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New agritourism rules are being debated in Washington state's Skagit Valley

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People in Washington state are debating how best to use their farmland. Some smaller producers say they need to make extra money through creative use of the land, like renting it out for weddings. They call it agritourism, and not everybody likes it. KUOW's Monica Nickelsburg reports.

MONICA NICKELSBURG, BYLINE: The Skagit Valley is an idyllic farming region about an hour north of Seattle. It's populated by small, diverse, family-owned farms - farms like Bow Hill Blueberries, which siblings Ezra Ranz and Audrey Matheson bought during the pandemic.

AUDREY MATHESON: We've got our blue crop, which is what we sell fresh and frozen and do our you-pick lanes.

NICKELSBURG: Ranz and Matheson say their 5-acre farm doesn't produce enough to cover their expenses, so they've turned to agritourism to supplement.

EZRA RANZ: We've really had to diversify that, and that includes cooking classes, pie classes, farm dinners and even thinking about using our house here as an Airbnb.

NICKELSBURG: But in the Skagit Valley, the county is considering new zoning code regulations that would limit those kinds of agritourism activities. All of those cooking classes and farm dinners? - under the new proposal, the county would scale back how many times a year those are allowed to happen, from 24 to 12. That may not seem like a lot, but farmers like Ranz say they fear the attention the new proposal is getting will increase enforcement, which they say has been pretty lax until now.

RANZ: The whole system relies upon your neighbors complaining about your activities.

NICKELSBURG: Proponents say there's a limited amount of fertile land, and they want it to be used for farming. Ranz sees it differently.

RANZ: I worry that, in the desire to save farmland, we are sacrificing farmers.

NICKELSBURG: The county's Agricultural Advisory Board came up with the proposal. Michael Hughes is the chair of that board. He's also a fourth-generation farmer who runs a large potato farm. He says he wants to support farmers, but he's concerned that tourist operators could transform farmland into event spaces for weddings and corporate retreats.

MICHAEL HUGHES: We want to focus on parts of agritourism that still promote agriculture and soil-dependent production as the primary focus in our county.

NICKELSBURG: Hughes also says that event venues and farms can make for difficult neighbors.

HUGHES: Dust can drift long ways. Smells move around the valley.

NICKELSBURG: That can easily ruin an outdoor wedding. And if farmers have to accommodate multiple events at a neighbor's property each week...

HUGHES: All of a sudden, you're stuck without being able to get the work done before the weather changes.

NICKELSBURG: This kind of conflict isn't unique to the Skagit Valley, according to Lisa Chase. She's the director of the University of Vermont's Tourism Research Center, and she studies agritourism nationwide.

LISA CHASE: Agritourism is growing rapidly in rural communities.

NICKELSBURG: She says that farmers all over the country, especially small producers, need agritourism because profit margins are so slim. And growing is unpredictable, especially with increasing climate disasters.

CHASE: Farmers need to diversify their income sources, and visitors are interested in learning about where their food and fuel and fiber come from.

NICKELSBURG: But she says there's disagreement in many communities over how to balance agritourism with farming itself.

CHASE: Neighbors are not always thrilled, especially when it's a large event, to have the traffic and the noise and people coming to this farm for an agricultural experience.

NICKELSBURG: She says that, in many places, whatever regulations do get passed rely on citizen complaints for enforcement. In the Skagit Valley, the county will take up the debate later this month. And if the proposed regulations pass, complaints will still be the primary way they're enforced.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Nickelsburg in the Skagit Valley.

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Monica Nickelsburg