What does the loss of local farmland mean to Thurston County residents?


The United States Department of Agriculture just released data from its 2022 Census of Agriculture, and the news is not good for either Thurston County or Washington State.

In Thurston County, between 2017 and 2022, we lost 92 farms and 6,307 acres of farmland - 10% of our remaining farmland.  This continues a longer trend. Between 2012 and 2017, County farmland decreased by 27%.

Statewide, between 2017 and 2022, Washington lost 3,717 farms and 824,443 acres of farmland. This, while the population of the state grew by about 356,000.

Nationally, the trend is the same. Between 2017 and 2022, the US lost 20 million acres of farmland, and the number of farms fell by 141,000, or 7%.

The vast majority of farms lost were small- to mid-size farms.  The average farm size grew, reflecting further consolidation and control over our food supply by an increasingly smaller number of corporations and large entities. Ironically, overall farm income was up, but that increased income went overwhelmingly to the largest farms.

It’s hard for those of us who care about a sustainable food future to find good news in the data, though that isn't stopping Wall Street from spinning the numbers.  A recent headline in The Wall Street Journal said something like "Good News: Farm Profits Up." Measured by pure profit, that is a factual statement. 

A more accurate takeaway was a headline from The Guardian, which said something like "It's Official: America is a Nation of Factory Farms."  The article focused appropriately on the facts that the U. S. has lost millions of acres of farmland and tens of thousands of farms, particularly independent, small and family farms. 

What does all of this mean for the future of local food in Thurston County? 

Between 2017 and 2022, the population of Thurston County grew by 18,503.

According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO), it takes about 3.25 acres to feed someone a typical Western diet. So, doing the math, it requires 64,760.5 acres just to feed the new residents of Thurston County.

Even if everyone switched to a radical vegetarian diet - which is not going to happen any time soon - it still takes over an acre of land to feed one person, meaning we need an additional 18,503 acres of farmland to feed recent county residents.  

Since we are losing our local farmland at a rapid rate, it means even more of our food is being imported from elsewhere, impacting other regions’ abilities to feed themselves and creating even more fossil fuel emissions and pollution for the production and transportation of that food. 

Yet, despite this grim reality, I doubt much will change. The Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) has clearly failed to stop the loss of farmland in the county or the state, and pro-development policies remain the driving force for both political parties. 

Thurston County has taken small but useful steps toward supporting local agriculture, but it probably won't make much of a difference in the long run. The City of Olympia is starting to pay more attention to issues related to agriculture and the local food system while at the same time moving full speed ahead to convert 80-plus acres of productive farmland into soccer fields, walking paths and parking lots (the Spooner Berry farm off of Yelm Highway).

The list of things to worry about gets longer every day, but losing our capacity to feed ourselves should be high on everyone's list. 

Laying aside Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, there are really only three essential human needs - food, water and shelter.   Governments at all levels are involved directly and indirectly in providing clean water and shelter. 

However, we continue to blindly assume that the private sector will address food production and that governments have no responsibility. The evidence is clear - it isn’t working. 

More and more people are interested in the safety and security of their food supply, and there is growing interest in locally-produced food.  City and county leaders should consider the census data a wake-up call and an opportunity to enact new policies and programs to preserve our remaining farms and farmland.

TJ Johnson owns and operates Urban Futures Farm and is a former food policy faculty member at The Evergreen State College.  He is also the Chair of the Thurston Conservation District (TCD) Board of Supervisors. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinion of TCD.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of  The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  You're free to post your response below.  Otherwise, if you have something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents, send it to us, and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.  


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  • Terrilovesanimals

    Scary actually. I support local at all levels. I don't want my food grown or my chicken eggs from China or elsewhere. The US needs to feed ourselves. I also am totally against foreign governments being allowed to buy our farmland! The US would not be allowed to go to China and buy land, and for a reason! I am so grateful to all the farmers here and I know it isn't easy work. My grandparents were farmers and their ancestors when they got here from Ireland.

    Friday, March 29 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    This is by design. The government doesn’t want communities to be self-sufficient. We must be beholden to government and corporate cronies.

    Saturday, March 30 Report this

  • RondaLarsonKramer

    Thank you for this excellent article. Thurston County has an important role to play here. The county is supposed to build up, not out, and put new development in cities, not in rural lands. In my personal experience, the county isn’t always doing this. Allowing improper development of rural lands happens when developers lobby the county and promise things like a lot of housing, despite there being plenty of land for housing inside the urban growth areas. Developers have unlimited resources to spend on lobbying efforts, in contrast to citizens who seek to encourage smart growth. In this way, the system is not favorable to those trying to keep elected officials from ignoring smart growth policies. Electing people with a track record of pursuing smart growth policies will be critical to the future of our communities.

    Saturday, March 30 Report this

  • Surrender

    Thank you this data driven article. While change is slow to frozen, it is imperative that we continue to voice the truth about our food supply now and into the future.

    Saturday, March 30 Report this

  • JulesJames

    Farms mean barns, tractors and fertilizer-spreading industrial drones. I don't think it is realistic for Thurston County government to target the preservation of commercial enterprise as a goal. Yes - economic development policies in the form of property tax classifications for productive farmland (and support facilities) is appropriate. But for a County goal: home gardens. The more each household learns to grow on our own, the gentler we will be on our lands overall.

    Saturday, March 30 Report this

  • griffithga

    Thank you TJ for your opinion piece and for your work on behalf of farmland preservation, local food production, and fostering small/family-owned farms. Our community, state, and nation must use our land wisely and efficiently instead of our current wasteful practices.

    Saturday, March 30 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Read The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander.

    Saturday, March 30 Report this

  • johngreen

    We are paving our farmland over. Don't we have enough warehouses yet? Time to quit building homes in the prairie/farmland. We should start growing food in our backyards instead flowers especially non-natives. Supporting local by shopping at the farmers market and the Coop will help. Stop shopping at Amazon and big box stores and buying local.

    Sunday, March 31 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Halting all development is not the solution. Having better patterns which guide our building is better.

    Sunday, March 31 Report this

  • FirstOtter

    Developers and deep pocketed corporations see farmland as merely a place to pave over and build warehouses, megamansions and tickytacky houses. They want to make money. They ahve the money and the lobbyists who can convince a legislator that farmland doesn't make the lobbyist or the legislator wealthy. Our rural lands are being nibbled to death, little by little. One tactic the developers and corporations use is what they call 'mitigation'. They say, lets us build on this farm land and we'll give you (the county) this other bit of land that is basically scotch broom wasteland.

    The thing is, every one of them uses the SAME piece of land, that same bit of land, over and over again as 'mitigation'. No one in the legislator is told, oh, we gave up this bit of land two months ago, and that developer over there used it a year ago...etc. It's bait and switch.

    One time a legislator said to a farmer, Why should I preserve farmland? We don't have a food shortage.

    The farmer said, "Where do you think your food comes from?"

    And the lawmaker said, "From the supermarket."

    Yes, they are that stupid. Or greedy. Or both.

    Sunday, March 31 Report this

  • MamaBear

    I'm with Terilovesanimals!

    Thursday, April 4 Report this

  • Holley

    Great article. Bad news. Food security should be utmost in future planning. When our governments fail us we must carve out alternatives that regular citizens can participate in. We need a revolution of consciousness...and more community gardens. Keep reporting the truth!

    Tuesday, April 16 Report this