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Farmland Preservation Techniques and Sustainable Agriculture

This page contains information on farmland preservation programs and tools for retaining and protecting agricultural lands in Washington State.


There are many important reasons to preserve farmland:

  • Farmland is a finite natural resource because areas with prime agricultural soils are limited.
  • Agriculture is an important part of Washington State's economy - with a substantial market value; it provides jobs (not just on farms, but also in food processing and related industries), and it attracts tourists for its scenic character.
  • Growing food locally helps to meet sustainable development goals.
  • There are many intangible benefits associated with farmland, including aesthetic, open space, and sense of place.
  • Farming is part of the rural lifestyle and is a central part of Washington State's heritage.
  • Farmland offers environmental benefits, including wildlife habitat and the potential for groundwater recharge.
  • In terms of the cost of public services, farmlands, like other resource lands, more than pay for the community services they require.
  • Washington farmland is being converted rapidly to other uses. There is growth and redevelopment pressure for other, more profitable, uses.
  • In Washington, communities are required by the Growth Management Act to protect resource lands, including farmland.

For more on this topic, see the Fact Sheet: "Why Save Farmland?" , by American Farmland Trust, 01/2003 - Useful general background on farmland preservation.

General Links on Farmland Preservation and Sustainable Agriculture

This section includes some of the key resources and organizations involved in farmland preservation.

Reports, Studies, and Articles

State Farmland Programs

Local Farmland Preservation Programs

This section contains links to city and county farmland protection programs and includes reports on progress.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)

Transfer of development rights (TDR) programs allow landowners to transfer the right to develop one parcel of land to a different parcel of land. In the context of farmland protection, TDRs are used to shift development from agricultural areas to designated growth zones closer to municipal services. For a general overview of this topic, see Transfer of Development Rights Fact Sheet, American Farmland Trust, 2008. The Growth Management Act requires a TDR or purchase of development rights (PDR) program for designated agricultural land of long-term significance located in the urban growth area (RCW 36.70A.060(4)).

Right-to-Farm Programs

Right-to-farm laws were enacted to protect agricultural operations within a state or county by providing owners with a defense against potential nuisance suits that might be brought against the farm. Washington's right-to-farm statute is RCW 7.48.300.

Agricultural Zoning

Agricultural zoning refers to local zoning ordinances that support and protect farming by stabilizing the agricultural land base. Agricultural zones are designated in areas where farming is the desired land use, generally on the basis of soil quality as well as other locational factors. Forms of agricultural zoning include exclusive agricultural zoning, large lot size zoning, and sliding-scale zoning (under these ordinances, the number of dwellings permitted varies with the size of the tract).

Washington Examples of Agricultural Zoning

  • Douglas County Code Ch. 18.36 - AC-10 Commercial Agriculture District and Ch. 18.40 - A-D Dryland Agriculture District
  • Franklin County Code Ch. 17.10 - AP-20 Agricultural Production Zone and Ch. 17.12 - AP-40 Agricultural Production Zone
  • Marysville Municipal Code Ch. 22C.050 - Small Farms Overlay Zone
  • Puyallup Municipal Code Ch. 20.50 - Agriculture Overlay Zone
  • Thurston County Code Ch. 20.08A - Long-Term Agricultural District (LTA)
  • Whatcom County Code Ch. 20.38 - Agriculture Protection Overlay and Ch. 20.40 - Agriculture (AG) District
  • Yakima County Code Ch. 15.21 - Agriculture (AG) Zoning District

Current Use Taxation

The Washington Open Space Taxation Act (Ch. 84.34 RCW), enacted in 1970, allows property owners to have open space, farm and agricultural lands, and timberlands valued at their current use rather than their highest and best use. Application for current use assessment is generally made to the county assessor.

Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) and Agricultural Conservation Easements

Purchase of development rights (PDR) is a program that allows property owners to voluntarily sell the development rights to their land at fair market value in return for deeding a permanent conservation easement held by a land trust or local government. An agricultural conservation easement is a voluntary, legally recorded, agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization, often a land trust, which restricts land to agricultural and open space uses. Property development rights are then extinguished and cannot be sold or transferred to another entity.

Purchase of Development Rights (PDR)

Agricultural Conservation Easements

Farmland Mitigation Ordinances and Policies

Farmland mitigation programs are somewhat similar in concept to wetlands mitigation. They involve protecting farmland by providing equivalent farm acreage elsewhere when agricultural land is converted to other uses, or paying a fee when farmland is converted to other uses. One of the first farmland mitigation programs was enacted in Davis, California in 1995. This ordinance requires developers to permanently protect one acre of farmland for every acre of agricultural land they convert to other uses. Developers can place an agricultural conservation easement on farmland in another part of the city or pay a fee to satisfy mitigation.

Farmland Preservation Funding

  • Farmland Preservation Grants, Washington Wildlife Recreation Program (WWRP) - Administered by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. Grants are available to help cities and counties preserve economically viable farmlands in Washington and to enhance ecological functions on these lands.
  • County Grants, Washington Office of Farmland Preservation - Includes reports on county assistance grants under the WWRP 
  • Grants, USDA Rural Development - Rural development grant assistance; emphasis on grants to support farmers
  • Loans, USDA Rural Development - Grant assistance; emphasis on loans to support farmers

Agricultural Land Trusts

An agricultural land trust is a nonprofit organization whose primary purpose is the preservation of undeveloped land of agricultural value to the community. A land trust accepts donations of agricultural conservation easements, gifts of land, and may purchase easements or land with donated funds. A land trust is a private sector form of land conservation. This section includes links to some of the land trusts active in Washington.

Last Modified: April 02, 2021