Conservation | In the Community

How two farming advocates are growing the Pierce County ag community

When Madeleine Spencer first heard about the 4.5 acre Goss Farm for lease at Washington State University Puyallup Research and Extension Center, she was ecstatic. Madeleine is the coordinator for Pierce Conservation District’s Farm Foundations program, a training program for local growers, and had been on the hunt for a small parcel of land to help expand the program’s training ground. 

When Madeleine first launched the Farm Foundations program, she had accessibility and inclusivity in mind in order to lower barriers to entry. She worked with her team to create a free, part-time training program for farmers and aspiring farmers in order to allow participants to juggle other commitments while taking part in the program. By lowering the time required to participate and providing hands-on field experience alongside classroom learning, participants are able to reap the benefits of a comprehensive farm internship without taking on the burdens often associated with farm training.  

“Typically, gaining farming experience requires folks to quit their jobs, volunteer long hours, or take on low paying internships,” said Madeleine.

Taking farmer training to the next level  

The Farm Foundations program model has supported 60 participants since it launched in 2018, many of whom have gone on to pursue varied opportunities in local food production, from community gardening to youth agricultural programs. Though many participants have had luck finding opportunities to apply their skills and knowledge, those looking to farm professionally have felt as though they needed a place to farm to take their training to the next level.

“Most of our farmers don’t own land and can’t just go out and buy a property,” Madeleine explained. 

This is when the next project of the Farm Foundations program came to fruition: a farm business incubator. An incubator seemed like the best next step to serve new and beginning farmers at a critical transition stage upon graduating from the Farm Foundations training program. Once she landed on the idea, Madeleine’s charge became securing new land to help actualize the Farm Foundations’ dream. Madeleine set out to find not just a typical piece of land, but a farm with prime soil, access to markets, and a multi-year lease. 

“If it wasn’t for Washington Farmland Trust’s Farm to Farmer program and the support of program coordinator Amy Moreno-Sills, my search would have taken years,” said Madeleine.

Amy Moreno-Sills, farmer and former manager of Washington Farmland Trust’s Farm to Farmer program, stands in a field of zinnias. Photo Credit: Rylea Foehl.

Securing land to bring a vision to life

Amy got wind of a parcel of land that Washington State University researchers were not utilizing. She inquired about opportunities for leasing the land to Pierce Conservation District to support their incubator idea, and given their food systems focus and organizational capacity, WSU was eager to learn more.

 “From searching for land to signing the lease, it took around 5 months total, which is so much faster than I ever could have imagined,” said Madeleine.

Amy and Madeleine met a couple of years back through the Pierce County farming community. When Madeleine learned that Amy was a vegetable farmer, she asked if she would share her farming knowledge with new and beginning farmers at the Farm Foundations training program. From there, Madeleine learned about the Farm to Farmer program and enlisted Amy’s help to bring her incubator vision to life.

An uphill battle for new and beginning farmers 

Finding and securing farmland in Washington has become increasingly difficult for local food growers. According to the Washington Association of Land Trusts, the Puget Sound region has lost more than 57% of its farmland since the 1950’s — a food system crisis compounded by farmers aging out of their jobs, increasing development pressure, the threats of climate change, and a history of systemic racism.

“For folks who don’t have a generational family network or other privileges to help open doors, land searching is very, very hard,” recounts Amy.

While Amy is white, her husband is Mexican, and together they have experienced what it’s like to feel unwelcome in an agricultural community. “It’s not safe for everyone in Pierce County,” said Amy.

Amy also worked in land-use before joining the Farm to Farmer team, where she experienced firsthand the complex challenges that Pierce County faces as one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. 

Amy brings her family’s personal experience as well as her experience working in the farming world for so many years to help others find land successfully in the Puget Sound region. For marginalized farmers, Amy is especially thoughtful about ensuring they can find land in a community that feels safe. To each and every land search, Amy brings the patience and determination she has witnessed in so many farmers she has worked with over the years – including Madeleine.

Madeleine Spencer, Pierce Conservation District’s Farm Foundations program coordinator, harvests chard. Photo courtesy of Pierce Conservation District.

Leveraging resources to help more farmers succeed

Now that the land has been secured, Madeleine and her team have started building out a vision for the incubator program, identifying land access for BIPOC, women, and other marginalized farmers as a key focus. Though Madeleine had hoped to begin leasing land for the incubator sooner – the pandemic and an irrigation issue on the farm have pushed their timeline significantly. Madeleine is still determined to launch the program as soon as possible.

Though Madeleine’s current land search is over, her and Amy still find themselves connecting and sharing resources as they are a part of the same farming community. Madeleine sees the whole Farm to Farmer team as peers that she can look to for farming advice or guidance as she builds out the incubator and thinks about the future of her program’s success.

“Before Farm to Farmer, there wasn’t a formal hub for growers to search for land opportunities,” said Madeleine. “It’s success is rooted in the personal farming experience that each of the staff bring, and is helping lower barriers for farmers and strengthen our local food system. I’m grateful it exists.”

Amy Moreno-Sills has since left Washington Farmland Trust to focus on running her farm business, Four Elements Farm, full-time.

Pictured above are alumni of the Farm Foundations training program. Photo courtesy of Pierce Conservation District.