OPN Connect Newsletter 190 · October 29, 2020

Nate Lewis, Firmly Rooted in Preserving Farmland

Nate Lewis has spent the last two decades immersed in the world of organic food and farming working with the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s (WSDA) organic certification program and as Farm Policy Director at the Organic Trade Association (OTA). 

He will also tell you he is a farmer first and foremost. Lewis and his wife own and manage Oyster Bay Farm, a 40-acre organic diversified livestock and crop farm on the shores of Puget Sound in Olympia, Washington. They began farming in 2002 as caretakers on the farm and ultimately became owners in 2018 after successfully completing an agricultural conservation easement.

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Nate Lewis, Conservation Manager, Washington Farmland Trust

Today, he has added the role of Conservation Manager with the Washington Farmland Trust to his resume.

The Trust protects and stewards threatened farmland across Washington and works to keep land in production by making it accessible to future generations of farmers.

Over the last four decades, some of Washington’s best farmland has been irreversibly lost to development. In the next 10 years, it is projected that 70 percent of the region’s farmers will retire without a successor in place.

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Lewis farms and lives in Thurston County, which lost the most farmland to development in Washington between 2012 and 2016, according to the USDA Ag Census.

Having witnessed the loss in his county firsthand, Lewis said, “All of my farming and policy experience has prepared me well for this new role. My work at OTA helped me understand where and how the money comes from at USDA-NRCS. I can navigate the funding process and shape it to meet certain criteria. At WSDA, I was exposed to state and other partners, and I developed personal relationships with a lot of those stakeholders.”

The cost of land in Washington continues to rise with the increase of urban development. And as climate change continues to pose a threat to the landscape, Lewis is steadfast on working to sustain a future for farming in Washington for generations to come.

Nate Lewis, Conservation Manager, Washington Farmland Trust

“My responsibilities as Conservation Manager will be in the Chehalis Valley and South Puget Sound. The latter is facing tremendous development pressure as the city of Olympia grows. The Chehalis River Valley faces period flooding, and when it does, the water often closes I-5, which is the main artery for commuters and commerce, “he said.    

“All of my farming and policy experience has prepared me well for this new role. My work at OTA helped me understand where and how the money comes from at USDA-NRCS.” -Nate Lewis

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Lewis said there is a proposed flood mitigation dam, which could kill one of the best salmon runs in the state and is strongly opposed by local tribes, environmentalists, and farmers. “We need to examine how farmland conservation projects can assist in recreating natural floodplain dynamics. We can do this by adding more riparian areas near the river and keeping farms that conserve the soil. I will be writing easements, negotiating purchase and sales agreements that will allow farming to continuewith a conservation plan in place,” he said.

Nate Lewis, Conservation Manager, Washington Farmland Trust

The Washington Farmland Trust can accomplish this through diligently working with farmers and landowners.   

“In exchange for the permanent removal of a farm’s development rights, we pay a landowner for the value of those rights and commit to ensuring the soil, water, and open space on their property are available in perpetuity,” Lewis said.  “About half the value of land is usually in development rights, so when a farmer preserves it, they get a check for half value (more or less) and when the farmer sells to the next farming generation, the land retains the right to farm and its water rights." 

“We need to examine how farmland conservation projects can assist in recreating natural floodplain dynamics.” -Nate Lewis

Using his own Oyster Bay Farm as an example, Lewis continued, “The farmer gets a check for the value of the development, and the farm stays farmland forever. This approach not only protects the farm, but it enables a future farmer to purchase the land at a more affordable price. That’s the only way my wife and I could have come to own Oyster Bay Farm.”

Oyster Bay Farm, Olympia, WA

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In Lewis’s mind, the Washington Farmland Trust's mission is clear: Preserve farmland and make sure farmers can keep their farm. 

“I’m excited about getting to be on the farm with my 11-year-old and work in the county I live in and [do] work that I am truly passionate about. Each project and farm are different and will require creativity. Keeping every farm in production is of great value to me,” Lewis said.

Lewis wants to see farmland preserved across the country. “Support your local land trust, and if you don’t have one, maybe you should start one. The Land Trust Alliance is the clearinghouse [for the land trust community].  We must make sure the USDA keeps farmland preservation funding in place even during these hard times. You can keep up on their policy work by being in touch with American Farmland Trust,” he said. “Because once the farmland is gone it never comes back.”

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