Tomás Madrigal: Land and Water on Washington’s Salish Coast


Researcher Tomás Alberto Madrigal shares with us his research on land and water rights, in which he discusses the importance of both economic viability and environmental sustainability for food production. Madrigal explains the practices of Washington State large-scale farms transforming their wealth into land holdings, multi-national agri-corporations’ attempts to improve their position in today’s global markets, and he dissects trends in agriculture towards vertical integration. Through a breakdown of Washington State’s berry production, we learn that 96% of the state’s profits resulting from berry production belong in the hands of only 15% of the state’s berry growers. Madrigal discusses the problems and biases of Farmland Trusts, praises the efforts of the Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and shares with us his vision for a future of economically viable and environmentally sustainable agriculture.


Please see Madrigal entire article, “Land and Water on Washington State’s Salish Coast” below.


Land and Water on Washington State’s Salish Coast

By Tomás Alberto Madrigal, Ph.D./ University of California Santa Barbara



In 2013, the USA Today ran a story by Christopher Doereng about how, “a favorable mix of both cash and credit has provided fuel to drive up land values” for Midwest farmers to produce more acres because of “record-high prices for corn, soybeans, and wheat and other commodities have left growers flush with cash to purchase more land,” which combined with “historically low interest rates provides them with easy and cheap access to money to close the deal” (Doereng 2013; Badkar 2014). In a nutshell, this described the national farmland bubble that had billionaires used to the casino capitalism of Wall Street to purchase farmland across the United States in speculation that they can make money off of selling it when prices are higher (Piper 2014; Rogers 2014). This article, however, is about what exists despite the greed of corporate large-scale growers and their aspirations to power and wealth at the expense of small farmers and everyone else. It is about the alternatives that are emerging that bring life and hope in the face of these capitalist projects of death and despair.

In Washington State, the issue that these capitalist mega-projects have framed is one of environmental sustainability versus economic viability, as if the two were mutually negating (Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland Mission; Zaferatos 2004). These large-scale corporate growers have harvested in the meanwhile, record bumper crops of their mono-cultural expanses of berry and apple crops in recent years. This has created ripe conditions under which land speculation is made possible, but only for large-scale growers that are able to access surpluses of capital and are extended credit (Wheat 2016; PRNewswire 2014; Jenkins 2014; Rogers 2014).

Water rights disputes between large-scale farmers in Skagit County and the Swinomish Tribe led these corporate farmers, like Sakuma Brothers Farm, to organize themselves into Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland.[1] Karen Piper (2014) explains that there has been a long history of consolidating farm land in this way by the wealthy, in order to impact water rights decisions (Piper 2014; Zaferatos 2004; Skagit Valley Herald Staff 2008; Clever 2012). Labor disputes at Sakuma Brothers Farm began in 2004 and matured in 2013, but they also existed on the large-scale Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland stakeholder farms, such as the Washington Bulb Company. This labor strife has incentivized growers to invest in alternatives to the production of agricultural commodities that extend their ownership over the means of production. This has included for those few large-scale growers that are able to do so, vertical integration, processing those commodities sourced from smaller non-stakeholder farms at their processing centers, and ultimately increasing their land holdings. Farm Land Trusts have been a strategy deployed to collectivize that process.


Farmland Trusts Operating in Skagit County

For Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, this has meant removing parcels of land that are easily rezoned from farmland towards retail uses.[2] Though this seems like a good thing, large-scale farms, such as Sakuma Brother’s Farm, converted early on much of their wealth into land holdings, and they have used their influence on the boards of Farm Land Trusts such as Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, Skagit Land Trust and PCC Farmland Trust in order to remove competing tracts from the market, driving up the market price of their existing landholdings. Steven Sakuma is quoted as standing against Initiative 933 that was voted down in 2006, the initiative that would have opened the possibility of developers to waive farm land protections in Washington State, effectively removing the power from the hands of growers to charge top dollar for their existing land holdings for the same purpose. Steve Sakuma is quoted as saying, “the initiative starts a war farmers will lose when competing against developers for land that no longer receives the protection and stability ensured by current zoning and land-use regulations (Kober 2006).”

The practice of removing tracts of certain land in order for other tracts of land to be more valuable, though questionable, is not illegal. For a large-scale vertically integrated corporation like the Sakuma’s, it’s good business. It is a condition that allowed the firm to become vertically integrated in 1998 via their subsequent purchase of a berry processing plant and marketing firm.

Not all farms in Washington, however, have received reparations such as the Sakuma family that allowed them to purchase the land in the first place.

“On August 10, 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law. This act awarded those interned a ‘national apology and monetary compensation to the surviving Japanese Americans’ affected by internment (Hatamiya 1993). Each interned person was to receive a check for $20,000 from the federal government as restitution for their suffering and property losses.” (Shepard 2006)

The Sakuma Brothers Farm was an exception to the story of the majority of Japanese farmers. Unlike the small farmers that lost their holdings during internment, the Sakumas entrusted their farm to a family friend. These exceptions allowed the Sakuma Brothers Farm to survive. However, it wasn’t until Steve Sakuma became CEO of the firm that the drive toward vertical integration began. The exception of this large-scale industrial farm is great.


Sakuma Brothers Farm

The Sakuma Brothers Farm has produced berries in the Skagit valley for 75 years since 1942 on 42 acres (Lyke 2002). Shortly after establishing their farm in Burlington, the Sakuma family was sent to Tule Lake internment camp in California on June 3, 1942 one day before their harvest was set to start (ibid). Having felt the inevitability of their displacement, the elder Sakuma had made a leap of faith with a family friend, who held the Sakuma farm in trust throughout their internment until 1945.

The Sakuma family had originally settled on Bainbridge Island as farm workers on a strawberry farm, having arrived as new immigrants in 1915. J.V. Palerm (2014) noted that in California, Japanese farm ownership increased by three times between 1913 and 1920 just prior to the war (J.V. Palerm, 2014, 68). The Sakuma family was apparently an extension of that tradition in Washington, even though the part of the family that had remained on Bainbridge Island was displaced first and lost all of their holdings because of Japanese internment. The original Sakuma farm now lies under the Fred Meyer grocery store and several retail development projects in Burlington, Washington along the eastern side of the I-5 corridor.

The bulk of the company’s production occurred on the large California holding where Sakuma Bros Farms, Inc. was founded in 1961; in 1967 the Norcal Nursery, Inc. that the same company owns in California was found. The success in California allowed for the Sakuma family to introduce raspberry and later blueberry plant varieties that they developed in California to Burlington, Washington in the early 1970s.

The Sakuma Brothers Farms executives filled a void left with the closure of the last Skagit Valley fruit processing facility in 1990 by building a 8,000 square foot processing plant, which they leased to another corporation until 1997. In 1998, the processing plant continued production under the Sakuma Brothers Processing, Inc. The Sakuma Brothers Marketing and Fruit Stand was the final piece that completed the farm’s vertical integration shortly after. The vertically integrated corporation boasts on their website,

The total vertical integration within the small fruit industry now includes plant propagation and small fruit research, commercial nursery operations and sales, commercial and fresh market small fruit production, small fruit processing, sales of all processed and fresh market small fruit product, plus a farm market stand for retail, u-pick and ag-tourism. ( accessed May 1, 2014.)

In 2013, regardless of a festering long-term labor dispute with seasonal migrant pickers who formed an independent labor union called Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the Sakuma corporations made a combined income of $20,900,000 in net sales (Dunns & Bradstreet, 2013). The subsequent labor organizing that was triple pronged and included work stoppages, litigation and a berry boycott that has grown to the international scale against a multinational agricorporation known as Driscoll’s that farms such as Sakuma Brothers Farm and Valley Pride, where there have been continuous work stoppages by Familias Unidas por la Justicia unionized farmworkers, source their fresh market berries from. The boycott, which cost Sakuma Brothers Farm $2,900,000 (Dunns & Bradstreet, 2013, 2014) in net income from 2013 to 2014 was also able to win over 17 legal cases in Skagit County Superior Court as well as the Washington Supreme Court which extended the right to paid rest breaks and a 30 minute lunch to all farm workers in Washington State that picked fruits and vegetables by piece-rate. On March 17, 2015 the Allianza de Organizaciones Nacional, Estatal y Municipal por la Justicia Social led a general strike in Baja California’s San Quintín Valley that impacted Driscoll’s subsidiary MoraMex that included walk out strikes and blockades by over 70,000 farm workers and their families. The organization also authorized an international boycott of Driscoll’s berries and in late 2015 their union wing, Sindicato Independiente Democratico Nacional de Jornaleros Agricolas was certified by the Mexican government.[3]

The crisis at Sakuma Brothers Farms and Driscoll’s made visible many aspects of the advocates of industrial agriculture and their practices in Washington State and internationally that otherwise would not have been seen or connected, in much the same way it made this researcher aware of the practice of hiding wealth by purchasing land parcels via farmland trusts.


Farm Land Use on the North Coast of Washington State

According to the 2012 agricultural census only 6,102 farms made over $100,000 in sales in Washington state that year. Because of the disproportionate accumulation of wealth, the average net income of a farm in Washington was only $633,039, while the average farm production cost per farm was $210,436 – the number was so low because the majority of small farmers did not do as well as those 6,102 large-scale farms. The vast majority of farms in Washington State, over 80 percent, were smaller than 200 acres.

Agricultural scholar Desmond O’Rourke found that “85% of farms in Washington were owned by individuals or families,” and of these “6.3 percent were organized as partnerships and 7.6 percent as corporations” in 2002 (O’Roarke 2006). O’Rourke also found that as more farms came to produce specialized agricultural commodities, a trend towards increased integration was also emerging that was “both horizontal and vertical”(Ibid). He cited the move by land extensive farmers to diversify the crops they produced on their land and the move by both packinghouses into production and fruit producers into the packing industries much as has been well documented in California. The result, O’Rourke argues, is that “the volume and value of sales of many Washington commodities have become concentrated in increasingly fewer, larger entities” further this, “concentration is likely to continue as producers face increased pressure from major retailers” (Ibid 6).

Retailers like Costco and PCC Natural Markets, along with larger global multi-national distributor firms such as Driscoll’s have changed the face of Agriculture into the type of economic viability that growers once sought, one that came at the expense of the environmental sustainability that people, small farmers, tribes and grassroots organizations have sought and fought for in Washington State.

Contrary to the narrative that the USA Today shares about the Midwest above, is that in Washington State, this land speculation has not been deployed to expand the production of crops. Ethnographic evidence demonstrates that production is diminishing for large-scale growers like Sakuma Brothers Farms; the corporation even acknowledges that they gave away berries to the public to meet other ends in an attempt to break the farm worker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Madrigal 2016; Sakuma 2014).

The 2012 Agricultural Census documented 1,828 farms in Washington dedicated to growing berries with a total of 24,076 acres in production. Table 1 models the trend in increase of the production of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries and a slight decrease in the production of strawberries.

Table 1: Berries Produced v. Berries Harvested (in acres)


Type produced












Blackberries and Dewberries (Marionberries) (NA) 320 549 341 920 683
Blueberries (tame) (NA) 2,569 5,490 3,926 8,911 7,758
Raspberries (all) (NA) 10,045 10,431 9,607 10,698 9,885
Strawberries (NA) 1,953 1,715 1,408 1,514 1,313

NA = Not Available


It is important to note that Red Raspberries accounted for 99 percent of the total raspberry crops produced in Washington. The total market value of Washington’s berry crops in 2012 was $151,695,000 of which $145,161,000 went to 229 berry producers that reported sales of $50,000 or more. This means that 96% of the wealth generated by the sale of berries in 2012 was concentrated in the hands of 15% of berry growers in Washington State.

From 1987 to 2007 the percentage of land being used for labor-intensive crops including berries has increased, however, land being used to produce mechanized crops such as wheat have fluctuated and gone back to their peak numbers. Ethnographic site visits to Skagit Valley College and a conversation with the five year plan for the college with their president offered the insight that they were involved in an experiment with the Washington State University extension to educate local students to make artisan bread and brew beer that would utilize the barley and wheat that was now being grown in that region. What I stumbled across in the field, was a concerted effort to manipulate the market value of easy to grow crops to develop the tourism industry. Similar capitalist projects can be examined in the rise of viticulture as a tourist attraction in California and Eastern Washington. These are capitalist planning and development projects designed to increase the value of land holdings.

According to the 2007 Agricultural Census, the Skagit Valley in Washington had 1,215 farms and 108,541 acres in production with the average farm size being 89 acres. The combined Market Value of Products Sold in 2007 was $256,248,000 of which 68% ($174,169,000) was from crop sales. Of this figure, fruits, tree nuts, and berries accounted for $17,222,000 of sales.

Approximately 15,000 acres of cropland were irrigated in Skagit County in 2009. There are three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River that provide electricity and irrigation. According to a report by the WSU Extension, blueberry, raspberries, potatoes and cucumbers are some of the main crops that require irrigation in the region.

There are two processing plants in Skagit County – one that processes cucumbers for pickles and the other processes raspberries, strawberries and blueberries for local and global distribution and is owned by Sakuma Brothers Farm. Skagit County growers collectively made $15,918,000 from the sale of their fresh market berry crops in 2012. About half of the county’s blueberry crops are sold for fresh market while the other half is processed. According to the WSU Extension, cooler summers in the Skagit County allow for the berries to ripen slowly and increase in sweetness. This makes them better suited for processing for use in gourmet dairy products including ice cream and yogurt.

Overproduction of blueberries in 2009 resulted in a crisis in the region. Large-scale growers, such as Sakuma Brothers Farm, who were able to store fruit in cooling facilities or process the fruit, benefitted from an earthquake in Argentina that prevented one of their major competitors from being able to ship to the United States in January 2011. Over the past two years, Chilean port strikes have stopped berries en route from South America from making it to U.S. markets, driving up the market prices of domestic fresh market berries in North and Meso-America. Driscoll’s for example opened up shop via their subsidiaries MoraMex and BerryMex in Baja California in the early 2000s, further south in Jalisco shortly after and most recently in Puebla, Mexico after Hurricane Patricia diminished their crops in Jalisco in order to source out of season berries to their North American markets (Lopez 2011; Velasco et al. 2014; Madrigal 2016). This global strife on the market chain has caused the conditions in Washington State that were described in the introduction of this article.



Scholar Michael Kearney observed the following trend regarding the development of multi-national agricultural corporations in Latin America,

not as concerned with ownership of land as domestic capitalist farmers are. Rather, a tendancy of agroindustrialization seems to be a shift away from ownership of land as a means of control of production to control of other aspects of production, especially finance and technical expertise—including patents of genetically altered cultigens (Kearney, 1996, 128).

The monopoly agriculture of domestic capitalist farmers, such as Sakuma Brothers Farm in Washington State has followed the lead of multi-national agri-corporations such as Driscoll’s within the global capitalist economy that dominate the fresh fruit and vegetable industry worldwide. These firms source agricultural commodities produce in both the northern and southern hemispheres in order to offer the same specialized commodity year round, thus holding monopoly control on the market that was literally unheard of 30 years ago.

Sakuma Brothers Farms sources fruit to one such California based transnational company, Driscoll’s, a transnational agricultural corporation which sources berries from all over the world, including Mexico’s Baja California in order to source berries year round for a global marketplace (Lopez 2011; Velasco et al. 2014; Madrigal 2016). This trend has revolutionized agroindustrialization not just in Washington State, but across the entire globe. Large corporations such as Driscoll’s for example have in their employment members of the very farms that supply their market chain such as Nathan Sakuma who has helped expand Driscoll’s foothold along the Salish Coast at small farms such as Valley Pride in Skagit County and absentee owned Munger Farms in Whatcom County.

Were it not for the large sums of capital investment that the U.S. federal government subsidizes for both domestic corporate farmers and transnational agricultural corporations (in the form of entitlements, tax subsidies, research and development, quality control, trade policy, transportation infrastructure, and the use of immigration enforcement and community policing in urbanized rural labor warehouse communities to maintain artificially low wages), these fragile enterprises would easily go bankrupt. The international berry boycott has demonstrated as much. However, in the logic of U.S. capitalist short-sightedness demonstrated in the management and bailout of the auto, banking, and home mortgage industries, is that these corporations are simply too large to fail.


Coast Salish Agro-Ecology along the Northern Coast

The development of industrial agriculture in Washington State was made possible only through the virulent mortality that decimated the inhabitant Native American populations, which was quickly followed by forced removal under military threat. Highly advanced Coastal and Plateau societies were displaced and land was consolidated in the name of European progress (Deloria Jr. 2012).

The first transformation of agriculture in the region exponentially diminished bountiful, complex, geographically dispersed and seasonally oriented food systems into two distinct productive regions that developed distinctly based upon federal intervention via irrigation projects and technological innovation that made large-scale perishable crop agriculture possible.

In each of these geographies diverse groups of indigenous tribes, bands and autonomous families had cultivated vast geographical areas and migrated between equally diverse ecosystems based upon seasonal growth patterns. Both food systems were primarily governed by the bodies of water in the region, the geography and form of social organization. Those who lived on the coastal bodies of water and tributary rivers, where there were forest ecosystems, practiced a type of small-scale agroforestry and oceanic aquaculture. These families and bands were organized primarily into autonomous villages that were self-sustaining because there was no reason for competition in the abundance of the agricultural ecosystem that was carefully maintained.

These complex food systems were invisible to many white settlers who claimed that there was a complete “lack of agriculture” by “nineteenth-century Anglo American civilization standards”(Banner, 164).

Coast Salish people like the Nuxalk of British Columbia, “moved from location to location throughout their traditional territory over the course of the seasons to harvest and process different food as it became available. The harvested food was carefully preserved –usually by dehydration, but also by smoking, and in some cases fermenting or storing fresh in cache pits and containers (Kuhnlein, Erasmus, Spigelski, 28).”

Their agroforestry was not limited to food, as the maintenance of Cedar groves played a central role in Coast Salish culture. Indeed, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes the proliferation of the Buffalo into New York due to the agroforestry practices of indigenous people in the Americas (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 27-28). The cultivation of camus also required a similar agroforestry technique. Ángel Palerm documented four versions of a similar technique in the pre-Columbian farming practices in the cultivation of corn in Southern Mexico, which he called the roza system (Á. Palerm 1967: 29-34). Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz dedicates an entire chapter on how these systems were used in the United States before contact (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 15-44). All of this wealth of agricultural knowledge and the accompanying agrarian societies came under attack because of U.S. imperialism and expansion in the 19th century.

Indigenous tribes thus have had a hostile relationship with white settler colonialists since they arrived along the North Coast over the land and water that was being taken from indigenous people by force. In Skagit County that struggle has impacted corporate Skagit farmers around the issue of water conservation for salmon propagation versus irrigation. This struggle has been bitter and fierce, and the Swinomish tribe sued to strike a state ruling that permitted water wells in tributary basins along the Skagit River (Skagit Valley Herald Staff 2008; Clever 2012; Zaferatos 2004). Corporate growers have organized themselves into Farmland trusts including Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and the Skagit Land Trust and have allied themselves with grocer initiated Farmland trusts such as the PCC Farmland Trust in order to struggle against the sovereignty of tribal stewardship over land and water as they relate to salmon conservation.


The Future

Changing demographics in the Salish Coast, rather than legislation or litigation, are making the future for a sustainable solidarity economy that is both economically viable and environmentally sustainable. In 2016, Ramon Torres, President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia announced that their union was in the process of launching a farmworker-owned tortilla cooperative. Though the union struggled to maintain their access to land at Community to Community Development’s former organic cooperative training farm in Blaine, Washington and later at their cooperative training garden in Bellingham, Washington regardless of years of appeals for regional Farmland Trusts to invest in farmworker farming cooperatives stemming back to 2006 when Cooperativa Jacal a farmworker cooperative was in operation at Community to Community Development’s cooperative training farm, the Farmland Trusts were not interested in increasing farmworker access to farmland to raise their own crops. The seeds of a local solidarity economy however were planted with the first cooperatives, Las Margaritas Catering Cooperative and Cooperativa Jacal, and later on with tortilla making cooperative Ita Ciuci (White Flower in Mixteco). Familias Unidas por la Justicia is currently in negotiations with the Swinomish Tribe in order to lease land that is owned by the tribe to operate a cooperative farm. Unless Farmland Trusts are able to resolve their biases around land and water rights with First Nations people and farmworker labor rights as discussed above, they will continue to exclude the rights of many of these small farmers that are indigenous and who work as farmworkers because they have been professional farmers for generations. You would be amazed at what these communities can do with a small piece of land, and they don’t have to own it to work it (the land after all belongs to the people who work it); it is a relational ownership, not a private property ownership. To have true relational ownership of the land and water, you have to be environmentally sustainable and you have to treat those that work it like human beings.


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