Monday, May 23, 2011

PCC Farmland Trust: Harnessing the power of the co-op

By Kelly Sanderbeck
June 2011
from Cooperative Grocer

PCC Natural Markets in Seattle didn't plan to start a nonprofit in 1999. But one of its local farmers, Nash Huber, was facing development pressure in "Sunny Sequim," a rare sun-filled valley in rain-washed Western Washington that caters to retirees. Developers were eating up farmland, and the Nash's Best carrots Huber was famous for were at risk because he needed more land to rotate them. The 97-acre Delta Farm across the street was for sale, zoned for five-acre "ranchettes," and Huber couldn't compete with developers to buy it. So, he came to PCC with an idea…

PCC, the largest cooperative grocer in the country with nine stores and 45,000 members, stepped up to form PCC Farmland Trust—the first and only organic farmland trust in the country—with the mission to "secure, preserve, and steward threatened farmland in the Northwest to ensure that generations of local farmers productively farm using sustainable, organic growing methods." The Trust takes its mission one step further than most land trusts by working to place farmers on preserved properties, actively producing food for the local community. The Trust is an independent 501(c)(3) ­nonprofit organization that raises the majority of its budget from individual donors but counts PCC Natural Markets as its leading corporate contributor and advocate.

PCC proceeded to purchased Delta Farm in 2000, lease it to Huber, and put an organic agricultural conservation easement on the property to remove development rights forever. According to Randy Lee, PCC's chief financial officer for the past 40 years: "The Trust really came about because of the hard work of Nash and Jody Aliesan, the Trust's first executive director. She was the board administrator for the co-op at the time and took Nash's idea for a nonprofit farmland trust and made it happen. Their initiative and perseverance are the reasons the Farmland Trust came to exist." Today, Huber—one of the first organic farmers in the state and American Farmland Trust's 2008 Steward of the Land—farms 400 conserved acres and offers a secure future to the young apprentices who will eventually take over his business.

Since that auspicious beginning, the Trust has preserved land across the state of Washington, totaling 565 acres and fostering eight farm businesses. After Delta Farm came 174-acre Bennington Place Farm, conserved in 2003. Located in the southeast corner of the state near the college town of Walla Walla, it is farmed by Thundering Hooves and the Huesby family, who have been farming in the region for four generations. Joel Huesby's charisma and innovation make him well-known in the farming world, and his pioneering construction of a USDA-certified mobile slaughtering unit is being patented and sought by farmers across the world.

Next came 179-acre Ames Creek Farm in metropolitan Seattle, farmed by Full Circle Farm and Growing Things Farm; 100-acre Orting Valley Farms (south of Seattle), farmed by Tahoma Farms, Little Eorthe Farm and Crying Rock Farms; and 15-acre Camelot Downs Farm (on Whidbey Island), the Trust's first donated easement and one of the only farms in the U.S. that exclusively breeds colonial animals.
Focus on conservation easements

In 2007, the Trust's board took on a new model of farmland preservation. Instead of buying property and leasing it to a farmer, they decided that funds were better spent by purchasing just the conservation easement portion of the property, with the farmer purchasing the title. Put simply, the Trust buys the development rights, and that brings down the cost of the land for the farmer by one-third to one-half. The conservation easement is written for organic agriculture use only, and the Trust must legally steward that land forever.

For young farmers who aren't inheriting land, the work done by the Trust to bring down the cost of the land is invaluable. Dan Hulse, Trust farmer and owner of Tahoma Farms, elaborates: "PCC Farmland Trust's commitment to farming as a viable and beneficial use of our Earth's resources extends beyond simply saving farmland from development. Farmland without farmers is just open space. It's the advocacy, outreach and development work within the grower community that makes the Trust's work really stand out." Although the Trust has a relationship with PCC Natural Markets, its farmers don't have a guaranteed pipeline to supply PCC. Those separate business decisions, if made, are negotiated between the farmer and PCC.

2007 also saw a ratcheting up of the Trust's efforts. At that time, Washington was losing 22,000 acres of farmland each year, about the size of the island of Manhattan. To capture this momentum, the Trust started its "Circles of Giving": the Farmland Sustaining Circle (donors who contribute $1,000 and up each year), the Growing Circle (monthly donors), and the Agrarian Circle (those who designate the Trust in their will). As one donor emphasized, "I have seen our community surrender our sources of local, healthy food and become more dependent on distant energy-expensive food. The Trust is a way to participate in the recapture and preservation of what once was ours: local farms growing healthy, organic food."

In our country, farmers are aging (an average of 58 years), and in the next 15 years, it is estimated, 70 percent of farmland will change hands (USDA). That land needs to stay in the hands of farmers, producing food. As the only organic farmland trust in the United States, PCC Farmland Trust provides a model to replicate in building our way back to a sustainable, diversified food system that supports the health of our land and its people. The Trust's work to save local, organic agriculture forever supports local communities with jobs and fresh, healthy food, helps to offset climate change, maintains clean waterways, and fosters habitat for wildlife. PCC Farmland Trust is certainly walking the talk when it comes to "thinking globally and acting locally." ■

Founded by PCC Natural Markets in Seattle in 1999 as a separate nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization
Over 50 percent of the budget is raised through individual donations
The Trust receives support from shopping bag rebates donated by PCC shoppers and purchases at PCC of the "Chinook Book," a book of coupons redeemable at local, sustainably-minded organizations. The Trust also enjoys sponsorship from vendor partners who sell products at PCC.
The Trust is chartered for the Northwest but currently focuses on Washington State
Has 565 acres currently preserved (early 2011), expected to double in the next year
Eight farm businesses are now growing organic row crops, fruit, grass-fed meat, eggs and hops, among others

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