A neon sign attached to a wooden door just inside The Saltbox Barn reads “happily ever after” in bright, buttery script. Brock and Katie Clements, co-owners of this event venue on Fir Island south of Mount Vernon, hope their clients’ marriages — and their business — continues that way: happily, and well into the future.
But recommendations put forward by Skagit County’s Agriculture Advisory Board (AAB) threaten that future. A proposal the AAB sent to the county planning commission in April would clarify county code and, if enforced, disrupt the event industry here. Trying to plan for an optimal future for the best remaining farmland in the Puget Sound region has knotted up the community.
With interest in the issue high following a heavily attended hearing last month, the planning commission extended the comment period until Aug. 17, and stakeholders are meeting in the meantime to identify alternative proposals. The planning commission is scheduled to review comments on Sept. 26 and deliberate on Oct. 10 on recommendations to send to the county commissioners.
Of the more than 50 people who spoke in the July 25 hearing, fewer than 10 offered full-throated support for the AAB’s proposal, while at least 40 supported allowing agritourism, including wedding venues, to be part of Skagit County’s future sense of place.
No one criticized Skagit farmers.
Since 1950, Puget Sound has seen more than 1.4 million acres of farmland disappear in urban and suburban development. Supporters of Skagit agriculture do not want a repeat of what has happened in the Kent or Puyallup valleys where farming has all but disappeared. Closer to home, Snohomish County saw 17% of its remaining farmland converted between 2007 and 2019.
Keeping agriculture viable against this backdrop of persistent encroachment requires creative solutions.
Restrictive zoning to minimize other commercial activities is a principal method. Making sure small rural properties can find alternative revenue sources to keep them from selling is another, and activities associated with agritourism can do that.
What makes the Skagit sense of place so valuable is agriculture. Event venues have benefited from that rural character and are committed to protecting farmland. Yet not everyone sees them as compatible with agriculture’s future.
In defining agritourism, the AAB excluded venues like The Saltbox Barn, which has operated since 2018: “Celebratory gatherings, weddings, parties or similar uses that cause the property to act as an event center or that take place in structures specifically designed for such events are not agritourism.”
If adopted, event venues will close, support business owners such as caterers and florists will lose business, and revenue will go elsewhere.
With futures at stake — and pressures against farmland intense — neighbors are feeling misunderstood and wondering whether a path forward exists that protects farming’s long-term future and allows event venues to continue to showcase the region’s distinct landscape.
Out of compliance
Currently, these venues are not covered in the county code on lands zoned Agriculture Natural Resource Lands (Ag-NRL, or the ag zone), except as temporary events. That requires a permit, and limited to 24 calendar days; the proposal cuts that in half. Those permits are not being used, yet the county allowed venues to operate.
Skagit County Director of Planning and Development Services Jack Moore explained that investigating code compliance primarily follows complaints. Anyone may submit a request for investigation. “Anecdotally, we’ve received a few over the years but not a large number,” said Moore in an email.
Jessie Anderson, co-owner of Maplehurst Farm, which has been hosting public weddings since 2012, said, “The county definitely told venues, ‘Go ahead and operate, and if your neighbors aren’t complaining, then continue to do what you’re doing’.”
That status quo seems poised to change.
A minute later, sitting in a converted building at Maplehurst Farm before a wall of dishes stacked in rustic wooden shelves, Katie Clements repeated it. Twenty minutes later: “The public process definitely has failed.”
Data, surveys and the future
For years, Skagit County has been studying agritourism to determine how it fits with Skagit agriculture’s future.
The ag zone’s primary purpose is farming. Today, about 70,000 acres are zoned Ag-NRL. Non-agricultural activities (Agricultural Accessory Use in the code’s language) are allowed with restrictions and if they remain “subordinate and incidental” to farming.
Exceptions, such as serving food, prompted the current discussion that started in 2018. After many requests for rezoning or changing the code, the planning commission and county commissioners recognized the need to establish clear standards.
In 2021 and 2022, BERK Consulting worked with county planning staff to understand existing agritourism activities in Skagit County and what residents wanted for the future. Surveys, public workshops and town halls yielded abundant data.
A 2022 survey with more than 600 responses revealed wide public support for agritourism. More than 80% approved of agritourism when it was accessory to farming; two-thirds favored weddings within certain parameters. Almost one-third of the respondents owned or leased farmland.
Those involved in agritourism “thought progress was being made,” said Jeffrey Anderson, who co-owns Maplehurst Farm, which is part of his grandparents’ homestead.
A different perspective
The AAB, however, thought differently.
“More WSU Master Gardeners took the [earlier, smaller] ag tourism survey than farmers did,” said Don McMoran of McMoran Farms and an ex-officio member of the AAB.
The chair of the advisory board, Michael Hughes, another Skagit Valley farmer, agreed. “Even before BERK Consulting sent out their surveys, we voiced our concern that surveys can be written to promote any message.”
The AAB believed the information gathered inadequately and inaccurately reflected farmers.
The board represents “all sorts of different parts of agriculture,” said Hughes, who has served on the board for 10 years and chaired it for three. It includes four members from each of the county’s three districts, appointed by the county commissioners.
At the request of county officials, the AAB studied existing rules and tried to clarify what applied to agritourism. In March, it presented its findings to the planning commission.
After that meeting, the AAB formulated recommendations based on existing code, and the planning commission modified them slightly. The proposal has produced anxiety and conflict among those who contend the public input seems to have been discounted.
Too close for comfort?
Weddings, memorial services, fundraisers and the like bring well-dressed guests near the realities of working farms. And farmers worry and feel constrained.
“Lawsuits, negative public perception and burdensome regulations threaten [farmers’] livelihoods daily,” said Mikala Staples Hughes, an executive in the agricultural industry and the spouse of a fourth-generation farmer. These pressures combine and challenge farmers’ ability to perform essential agricultural activities, she said. Farmers feel less comfortable doing typical farm work such as spraying pesticides or irrigating. “We can’t expose ourselves to a certain amount of risk,” said Staples Hughes.
Farming operates with small windows of time for specific tasks, and delay is not always possible. County rules affirm farmers’ right to farm, but farmers are sensitive to public perceptions. They do not want guests at venues to “have a bad taste from agriculture because they’ve had dust floating through their ceremony or manure smells lofted in the air,” said Michael Hughes. “We’re just afraid that more increased activity of these events just creates more opportunities for complaints.”
Looking to surrounding counties and knowing the history of disappearing farmland, farmers see how easily agricultural economies can be lost.
The AAB wants a strong commitment to commercial farming in the ag zone. McMoran put it simply: “The AAB wants our farms to be farmed.”
A challenge to start up
But it may not be so simple, especially for farmers just starting out.
Small farms struggle nationwide, typically dependent on income from off their farms for the majority of household income.
Boldly Grown Farm in Bow exemplifies this challenge. Amy Frye, who bought the farm two years ago with her husband, has found it hard to get started. “We grow vegetables as our primary income,” said Frye in a public meeting in July. “But, man, it is hard to make a living as a first-generation farm in Skagit.”
Land is expensive. “We got it by the skin of our teeth,” she said, and only because the farm had become derelict. “We’re really happy to be stewards of that property now, but we really also need to be able to find creative revenue streams to be able to farm into the future.”
Agritourism provides one of those alternative income streams. Boldly Grown Farm, for instance, operates a farmstand. This is an allowed use according to county code if it meets certain conditions, and the new AAB recommendations made that explicit to encourage small farms.
Yet event venues, even on active farms, do not qualify according to the proposed rules, and their owners and supporters are perplexed, because their venues integrate into the agricultural landscape.
The Saltbox Barn’s property is 56 acres, and 97% of it is farmed, according to Brock Clements, whose family has owned it since the 19th century. The Andersons of Maplehurst Farm have been growing orchard grass for hay and planting berries this year on 10 acres they lease around their 5.75 acres. Both say the income from farming is insufficient to support their families.
Loving the land
With small farmers seeking creative income streams and other farmers feeling hemmed in, agritourism might play another role: education and promotion of agriculture, which is often a centerpiece to agritourism.
“I didn’t grow up on farmland — never cared about it,” said Katie Clements. “I started caring about it when I was there, working on it every day. And the venues can be that conduit, that connection, that liaison between the farmers and the public.”
“When people come here,” said Jessie Anderson, “they are moved by the beauty of the land and getting to see the working farm. For some, it is their first time visiting a rural area, a working farm, and … it’s really a moving experience.”
By defining venues like hers as incompatible with agriculture, the proposed code threatens that connection and might miss a way to bolster support for farming among guests — about half of whom come from outside Skagit County — she said.
Everyone’s fear focuses on the future, knowing how much agriculture has lost in the past.
“Fortunately, most of the operators [now] are local people, and they understand the importance of protecting agriculture,” said Michael Hughes, during a break while harvesting wheat. “Our concern is that there’s no … framework on how to do it, that it’s going to expand with people who don’t value agriculture in the same way, and it could start eroding agricultural lands.”
Farmers like Hughes worry about farmland being loved to death and not recognizing where that point was until the county is well past it.
Despite clear divisions, many want to be neighborly and find a way forward. Along with venue owners and their clients, other farmers want a happily-ever-after ending for the ag zone, too.
“We feel it’s very important protecting these lands for food production to supply our neighbors with locally grown, high-quality food,” said Michael Hughes. “I do think there’s a solution. It’s just we got the conversation started.”
Conversations require vested partners. Time will tell whether these parties can find joy like newlyweds dancing in a refurbished barn looking toward a shared, promising future.
— Reported by Adam M. Sowards