Refugees' Farm Project Gets Surprise Backing

A surprise commitment by three King County council members apparently will guarantee preservation of a Woodinville farm tended by Indochinese refugees.

For 10 years, participants in the Indochinese Farm Project, a cooperative of Hmong and Mien refugees, have made their living at a 22-acre farm on county-owned land near the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. But until yesterday, the farmers feared the county Parks and Recreation Division would terminate their lease.

The land is zoned for agricultural use, but because it was purchased by the county with Forward Thrust funds, it was expected to be converted to open space or sports fields.

Yesterday, however, council members Audrey Gruger, Larry Phillips and Ron Sims met with representatives and supporters of the farmers. The officials said a majority of council members have indicated they will preserve and strengthen the Farm Project.

"Land-use debates in King County often ask whether or not agriculture is an industry of the past. This farm looks like an ideal opportunity to rethink agricultural use," Sims said. "We want to see how it's working, how to improve it."

Sims said the council was not abandoning its Forward Thrust obligations. He predicted the county would buy out the Parks Division interest in the land, replacing it with the purchase of additional parkland.

Sue Taoka, one of many to help launch the Farm Project a decade ago, organized yesterday's meeting after learning from a Seattle Times article this month that the farmers were in danger of losing their lease. She said few who had any power to help the farmers were aware of their problem.

"In many people's eyes, it was a venture that had succeeded and didn't need much attention," she said. "There was an assumption that because we hadn't heard anything for a while, the farmers were succeeding."

Three years ago the Farm Project's scaffolding of support by nonprofit agencies was phased out and the refugees took over full management of the farm. Language and accounting problems since have bedeviled the project. Farm advocates said they hope that yesterday's meeting will reestablish broken lines of communication.