

The farmers feel let down by government. The Growth Management Act was originally meant to protect farm land, they say, but was perverted into regulations that hurt agriculture.

“We need to have as little interference from government as possible, but as much support as possible at the same time,” said Len Engle, a Coupeville farmer and vice president of the Island County Farm Bureau.

“The Growth Management Act forced down-zoning on farms,” he added, “taking away our ability to borrow. We lose our equity and the banks lose confidence. ... It happens a lot more than you know about.”

Closer to home, Muzzall is critical of the National Park Service and Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve. In the early years of the Reserve, he said officials did a lot of work to help farmers. After all, the Reserve largely relies on farmers to keep the giant tracts of open space free from development.

Since then, he said the federal money dried up. Officials from the Park Service and Ebey’s Reserve made a lot of promises to farmers, he said, which were never kept. For example, he said the Park Service reneged on plans to build a dairy plant on the island, which might have saved all the dairies from folding.

Muzzall said the members of the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing were “peculiarly quiet” during recent farm-related controversies over critical areas and farm plans.

The farmers feel “a mood change” in the county and beyond. Residents move to the countryside because of the beautiful open space protected by farmers, but then complain about agriculture. Some environmentalists seem opposed to farming. Appointed members of the GMA hearings board enforce one-size-fits-all rules.

De Dennis admits that the issues are complex and all the solutions won’t be simple.

“Get educated on the issue,” he said in a written statement. “If they don’t want to get a little mud or manure on their shoes from walking through a field with a farmer then at least clean the windows in their glass palace so they can see the devastation they’re causing the family farm and our rural way of life.”

The alternative is that all the pretty farm fields will be filled with over-sized, out-of-place homes, lawns and driveways. Muzzall said landowners are quietly selling farm land in Central Whidbey, while he’s also planning on selling land for residential development.

The island may lose its coveted rural character, but moreover, a way of life may disappear forever.

“We want to farm the land,” Muzzall said. “That’s all we ever wanted to do.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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