King County Agricultural commissioner lays out farming changes

County has been working at helping more “first generation” farmers get started, especially immigrants and people of color.

Farmers, both local and across King County, are likely to face some headwinds this year and the coming future, says newly appointed Agricultural Commissioner Leann Krainick.

Krainick took her position last month, but it’s actually her third term — she first served from 2014 to 2021, but was legally required to step away for at least a year before returning to the 15-member King County Agricultural Commission. She’s also a local farmer, running Krainick Dairy in Enumclaw.

Being on the Agricultural Commission, Krainick said in a recent interview, means advising the King County staff and council members about current or proposed policies that would affect farmers and other agricultural corners.

Over her tenure, Krainick has seen the farming industry go through a lot of changes, including shifting demographics.

For example, the average farmer age is “definitely” getting older: “I believe the last [Agricultural] census has the average age of King County farmers being 58,” said Krainick, who is in her mid-50s.

She added that the county has been working at helping more “first generation” farmers get started, especially immigrants and people of color.

“The county is putting forth a lot of effort in reaching their goal,” Krainick said, though “they’re not there yet.”

Additionally, farm size seems to be shrinking.

According to the 2007, 20012, and 2017 federal Censuses of Agriculture, the number of King County farms that had between 1 and 10 acres of land increased from 806 to 962; meanwhile, the number of farms that had between 500 and 999 acres shrunk from 48 to 5.

This is an issue in itself, Krainick said, because the farming industry follows those bigger farms.

“It’s the big farms that help provide the infrastructure for all the small farmers, i.e. the veterinarians and repair people,” she continued; without that infrastructure, smaller farms are likely to struggle more.

The total acres of farmland being worked on has decreased from 49,000 in 2007 to 42,000 in 2017, and the number of farms that had less than $2,500 in sales increased from 973 to 1,025 while the average net income of a farm fell from $4,800 to just over $4,000.

“We’re seeing a lot of one-income families… where the spouse works outside the home, and the other person is farming and selling their produce at local farmers markets or local retail,” Krainick said.

The total number of farms has stayed relatively the same in that decade, around 1,800, even though the county has purchased the development rights of around 15,500 parcels of land in order to preserve farmland since the 1980s.

Most farms appear to be hay farms, growing from 211 in 2007 to 385 in 2017.

Meanwhile, the number of beef farms shrunk from 430 to 352 in that same time period, and dairies took a dive from 60 to 30; presently, Krainick said “We’re down to about a dozen.”

More vegetable farmers have popped up (167 to 195) as well as orchards (86 to 142).

Future issues

One issue that could drastically affect King County farmers is a proposal to raise the minimum wage in unincorporated county land to $19.

“That’s huge” Krainick said. “In farming, we’re price takers — we’re not price makers. We get the same amount for our milk that every other farmer does across the state and the country, for the most part. We would be forced to cut our labor back if that happens.”

If a wage increase is approved, having to cut expenses or even close might not affect what food you’d find in the local grocery, but it would impact local economies. Krainick said half her gross income is spent within 15 miles of her Enumclaw-area farm, and it’s the same for all other farms, regardless of commodity.

“All of our fuel, we buy locally, our veterinarians are [local], all the people that do our repairs are local, our labor is local,” she said. “… It’s substantial.”

Additionally, there’s a proposal in the county’s 2024 Comprehensive Plan to require farmland that has not been operated on for a certain number of years to install some sort of land buffer; Krainick said this would result in farmers starting off with less land to work with if they started farming on that land in the future.

And finally, the county has no regulations when it comes to battery energy storage systems (BESS), which are used to store power to put back into the grid when it’s needed.

In King County, BESS companies have been approaching farmers like Krainick to use their land to store the batteries, which she said look like large storage containers.

“They take up farmland to do that, and that’s a no-no,” she said. “The county needs to sit down and figure out rules for them.”

Last summer, King County Councilmember Sarah Perry introduced legislation that would establish zoning, safety, and insurance regulations for these battery systems.