Native Americans have been coming to the San Juan Islands for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to fish, hunt, and gather. As part of their gathering practices, the Salish practiced some forms of agriculture such as camas Camasseia quamash and C. leichtlinii) cultivation and wooly dog production. Camas beds were maintained by women and usufruct possession was through matrineal lines. Camas bulbs are generally located in areas of well-drained loam, such as meadows and grassy bluffs, as well as rock outcroppings with pockets of soil. Stones delineated the beds, which were ‘weeded’ of grass and death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) and ‘seeded’ with smaller bulbs and seeds while harvesting.
The introduction of EuroAmerican methods of farming began on December 15th, 1853, when Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor James Douglas and a company of men consisting of an multiethnic mix of Europeans, Hawaiians, and Indians landed 1,369 sheep as well as 1 horse, 1 stallion, 1 mare, 2 cows and calves, 1 heifer, 1 boar, and 1 sow with young brought from Nisqually on the southern end of San Juan Island, establishing Belle Vue Sheep Farm (Belle Vue Sheep Farm Account Book, 1853-1858, HBC).
The gradual replacement of prairies of native bunch grasses and wooded areas of either lowland alder and willow or forests of fir and pine with pastures of timothy and other hay and pasture crops represented a major change to the islands’ ecosystem. Native prairie systems, which were originally dominated by perennial grasses such as Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), California oatgrass (Danthonia californica), and Junegrass (Koeleria cristata), were soon transformed to a mixture of introduced perennials—Redtop (agrostis alba), velvet grass (Holcus lanatus), and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)—and annuals—silver (Aira caryophyllea) and early (A. praecox) hairgrass, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and other brome grasses (Bromus spp.). Furthermore, the cessation of uncontrolled wildfires or controlled fires deliberately set by Native Americans, along with the introduction of domesticated animals such as cattle, hogs, and sheep led to the gradual disappearance of savannah land with occasional Gary oaks and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), as well as the succession from Douglas fir forest to hemlock and spruce (Agee 1984:18-19; Romo 1987:183-184).
After 1872, when the boundary dispute between the United States and Britain was finally settled in favor of the former, American farmers were eligible to apply for either preemption claims or homesteads. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, the head of a household could apply for a 160-acre homestead and, after occupying and working the land for five years, and providing proof thereof (“proving up”), receive title to the land. From 1875, when the survey of the islands was finally completed, until 1920s, when most arable land had been claimed, some 749 claims were filed in the county, with the majority occurring between 1890 and 1894.
Farming during the early homesteading period (1870s to 1900) was largely of a subsistence variety. The typical homestead of 160 acres or less consisted of a log cabin residence–later replaced with a one-and-a-half or two-story frame house–together with roughly-built cluster of agricultural outbuildings: a barn, chicken house, root house, store house, and granary. A small plot of land, usually 7 or 8 acres, was cultivated and planted in peas, potatoes, and turnips as well as general vegetables, while a larger field of 40 to 60 acres was cleared, grubbed, ploughed, harrowed, and then planted in timothy for pasture. A small orchard of several dozen trees, usually apples and pears, was also common. Typical farm animals included chickens, hogs, cattle (both beef and dairy), and sheep.
As the land was divided up and settled, farmers began to expand their operations. The number of farmers rose from 84 in 1880 to 278 ten years later, while total farm acreage rose from 17,572 to 41,761 during the same period. Both the number of farmers and total acreage grew each decade until reaching a high of 68,513 acres in 1920 and 566 farmers in 1925. This period witnessed commercial-scale stock raising (cattle and sheep), dairying, and growing of various crops such as fruit, grains and hay, and poultry (chickens and turkeys) in the islands. The history of these crops, and their impact upon barn and farm building design and construction, is treated in the following section.
After World War II, the agricultural landscape of the islands began to change once again. After experiencing the wider world during their stint in the Armed forces, island farmers returned and began to change. For instance, although tractors were introduced to the islands as early as 1924, most farms continued to use draft horses prior to the War. With an increase in tourism and summer homes, the island economy began to change, and farmers, who had already struggled with getting their crops marketed off-island, found it increasingly difficult to compete with the mainland.
In 1949, the state legislature passed the “Fluid Milk Law” (Grade A Milk Ordinance). Dairy cattle, some 3,000 strong in 1954, declined to 372 just five years later. The creamery in Friday Harbor closed in 1962. During the same period, beef cattle–less labor-intensive–rose from 400 in 1950 to almost 2,000 four years later, and have fluctuated from 1,200 to 2,000 plus during the years since then. The last pea crop was in 1966.
By 1954, agricultural labor constituted only 25% of the county work force. Large scale farming began to disappear. The number of farms in the county fell from a high of 566 in 1925 to a low of 113 in 1974, while farm acreage dropped from a high of 68,513 acres in 1920 to a low of 16,505 in 1978. In recent years, both the number of farms and total acreage farmed has grown.