PUGET CONSUMERS CO-OP FUND IS AIMED AT PRESERVING ORGANIC FARMLANDS

SEATTLE -- Puget Consumers Co-Op here has taken a major step to ensure organic farmland in Washington will persist and flourish with the creation of a comprehensive Farmland Fund to secure and preserve prime organic growing areas.The specified areas include parts of Skagit Valley and the Dungeness Delta near Sequim, Wash. This area, Puget Sound, is the fifth most-threatened farmland region in the

SEATTLE -- Puget Consumers Co-Op here has taken a major step to ensure organic farmland in Washington will persist and flourish with the creation of a comprehensive Farmland Fund to secure and preserve prime organic growing areas.

The specified areas include parts of Skagit Valley and the Dungeness Delta near Sequim, Wash. This area, Puget Sound, is the fifth most-threatened farmland region in the United States, according to the Washington State University Cooperative Extension, and is the reason the natural-food retailer is taking such a strong stand.

"We are owned by 40,000 citizens of the Seattle region," said PCC chief executive officer Jeff Voltz. "They are members with us because of our dedication to organics and to the farmland that produces them. We knew they would want us to take action."

PCC reached out to members and others in the Seattle area via a direct mailer that went out the last week of September. It was delivered to 160,000 individuals and businesses in all, including the 40,000 members of the co-op. Voltz said the PCC began receiving monetary and verbal support immediately.

"The natural-food and organic shopper is very in tune to the sustainable food chain and the issues surrounding it," he said. "This action is something they can feel very passionate about and can really embrace. It validates the reason why somebody joined." To kickstart the fund, the PCC has pledged to donate 5% of all produce sales during the month of October, an amount Voltz estimates will hover in the $40,000 range. Additional funds will be generated through voluntary employee payroll deductions, vendor sales promotions, customer contributions and corporate donations.

"Our goal is to raise more than $1 million over the next three years," said Voltz. "We believe we can reach this target, based on the enthusiasm and excitement already generated by the folks involved."

Management of the fund will fall under the leadership of Voltz and Jody Aliesan, the project's manager. Aside from monies used to sustain the program, Voltz said, all funds raised will go toward the purchase of land.

"Right now we just want to keep it simple," he said. "The money raised is strictly for this project. We want to get this done to win."

Developers have already begun to move in on the general area, snatching up plots of land that once produced fresh crops and filling that farmland instead with new houses and factories. Voltz cited Washington's Kent Valley, about 10 miles outside Seattle, as a prime example of what the PCC is trying to prevent.

"Over the past 20 years, [the Kent Valley] has transformed from strawberry fields and farmland to total industry," he said. "It's all factories now."

Attempts were made to save this land from commercial property development, but Voltz said the efforts ultimately failed because they were more grassroots-type campaigns that tried to alter legislation. The Farmland Fund is more an attempt to beat developers at their own game by simply buying property and taking it off the market.

The land currently in question is owned by various farms and estates, and worked by people who have farmed on it for generations.

"When a farmer has no progeny to hand the land down to, it unfortunately becomes more of a financial issue," Voltz said. "They can get a better economic return if they sell to developers."

In addition to that, Voltz said, the area has fairly recently been short-platted by the county into 2.5- to 5-acre parcels, making it simple for real estate agencies to sell the land off bit by bit.

The problem also persists that the same plot of land that is worth $2,000 when functioning as farmland is worth $10,000 if developed.

"Too often," Voltz said, "big money steps in and wins."

In an effort to avoid being taxed for the land purchase, the PCC is hoping to buy it through a nonprofit agency. To that end, the PCC has been discussing the idea with North Olympic Land Trust and Friends of the Field, two Washington-based nonprofit organizations with connections to and concerns for the land in question.

"The idea is, we would buy the land through them with the agreement it will be converted to organic farmland for perpetuity," said Voltz, adding the groups are not in this to become land owners or developers. "In most instances, PCC will transfer interest in the farmland to local land trusts, enabling these groups to oversee the land they know best."

Given all the activity, it may seem ironic that the PCC works with only one farmer from this area, Nash Huber, who has been farming the area since the late 1960s and currently owns and operates Nash's Dungeness Farm. Huber provides an assortment of organic vegetables for the PCC under the label "Nash's Best." Voltz said Huber approached the group with the idea about 15 months ago and, at first, the group was unsure what to do. "There would be no tax advantage for us," Voltz said. "We would buy the land for $10,000, allocate it for farmland and it would immediately drop in value to $2,000. That's a tough decision to make. "

But, as time went on the group saw the project's merits and decided "it would just be the right thing to do."