Q&A with Melissa Campbell, Executive Director at Washington Farmland Trust

Melissa Campbell
October 18, 2021

Tell us a bit about your role with Washington Farmland Trust.

I’ve been with Washington Farmland Trust since 2008. I started as our stewardship coordinator and went on to lead our conservation program. Most recently, I served as Associate Director where I helped shape the organization’s conservation finance initiatives. Today, as Executive Director, I lead the Trust’s staff in developing and implementing our strategic vision and support the Board of Directors in serving as champions of our mission.

For those not very familiar with WFT, could you give us the quick history of your organization’s work and impact?

We were founded in 1999 by Seattle-based natural food cooperative, PCC Community Markets. In direct response to a local supplier whose land was threatened by a development project, PCC leaders spearheaded a first of its kind effort, calling on members, vendors, and shoppers to raise funds to purchase this threatened piece of farmland. In a few short weeks, nearly 100 acres were protected forever and our organization was born. Since our founding over twenty years ago, we’ve gone from a one-person organization housed within a food cooperative to a distinct 501(c)3 nonprofit with our own staff, board, and mission. The majority of our support comes from individual donors. 

Today, we have 16 staff, have conserved 28 farms, and deploy a more strategic approach to farmland conservation guided by natural resource value and threat, with partnerships at the center. We’ve also built out a land access program that aims to keep the land we conserve in production and ensure that we can support the livelihoods of a new generation of farmers. 

Though we have historically focused our work in the Puget Sound region, we are a statewide organization and are excited to broaden our impact along the I-5 corridor and other ag communities around the state over the next 3-5 years.

What are some of the key regional agriculture conservation issues that require attention and provide opportunity?

There are so many challenges that require our attention when it comes to threats to the future of farming. Escalating land values and affordability are huge, as is the generational turnover of land. These factors work in concert with each other, meaning that our land is not only vulnerable to conversion but also wildly inaccessible to most new and beginning farmers. In addition, climate change impacts are making farming an even more volatile pursuit than it already is, putting our growers (and everyone who eats!) at risk. While these issues are complex and at times daunting, they provide an opportunity for us to evolve our mission and adapt our approaches based on the most urgent needs in the community, and double down on our strategic partnerships to get the work done. 

How does WFT move beyond land acquisition to focus more broadly on ongoing land stewardship? How do you work to support the next generation of farmers? 

In 2016, we launched Advancing Farm Sustainability, a grant program that supports farmers of conserved land in their adoption of new approaches to sustainable land management. The purpose of the program is to provide financial support to the farmers we partner with to protect and steward the natural resources on their farms. Rather than imposing a one-size fits-all approach, we trust farmers to determine the projects and strategies that are best suited for their individual farms and businesses. This is one of the core ways that we work with farmers to steward their land and create a shared vision for healthy, productive farmland across Washington.

In 2018, we launched Farm to Farmer, a full service program that provides land access to a new generation of farmers. We help farmers find the land opportunities they need to grow their businesses, and help landowners sell or lease their land to keep it in farming through personalized technical assistance from real farmers and a website where folks can post listings. In addition to conservation and acquisition of land, we see land access as essential to sustaining a future for farming in Washington and are proud to have expanded upon our mission to meet this urgent need. 

You went through a name change recently – what prompted the change from PCC Farmland Trust to Washington Farmland Trust, and how did this reflect where the organization is heading?

When PCC Community Markets founded our organization more than 20 years ago, we centered our work around the threats of urban sprawl. Today, the urgency of climate change as well as inequities in land access and affordability only add to the pressures that farmers face. As we looked toward the future, we knew it was imperative to respond to these many threats by forging new partnerships, expanding our service area, growing our programs, and clarifying our name and brand to ensure relevancy and inclusion across the state. 

We are so grateful to PCC and its member community for their decades long and continued support and partnership in this work, and are thrilled to now have a name that reflects our commitments to agriculture and the communities we serve. 

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your work? Has it opened up any new ways of seeing how your work can be accomplished? 

Like so many organizations, the disbursement of our team through remote work has proved challenging in certain ways. We are a relationship-based organization and like to show up in person to collaborate. We are also a community engagement-based organization and have missed being able to convene our community on farms throughout the year.

But we pivoted our work swiftly to accomplish a lot in a virtual environment, including hosting two successful virtual benefit concerts in partnership with Viva Farms called Love the Land. That event allowed us to really live our values around sharing resources with partners, and we hope to replicate it in the future.

We’ve also reflected on the awareness that folks have gained over the last year about the importance of local food and farms. We continue to be inspired by all of the frontline food and farm workers who had to scale overnight to meet the need when farmers markets and schools closed last year, and who continue to navigate an ever-changing, uncertain environment. 

How is your organization thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Since 2019, our staff has been working to understand and unravel the ways in which we have benefited from and perpetuated the harmful systems that our food system was built upon. Working with an equity consultant, we have engaged in coaching and personal skill building to sharpen our proficiencies in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, reflect on our implicit biases, and reckon with the history of our sector that has excluded so many people for so long. Though we have a long way to go, I’m proud of the investments we’ve made and the meaningful ways we’ve begun to bring more diverse perspectives and lived experiences to our team and board, reimagine our programs, and work to serve more communities across Washington. 

It would be great to hear your thoughts on what the future of farming looks like in the Puget Sound region and beyond, and how does that influence your thinking about the  ideal future of agricultural conservation?  

Our long-term vision is that all aspiring farmers have equal access to land and farming. Unfortunately, our sector is steeped in a history that has shaped where we are today – a food and farming system that benefits only a small few. As a land trust and community, we have to collectively reckon with this history if we want to create a truly just system that works for everyone. 

Following the previous question, what are your thoughts on urban food production (e.g. urban gardens, vertical farming, hydroponics) and how this growing segment of food production is either related to and/or separate from “traditional” rural agricultural farming? 

Historically, we haven’t done conservation work within urban areas, but are increasingly seeing people who want to grow food in the city. As we build out our land access work, we continue to reassess how we might prioritize projects based on land access and food sovereignty objectives in addition to conservation goals.  

What’s the most exciting aspect of your work when you think about the importance of farmland protection, resilience to climate change, food security, and the continued livability and well-being of people and communities across Puget Sound? 

So many pressing issues intersect with farming. From rural economic development to climate resilience and local food production, there are so many reasons to invest in a future where farms and farmers can thrive. Farms contribute so much benefit to this region, and I feel honored to get to do work every day that touches so many aspects of people’s lives. 

What’s the best way for folks reading this to get involved with WFT’s work in support of farmland protection? 

Sign up for our monthly newsletter, The Crop, where we share the latest news and updates about our work, including how to get involved. 

Any recommendations for inspiring, compelling, challenging, or worrying stories about ag conservation, stewardship, food security, or the future of farming? 

As avid followers of the Counter, our team was really inspired by this recent and thought provoking article: Regenerative agriculture needs a reckoning.