Historically, farmland has been a vital component of the San Juan Islands’ landscape.
From 1900 through 1930, agriculture boomed in the islands: both the number of farmers and total acreage of farmland grew each decade to reach a high of 566 farmers in 1925 and 68,513 acres in 1920. The Depression and World War II put a damper on local agriculture, so that by 1954, agricultural labor constituted only 25% of the county work force.
In the early settlement period, the principal means of farming was subsistence-based, supplying a homestead economy. Farm families had small kitchen gardens; raised several acres of potatoes, root crops, and legumes; had several dozen fruit trees; and had a milk cow, oxen for plowing, sheep, and pigs. In the 1890s, farms grew in size, and farmers specialized in livestock raising or grain crops. The fruit industry also came to the islands at this time, first with Italian plum-prunes and later with apples, pears, peaches, and cherries. The early twentieth century saw the improvement of livestock such as Guernsey and Jersey dairy cattle and improved breeds of sheep. Peas were grown on a large scale in San Juan Valley and also on Lopez and Orcas, and strawberries became an important crop on San Juan and Orcas. After World War Two, agriculture in the islands changed once again, with the introduction of new technology such as gasoline tractors, and beef cattle gradually replacing dairy herds.
Because of the unique geography, including climate and soil, of each of the major islands—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw – distinctive agricultural traditions developed on the separate islands.