Our organization was created in 1944, when the need for farmer representation was needed to negotiate and execute vegetable contracts with processing companies. Although we no longer work on vegetable contract negotiations, our original role and mission remains in place. The difference between 1944 and today isn’t what we offer to agriculture, but rather the products we produce, and those we negotiate with on behalf of our members, and farming in general.
Skagit Valley Agricultural History
Excerpt from Historylink.com essay written by Janet Oakley
County Industries Grow Up
Fish canneries opened in Anacortes in the late 1890s amid anti-Chinese sentiment and a national Depression. The industry would be an economic mainstay up to the latter half of twentieth century.
But agriculture continued to be the main industry. For a long time, oats and eventually peas were the mainstay, but new crops took on prominence just after World War I. One of these crops was the growing of seeds. A decade before forming the Puget Sound Seed Garden in 1883, A. G. Tillinghast had grown cabbage seed.
Beets, flax, spinach, mustard, and cabbage were all attempted. Several other farmers joined him in the 1920s. At first the crops were harvested by hand, but eventually various combine machines were invented to help with the harvest. In the 1930s, the Charles H. Lilly Company developed seed production further. At one point Skagit County grew 95 percent of the cabbage seed produced in the United States. All seeds were grown under contract to one or another seed company.
Tulip bulb production is an extension of the seed production industry. Mary Brown Stewart started growing tulips in 1906 with bulbs from Holland, but tulips were "only a small part of the crop and the whole operation was of modest size" (Barrett). In 1926 her son Sam Stewart started the Tulip Grange Bulb Farm near LaConner. Marinus Lefeber, a friend of Sam Stewart, moved their Whatcom County operation down to a farm along Memorial Highway near Mount Vernon. The farm was in business until 2002. Other bulb growers joined them after 1945. By 1997, 700 acres were used for bulb farming, with a value of $42 million.
Images include this potato patch in Burlington. Photo courtesy of the Collection of the Skagit County Historical Museum
Oxen and steam donkey logging operation, Blanchard, Skagit County, ca. 1885
Courtesy Buswell Collection, Center for Pacific NW Studies
In the late 1920s, farmers began growing vegetables commercially for large packing outfits such as the Bozeman Canning Company of Montana, the San Juan island Company, the Skagit Valley Packing Corporation at Avon, and the MacMillian Canning Company at LaConner.
They mainly packed peas, but also packed green beans, spinach, and several kinds of vegetables and fruits. S. A. Moffet, the second company in the nation to get into freezing vegetables, built a freezing plant in Mount Vernon in 1940 after successfully starting the precooling process of 50 tons of peas in a LaConner farmer’s barn in 1936.
During World War II, there was a labor shortage while the men were away in the service. Braceros (farmworkers) were brought to Skagit County from Mexico in large numbers to help harvest the hay and pea crops, important to the dairy industry for fodder. The braceros camp at Burlington was the largest mobile camp in the United States.
Skagit County was also known for its dairy industry. At the turn of the century there were as many as 900 dairies in the county. These dairy farms were small family operations where every cow had a name and mixed ancestry. These were called "grades" (Younquist). Changes came to the industry in the 1920s with pasteurization and purebred stock.
The first cattle breeding programs began in the early 1930s. The Youngquists paid $12,000 for a Pontiac Segi purebred cow. A neighbor, Jim Hulbert had purebred Herefords. Milk production increased along with the quality of the stock. Butter was made at home for a long time. Milk was sold to a creamery such as the Mount Vernon Creamer, which began to take everything for milk and butter. The Youngquists hauled it in by horses until they got a truck. In 1907 a "Carnation" condensory plant came in and took 10-gallon cans.
Increased production and breeding programs were expensive for farmers. To help them, co-ops were organized to ease the cost. Darigold was the first co-op in the area. During 1940s and 1950s, Darigold had 1,800 members. Each paid $10 a cow to get into the organization.
To learn more about the history of Skagit County visit the Historylink.com essay.