If you ever picked a pumpkin at a place like Turnbull Farm, cut down your own Christmas tree at Longbranch Tree Farm, survived the scares at My Haunted Forest, or farm-hopped during the Key Peninsula Farm Tour, you’ve experienced the charm of agritourism firsthand. These unique or seasonal experiences are a way for small farms to bring in a little extra cash aside from normal farming operations.
Inspired by their family’s rich farming heritage in Punjab, India, and Canada, and motivated by supply chain and food security concerns during the height of the pandemic, a pair of Seattle-based siblings are looking to bring a relatively new type of farming technique and form of agritourism to the KP: forest farming.
Back in 2021, sister and brother duo Karishma and Kunal Sharma bought a 10-acre property near 60th Street SW and Key Peninsula Highway in Longbranch to create the aptly named Forest Farm, an educational farming experience bridging the gap between Longbranch’s rural roots and urban curiosity.
Agritourism, according to Pierce County code, refers to “agriculturally based operations or activities that bring visitors to an active farm or ranch.” Opponents of this new farm believe the Forest Farm is not an active farm — or even a farm at all.
Michelle Kircher, a spokesperson for Pierce County, said that though the code mentions the word active, it “does not distinguish the length of time that the farm has been in operation as a term of meeting agritourism requirements.”
“The intent of agritourism was basically to save farmland,” said Shane Hostetler, who has lived and farmed on the Key Peninsula since the 1960s. “It was supposed to help preserve (existing) farms, not make new ones. (The Forest Farm) property has never been a farm, it’s never going to be a farm.”
The Forest Farm property is heavily wooded with alders and big-leaf maple trees. It is more forest than the more conventional open field farmland layout; hence the name.
For Karishma, that’s the whole point. “This type of farm is going to be one of the first of its kind in the area and will show how we can sustainably grow food in the forest,” she said.
The biggest gripe is against the proposed building of six boutique cabins for overnight visitors. By offering lodging on the Forest Farm, Karishma hopes to bring a new wave of tourism to the area, increase their length of stay, and give a boost to the local economy. She said the more time visitors stay, the more time they can “learn innovative and sustainable farming practices to bring home with them.” Besides vacation rentals, there is no other overnight lodging in the area.
To Longbranch resident Vicki Shelton, the proposed agritourism project sounds like a nightmare and she predicts the owners will have constant issues with nonpaying visitors.
“If built, they present a potential opportunity for a homeless community invading the property or taking on the cabins as their own temporary residences.
“Many of us have had issues with break-ins and burglaries in the area,” she said.
Skeptics like Hostetler worry the Sharmas are just exploiting agritourism regulations to get approval for the cabins, and then ditch the farming aspect.
“It’s lodging camouflaged as agritourism,” Hostetler said. “We should be promoting economically viable farming, not economically viable tourism.”
Karishma said letting the farming side of the business fail wouldn’t be in their best interest. “We’re putting a lot of time, money and effort into this project.” She mentioned that they would be allowed to build up to 20 “guest rooms” with a conditional use permit, but space for the educational farming experience is too crucial to their business plan.
Kircher said this project is one of many being evaluated as part of the county’s agritourism development regulations and the Pierce County Agriculture Advisory Commission is actively involved. More discussions are expected this year, including possible code amendments, she said.
Despite the opposition, the Sharma siblings are committed to their vision and have spent the last two years navigating the Pierce County permitting process with the support of architect and civil engineering firms, and regularly have a wetland biologist and a botanist on site.
They also hired a local agroforestry operations manager, Matt Morford, who is on the property two days a week. Karishma has recently visited similar farms around Washington and in India and Hawaii.
Before the team can start building the cabins, which will take up the central part of the property, they must be able to sustain at least 2 acres of crops on the land. Karishma tasked Morford to get creative in using the property for diverse agricultural elements like Pacific Northwest wildflower pastures, berry patches, log-grown shitake mushrooms and other marketable mushroom species, ginseng, an area for lettuce and various root vegetables, and various composting sites. Leeks and ramps will be planted close to the wetland areas to the west of the property, and some of the maple trees sprinkled throughout the property could be tapped for maple syrup.
They plan to salvage all the native plants during development through a program offered by the Pierce Conservation District, and responsibly remove invasive species. Morford is already in early discussions to partner with a Western Washington plantbased fertilizer company to use material from the property, like evergreen huckleberry, in its line of products.
Neither Karishma nor Kunal have plans to live on the property but make it a habit to get down to Longbranch a few times a week. Hostetler, who has never met the Sharmas, said he would change his tune if one of the two lived on the land.
“If they wanted to build a nice little house on their property and start up a farm, that’s a different story. More power to them. But that’s not happening,” said Hostetler. “If they want to live in Seattle and pretend to be a farmer and expect me as a taxpayer to subsidize it, then I don’t want to be part of it.”
Kircher said a start-up farm like the Forest Farm would not qualify for tax reductions until it has generated and documented revenue for three of the past five years and would not get any immediate tax benefits other than “certain sales tax exemptions that all farms are eligible to receive.”
Along with developing the property, Karishma, Kunal and Morford plan to spend the next year getting to know the community and talking with fellow farmers. Karishma spoke with a few members of the Longbranch Improvement Club early on but admits she needs to spend more time hearing from her neighbors. “My family comes from a rural community and I know how outsiders often get looked at. Building with community input is important to us.”
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