Muzzall dairy herd sold

Whidbey Island has one less dairy farm.

The Muzzall family, which farms several hundred acres north of Penn Cove and south of Oak Harbor, has reached an agreement to sell its herd of approximately 150 dairy cattle.

Bob Muzzall said Tuesday that the sale is final “pending the delivery of the final check.” He’s retired now, and the farm is managed by his son, Ron Muzzall.

The farm dates back to around 1910 when Lyle Muzzall, Bob’s father, started clearing the land. Bob said dairying has been part of the operation since around 1920.

Sale of the dairy cows does not mean the immediate end of the Muzzall farm. Bob said the family still has a “sizable” herd of beef cattle, and grows cabbage and hay.

The dairy’s sale was mentioned Monday afternoon during a hearing in Oak Harbor regarding the county’s proposed new critical areas ordinance regulating existing and ongoing agriculture.

“One of the finest dairies on the island was sold one week ago because of pressure from politicians and political action groups,” said Gary Fisher, who raises sheep near Oak Harbor.

Bob Muzzall, who did not attend the meeting, said Tuesday that environmental concerns were not the only factor in the sale of the dairy herd. It’s difficult for small dairies to compete at a time when huge dairies of 5,000 or more cows are dominating the market, he said, adding that “it’s hard to compete in this remote location.”

He declined to say who is purchasing the cows because the sale was not final.

However, Bob Muzzall said increasing regulations are always a consideration for farmers in this area. “It’s very much in the forefront,” he said. “They’re always pushing for something more.”

Ron Muzzall took a stronger stand in comments later Tuesday. “The environmental thing was part of the decision-making,” he said, explaining why the dairy cows were sold. “We’re doing something we love, but if it becomes not enjoyable any longer, it is no longer fun.”

Muzzall also commented on the situation at another recent meeting, when he told the Planning Commission that there were ten dairies on Whidbey Island in 1985 and now there were two. With his sale, it’s now down to one — the Sherman farm on Central Whidbey.

Ron Muzzall at that time expressed concern about increasing rules, calling for “consistent regulations” so farmers will know what the rules are. “We haven’t had the political savvy or numbers to protect ourselves,” he said.

There was other talk Monday of farmers giving up in the face of increasing regulations. Island County is under court order to tighten regulations around wetlands and streams where farming occurs.

County Commissioner Mike Shelton told the assembly of approximately 40 landowners at North Whidbey Middle School that another farmer, whom he did not name, told him he would sell his cattle.

“It pains me to hear ‘I’m done, I need time to liquidate my herd’,” Shelton said. “He won’t let WEAN use his farm plan against him.” He was referring to the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which is now monitoring farm plans on file with the Whidbey Island Conservation District.

Ron Muzzall said WEAN’s farm plan scrutiny also contributed to his decision to sell the dairy herd. He said he scrupulously follows his farm plan, but he’s not willing to have WEAN founders Steve Erickson and Marianne Edaine involved with his farm. “They’re looking over my shoulder with Steve and Marianne second-guessing. I’m just not willing to carry on my life that way,” he said.

And while Muzzall said he will keep the family’s 3 Sisters Cattle Company beef business for now, that too could come to an end with increasing regulation. He said farmers are thinking of raising houses instead of animals and crops. “WEAN has done more to force development on Whidbey Island than any single group,” he claimed.

WEAN’s Steve Erickson attended Monday’s meeting, again saying that the buffers along streams and wetland remain insufficient in the latest proposals. He’s been fighting the county on the issue of buffers since 1998 and winning -- both the Growth Management Hearings Board and Washington State Court of Appeals have sided with WEAN in calling for more environmental protection from farm activities.

“There’s not enough buffering,” Erickson told the commissioners. “You really need 50-foot minimum buffers.” In the proposed ordinance, buffers vary depending on use.

WEAN has already challenged the determination of nonsignificance the county issued as part of the State Environmental Policy Act process required to adopt the new ordinance.

North Whidbey farmer Larry Von Grey, who has 80 acres of forest and farmland north of Oak Harbor, joined those who said more regulations will force him to give up farming, which he doesn’t make any money on, anyway. “It irritates me to death, I’m ready to quit farming,” he said. “I’m right on the verge of building houses there. If this ordinance goes through I’m done for.”

Every other speaker Monday urged the commissioners to ease off on regulations, and even defy state law if necessary. Roger Nelson, for example, cited such historical figures as John Adams and Thomas Paine in urging freedom for farmers, and warned the commissioners not to play Britain’s Neville Chamberlain to the regulators’ Adolf Hitler.

Shelton replied that the commissioners all swore to uphold state law. “We flat need some changes in state law,” he added. “Maybe that’s the chicken’s way out.” He doubted that Governor Christine Gregorie will push for any major changes this legislative session.

Commissioner Mac McDowell, chairman of the board, also offered sympathy to farmers who feel over-regulated, but said there can be “no huge, sweeping changes” in the ordinance “until state law changes.” He did ask county staff to try to simplify some of the management regulations before the hearing is continued on Feb. 27.

Many farmers urged that education should replace further regulation.

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