Agritopia®–A Little Bit of Arizona Heaven

The first and only time I visited Phoenix was twenty-five years ago. All I remembered from that trip were endless strip malls, six-lane arterials, lots of double left-turn lanes, roads filled with cars, and cascading water fountains. The bubbling fountains at the entrances to subdivisions and in front of office buildings perplexed me, because I knew I was in the middle of the desert! The Phoenix climate was too hot and dry and the built environment was too auto dependent for me. Even so, it’s a nice place to visit in the depths of a soggy Seattle winter. A family wedding was my opportunity to explore Phoenix again. I went looking forward to finding someplace that would comfort my Northwest sensibilities.

After touching down and renting the much needed automobile to ensure that I could get to the wedding festivities, I found myself again driving on the never ending highways, with graceful looping ramps and being distracted by strip malls. Concrete sidewalks bounded both sides of the road on every city street, which is a sign of good urban planning design, but sadly no one was using them. There were no dog walkers, runners, or cycle riders, just a ribbons of sidewalk paralleling the continuous traveled way. Where would I find people? Where would I find community? I was happy when I found a little bit of Arizona heaven at Agritopia®.

Waiting to Pick Citrus

Waiting to Pick Citrus

Agritopia® is located in Gilbert, Arizona about 30 miles east of downtown Phoenix in an area that was once home to ranches and farms. It’s located directly adjacent to a Highway 202 exit ramp the main loop highway around Phoenix, which connects to the interstate highway system. Agritopia® sits on land that was homesteaded in 1927 and actively farmed for 70 years by the original homesteaders and later the Johnston family. Realizing in the late 1990’s that suburbia was creeping ever closer to their commodity crop farm, rather than just selling the farm and abandoning the land’s agricultural heritage, the family decided to do something different. The family to create their own development concept by incorporating food growing into their community design.

Agritopia®’s Community

Turning into the dirt parking area on a Saturday morning in mid-March, the knee-level sign, “Citrus U-Pick Today,” beckoned me. The parking area was nearly two-thirds full with sedans, mini-vans, and trucks. Walking away from a large undeveloped commercial concern behind me and passing by snout-nosed garages on the far side of a large empty field, I walked through the parked cars towards a cluster of large trees. My ears perked when I overheard a grandmother laden with bags of fruit announce with enthusiasm to her grandkid, “This was fun! I’m definitely going to watch for this u-pick next year!”

Just beyond the parking area, beneath the cooling tree canopy, I found what I was looking for—a place where people gathered, spent time with their families and friends, and met their neighbors. At Joe’s FarmGrill’s front door, there was a line of 20 people waiting to get served hometown fare made in part with super local on-farm Agritopia® products. Joe’s FarmGrill occupies the Johnston family farmhouse, which was originally a 1960’s modern home with a sloped roof and large windows. (This was not the farmhouse of my New England heritage!) Other former farm structures have more traditional wood clad siding that have been remodeled and re-purposed for an office, a farm retail space, and a coffee shop that was bustling with almost as many patrons as Joe’s FarmGrill.

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

I kept following the U-Pick signs to the orchard entrance. A young man took my money and gave me a sack to pick 10 pounds of the most delicious citrus—Lisbon lemons and Blood-Ruby and Arizona Sweets oranges. Trees were in full bloom, perfuming the grove in a delicate orange blossom scent, while at the same time there was plenty of ripe citrus to pick. Coming from a northern climate, it was incongruous that a tree was blossoming at the same time as fruit could be picked. I learned later that oranges can take from four to 18 months to reach maturity depending on its variety and water and weather conditions. Orange trees also blossom several times a year and the tree knows when to drop excess fruit to ensure a healthy tree and crop. The three-acre orchard is planted with 150 trees with 24 different varieties of peach, plum, apple, orange, grapefruit, mandarin, apricot, and lemon trees all ready for picking at different times of the year. This is obviously not a commercial fruit operation as the orchard is quite small and very diversified, but rather a developer added amenity to help build community and set this development apart from subdivisions. As I wandered through the grove looking for another tree to pick, I saw families with children and young people on a date—taking selfies, of course!

Enjoying the Commons

Enjoying the Commons

Once my citrus bag was stashed in my car, I walked around the Agritopia® neighborhood with enthusiasm, as I was really liking this development. In some sections of the development, there are more traditionally styled homes with big front porches facing a tree-lined street with sidewalks. Each home has their own driveway with access to a rear detached garage and a fenced backyard. In another neighborhood, there are more innovative urbanist homes fronting on a common green space. Garages are attached to the home and accessed from a back alley. Several folks were lounging underneath a tree in the common lawn between the homes, while young kids were throwing a ball. There was a sense of community—common ground—where the neighboring households could get to know their neighbors. Perhaps they would plan a neighborhood picnic or pick-up soccer game on the lawn?

Agritopia® is also designed to serve all generations, which is a healthy neighborhood model. Age restricted community have been the rage, but as more baby boomers age, they haven’t necessarily wanted to be isolated with only old people but rather have a yearning to be around young energy. GENERATIONS at Agritopia® is a full-service, independent living, assisted-living, and memory eldercare facility located in the geographical heart of the community. GENERATIONS is next door to the religious-based elementary and middle schools, which could potentially offer opportunities for students and elders to interact.

Living Next to the Farm

Living Next to the Farm

My highlight was the seven acres of farm and community gardens located in the heart of the development, dedicated to food production, and easily accessed by the neighborhood. Several folks were out in their garden plots digging in the dirt, getting ready for the upcoming growing season. The commercial row crop vegetable farm looked freshly planted with irrigation lines set, even though nothing had sprouted yet. Recently leafed out grape vines entwined the arbor creating a shadow and respite from the hot Arizona sun. White picket fences, some supporting grape vines, separated the individual garden plots from the walking paths and the commercial farm operation. As I walked back to my car, I had found a sense of peace and contentment from my Agritopia® visit.

What Makes Agritopia® Special

Agritopia® is an incredibly, livable community, because it’s a place to be happy and easy to be part of a bigger community. With two on-site restaurants, a retail farmstand, a school, and community gardens along with an adjacent city-owned dog park and on-site playgrounds, there were plenty of spots where neighbors could meet neighbors. As I walked by Joe’s FarmGrill on the way back to my car, there was still a line to get in, confirming that I had found a little bit of Arizona heaven.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Serenbe: An Innovative Community

Fulton County, Georgia is best known as the home of Atlanta, the 9th most populous U.S. metropolian area and Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the most traveled U.S. airport. North of downtown Atlanta is continuous suburbs, countless dead-ends and endless strip malls. At the south end of Fulton County, no more than a 30-minute drive from downtown is Chatahoochee Hills an incorporated city with less than one percent of the County’s population and about 10% of the County’s land area. Chatahoochee Hills is predominately rural with rolling hills, pastures, and woods. Just over ten years ago, this city protected itself from the bane of traditional suburban real estate patterns by incorporating 32,000 acres of rural lands into a municipal city and developed a plan to house just as many people as north county, but not in the same way.

Incorporation was accomplished by following a rigorous land use planning process with community meetings and political will that challenged land use patterns of classic American suburban sprawl. One leader of this land use decision process was Steve Nygren, who had moved with his family into south county in the early 1990’s and purchased 1,000 acres. Steve, a former restaurant owner turned developer knew that south Fulton County did not have to be destined to grow into classic American slurb. Now in the heart of Chatahooche Hills, Serenbe a New Urbanism development is the brainchild of Steve’s.

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Visiting Serenbe in April 2014 on a tour organized by the American Planning Association, I was energized seeing a community that was forward thinking rather than just the norm. As a professional civil engineer, I have designed subdivisions and reviewed development projects on behalf of jurisdictions for much of my career. At Serenbe, traditional land use planning and public works infrastructure standards have been challenged and eliminated, creating a master planned development community that works with the natural environment bringing comfort and joy to the residents rather than the incessant drone of the suburbia.

There are currently three hamlets or town centers at Serenbe with a fourth proposed, each having a different community focus. Selbourne Hamlet focuses on the arts, Grange Hamlet is a farm and craft community, and Mado Hamlet centers on health and well-being and is also the location of the adult active development. A fourth hamlet is proposed with emphasis on education. On our visit we toured Selbourne and Grange Hamlets.

Let me give just two examples of why Serenbe was attractive and excited me. One from my perspective as a civil engineer and the other from my passion on integrating food production into residential developments.

Challenging Public Works Standards

Typical Fenced Stormwater Pond in Seattle

Fenced Retention Pond in Seattle Suburbs

Typical subdivision roads are designed to accommodate parking, a five-foot sidewalk, and two-way traffic flow and of course, the largest fire truck the district owns. These requirements demand a minimum 48-foot pavement width. If the neighborhood is lucky, there could be two five-foot sidewalks on each side of the road, requiring a 60-foot wide publically-owned right-of-way. In typical engineering design, the road section from curb to curb is always crowned with a high point in the middle so stormwater can flow to the street sides to be piped away to a detention facility. This facility is designed to store excess stormwater during large storms and then slowly release the water back into the natural creek or wetland system, thereby reducing the chances of unwanted flooding or scouring. Sometimes the system is designed as a retention system with a small permanent pond at the bottom, but too often, it is a large empty hole in the ground surrounded by a fence.

Typical Subdivision Grading

Typical Subdivision Grading

House lots are typically graded such that the homes face each other, are not offset, and are at the same elevation across the street from each other. It is a very regular, predictable pattern. Because most developable land is no longer flat, mass earth movement and tree removal is necessary to create flat housing lots with retaining walls between the side or backyards to accommodate any grade differentiation. Houses step down as a subdivision road descends, hence engineering a fit rather than designing with the natural environment.

For more than 20 years mass grading and fenced in storm ponds have been standard engineering practice to managing stormwater and designing house lots. Designers at Serenbe turned this typical engineering subdivision model on its head. Steve spoke with passion about fighting against the standards with the Public Works Department to create a community that works with the natural site topography and for the people.

Serenbe Community Map

Serenbe Community Map

The roads are designed with hairpin curves, typical for mountain passes and not housing developments, that slow down traffic and cater to people walking rather than just cars driving. (An hairpin curve is circled in blue on the map.) This innovative road design creates wooded backyards for lots on the inside of the curve and at the same time a place to direct stormwater for biofiltration. Walking on the forest paths between the homes my engineering eye could see where the water flows. At the same time my childhood memories recreated stories of “playing house” in the woods, scraping forest floor leaves into long piles for pretend walls. Mixing mushrooms, berries, and leaves together to create a “scrumptious lunch,” eaten in the “dining room” built from downed logs. Every Serenbe kid has the chance to create their own fantasy house in their backyard!

Back at the street, the lots are designed to work with the topography, with some houses actually lower than the road, creating the feel that the community has been around for a long time. Pavement widths are no more than 40-foot curb to curb when parking is provided and shrink to 24-feet wide when only a two-direction traveled way is needed. Pavement edges are defined by granite curbing, which was no longer permitted by the road standards, but establishes a quality of a bygone era. Sidewalks are found close to the center of each hamlet and forest paths connect the community in the backyards.

Selbourne Hamlet is built for people–children, adults, and the elderly–not just for cars, creating peace and calm.

A Farm at Serenbe

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Serenbe Farms is located in Grange Hamlet, integrating food growing with residential living. In most of America, food just shows up, whether in a grocery store or restaurant. As Americans, we take food for granted and forget that it actually grows in real dirt, by an actual person that plants, tends, and harvests it. Someone then cleans, packages, and transports it to a place where we purchase a farmer’s hard work. For most, this connection to food growing is forgotten. At Serenbe the link between food growing and eating is made real.

In Grange Hamlet, 25-acres are dedicated to organic agriculture and is the backyard for a street of homes. (The farm is outlined in red on the Serenbe map.) Serenbe Farms is a teaching or incubator farm, where interns learn the food growing trade and eventually move on to their own land to practice their profession. Only eight acres are currently cultivated producing 60,000 pounds of food annually that support a thriving Community Supported Agriculture program, the Serenbe neighborhood farmers market and chefs both at Serenbe and in metropolitan Atlanta. This connection to food and its cultivation reunites us with the basic necessities of life–EATING!

At Serenbe, I was infused with serenity of place and at the same time energized by innovation in community building.

Steve Nygren is creating a multi-generational community for families with children, retirees, and anyone else that wants to be connected to the essentials of living. Eating good food, playing in nature, walking in the woods, and enjoying the arts are all found at Serenbe. Alas, the price point for purchasing a home serves only an affluent clientele. Even so, the subdivision design elements and integrating the community with nature and food production are important to consider in future development projects. Rather than designing for the automobile, Serenbe is a stellar example of a community for people.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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The New Agri-hood

“I live next to a farm!” This can be said with enthusiasm and excitement or disappointment  and disgust. Living next to a farm can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. City folks want to move to the country, as they see it as idyllic and bucolic. Farmers worry when city folk move in. Farmers know that the NOISE, ODORS, FUMES, DUST, SMOKE, THE OPERATION OF MACHINERY OF ANY KIND (INCLUDING AIRCRAFT), THE STORAGE AND DISPOSAL OF MANURE, THE APPLICATION BY SPRAYING OR OTHERWISE OF CHEMICAL OR ORGANIC FERTILIZERS, SOIL AMENDMENTS, HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES, HOURS OF OPERATION, AND OTHER AGRICULTURAL ACTIVITIES from their farm operations not only could, but will impact their residential neighbors.

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Often these new neighbors detest the smells of the rural scene smells or getting slowed behind tractors on the roadways. Then they lobby their politicians to create laws placing restrictions on farming practices. Farmers fight back establishing “Right to Farm Laws” that permit farmers to do their job, spreading fertilizers and manures, tilling soil, and growing food and forage. Mistrust between residential dwellers and their rural counterparts can be intense and nasty, especially as suburbanite neighborhoods spread into farm communities. The new arrivals are unfamiliar with the livelihoods of their rural neighbors and want to tame the farmers’ practices to create the idyllic farm experience. Unfortunately, childhood story books and pre-school day trips to pumpkin farms do not depict the real work behind farming.

In Washington State, the rural/urban divide created by the Growth Management Act is strong and strengthens this distrust. Over 20 years ago, legislators decided residential, commercial, and industrial developments belonged in cities, while the rural areas were for farms, forests and large lot residential subdivisions that would house people that could supposedly tolerate rural economies. The consequence of this separation, is further distrust and the erosion of understanding where food comes from.

New Agricultural-Residential Neighborhoods

Children's Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

Even though distrust exists between city dwellers and country folks, new real estate trends are emerging in pockets across the United States where the urban brethren are yearning to be affiliated with farms and farmers. A small but growing percentage of the US population are becoming eaters and foodies that frequent farmers’ markets wanting the freshest organic produce and pasture-raised meats and eggs. Knowing the farmer and his or her farm practices is increasingly important to this group, so much so, that they want to live in or adjacent to a place where food is grown, hence the birth of the agri-hood.

In the last two years, I have visited four of about a dozen agri-hoods located across the United States. This blog will describe two of these communities.

Prairie Crossing

Children's Garden at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Garden at Prairie Crossing

One hour northwest of Chicago is Prairie Crossing in Gray’s Lake, Illinois, the first modern agricultural-residential master planned development community with its first residential sales in the 1990s. In 1987, when the property was threatened with development of 2,400 homes, a group of neighborhood activists purchased it to develop it with an intention to maintain open space and agricultural uses. Now built-out, Prairie Crossing has 359 single family homes, 36 stacked flat condominiums, a charter school, small-scale retail village, a community barn/event space, a 100-acre working farm and an agricultural educational non-profit. Visiting Prairie Crossing on a crisp bright November day, I was immediately swept to another time where time slowed down and nature mattered. The droning buzz and incessant stimulus of suburban life was gone, replaced by stillness and the calmness of the natural world. There were no traffic lights, neon signs or endless rows of homes or strip malls. Instead, the tall grasses swayed in the breeze and the fields of salad greens were ready to be harvested for Thanksgiving. Chickens roamed freely in their fenced pasture while sheep munched on the remnants of summer grasses.

Prairie Crossing features a 100-acre organic farm with the original farmstead house, barn and outbuildings operated by Sandhill Family Farms, located as a centerpiece of the 667-acre development. Over 60 percent of the property is protected recreational, educational, and open space or farmground. Sandhill Family Farms success has allowed them to expand their production and ensure adequate crop rotation by adding acreage with another farm business 80 miles away in Brodhead, Wisconsin. The Prairie Crossing farm has heavier soils with more organic matter suitable for growing salad greens, garlic, beans, cabbages, and kales, while the Brodhead farm has sandy soils beneficial to tomatoes, potatoes, and pumpkin production. To grow organic food most sustainably, it is critical to rotate field crops yearly to prevent the pest bugs from establishing large colonies to attack crops. Farm products also grow better when a cover crop is intermittently included in the crop rotation to control soil erosion, add fertility, and improve quality. For these reasons it is advantageous to have multiple farm properties, different soil types, and good separation between fields. With all the farm amenities, Prairie Crossing residents benefit directly by purchasing from their farmer!

The Cannery

The Cannery in Davis, California is the newest agrihoods in the country, which I visited two months ago. The 100-acre property was the home of the Hunt-Wesson tomato packing plant, hence The Cannery name. Owned by ConAgra, The New Home Company are developers of The Cannery property and tout themselves as California’s first “farm-to-table new home community.”

The Cannery will reach full build-out with a mixture of 547 single family, multi-family and townhomes, 30 acres of parks and open space, a retail area with up to 172,000 square feet of commercial space and a 7.4 acre working urban farm. The property is surrounded on the south and west by city streets and on the north and east by large swaths of commodity-sized agricultural land. The Davis zoning code requires a minimum 300-foot buffer separating long term agricultural uses from urban uses, resulting in the required buffers being used for stormwater management detention facilities and the farm.

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery's Urban Farm

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery’s Urban Farm

The Center for Land-Based Learning will manage The Cannery’s farm and receive three $100,000 payments over three years to establish the farm enterprise. The City of Davis will own the underlying row crop acreage, the orchard, and the farmhouse, which is currently being used as the developer’s welcome center. The farmable area will be 5 acres, stretching about one-half mile at a 100-foot width. The remaining 2.4 acres of designated farm property is being used for the hedgerow, farm road, and the barn and farmhouse. Two experienced graduates from The Center for Land-Based Learning’s California Farm Academy apprentice and incubator program will be the on-site farmers.

Agri-hood Observations

There are significant differences between these two agricultural-residential communities. Prairie Crossing has a sense calm and peace. Granted it was a cold, windy, but sunny November Saturday, but just entering the property the pace and intensity of a typical American life was shed. The farming operation with the supporting barns and hoop houses are almost 15% of the entire land mass and are a community focus in the center of the property rather than being tucked in a corner or a buffer. Walking paths crisscross the community, offering vistas across the farm property. Both the teaching garden and charter school exude children’s creativity even in November with the skeletal remains of summer tomatoes in the child-sized garden plots and colorful welcome signs.

Sandhill Family Farms operates a full-fledged farm business with row crops, chickens, and sheep to supply a thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Prairie Crossing was created with intention and purpose as a master planned development not using a traditional model, but rather something different and special. It shows.

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

Alternatively, The Cannery is developed by an arm of a large U.S. conglomerate, ConAgra. The farm is 7% of the entire site and is squeezed in a city mandated buffer between large-scale agriculture and a road to serve dense urban development. Density is important to curbing urban sprawl, but whether this farm is merely window-dressing or an integral part of the community remains to be seen. Each home is expected to have a citrus tree in their front yard, but they had not yet been planted. Walking paths and seating areas are placed next to the farm, so residents can watch the food grow.

Prairie Crossing has been completed and is entering its mature phase, while The Cannery is expected to be built out in the next three to five years. Each community offers the ability for residents to reconnect with where their food comes from; the soil, a tree, the farm.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Another Look at Food & Bridges

Temporary Span over Skagit River

Temporary Bridge over the Skagit River–Summer 2013

Just after the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapsed 2-1/2 years ago, I wrote a blog entitled Food & Bridges on how food and bridges are vital to a highly functioning society and neither gets the respect they deserve. We take the basic necessities of daily living, food, water and infrastructure for granted. Consequently, we are disconnected from where our food comes from, expect unlimited quantities of water, and demand unclogged, well-maintained roads and bridges. Food is expected to be available at Trader Joe’s, our local restaurant or farmers market without a hiccup. Trucks deliver our food on roads and bridges from local farms, warehouses thousands of miles away and fields in Mexico and beyond. Our food system is dependent on well functioning road infrastructure, but unfortunately it is not according to the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Infrastructure Report Card. The condition of American roads is “D grade” costing drivers $101 billion in wasted fuel and time annually.

Seattle has the 7th worst traffic in the nation. On a normal day, our roads and bridges are so heavily traveled and congested, partly because Seattle is located in the neck of an hourglass tucked between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, but also because there are just too many vehicles. One traffic accident ripples through the rest of the transportation system causing delayed dinners, flared tempers, and missed soccer games.

In March 2015 at 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon, a semi truckload of salmon tipped over closing all southbound lanes of State Highway 99. Not until after 7 p.m. was the truck righted. Two and a half hour commutes were not uncommon. Now, just four days ago a tractor trailer carrying frozen food blocked all four I-90 westbound lanes causing multi-mile backups and again, gumming up the transportation system. These are only two of the vexing traffic woes both caused just by food delivery trucks. There are countless more fender benders, roadside distractions, and tragic fatalities adding to unpredictable commute times, wasted, fuel and unproductive time. Ultimately the problem is too many vehicles and not enough vehicular capacity.

The traffic problems agitate, frustrate and anger Seattlelites daily, but just as important, but not as pronounced is the health of our food system. We eat every day and are dependent on food to live. Despite a 20% increase in one western Washington county’s value of agricultural products coming off their farmland, food production lands cannot competitively compete with the value of real estate for other uses including, housing, retail, office, preserved wildlife habitat or new road construction.

USDA Ag Census Data

According to the 2007 United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Census, $3,182 per acre was the average market value of products sold in Whatcom County, Washington’s most northern county I-5 abutting Canada. This revenue per acre is the highest of any of the Puget Sound I-5 corridor counties from Whatcom to Pierce County. Whatcom County specializes in higher value raspberry, blueberry and strawberry crops. In the same 2007 Ag Census, Snohomish County had the lowest revenue per acre at $1,635 per acre with principle crops being horses, nursery, floriculture and sod.

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

Five years later the USDA issued the 2012 Agricultural Census providing another glimpse into the financial health of our Puget Sound farm economy. Whatcom farmers’ earnings actually decreased 3% from 2007 to 2012 to $3,085 per acre or almost $100 less per acre. Between 2007 to 2012, all other Puget Sound farmers saw increases in market value per acre. King County farmers earned $2,585 per acre (2012) for a 0.1% increase, Pierce County farmers earned $1,838 per acre (2012) for a 5% increase, Skagit farmers earned $2,360 (2012) per acre for an 8% increase, while Snohomish County farmers had a 20% increase in market value to $1,968 per acre (2012). Over the same period, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased 11%. Ostensibly, Snohomish County farmers had a banner five years earning substantially over the Consumer Price Index when compared with their neighboring County farmers.

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

Dig a little deeper and with a 20% increase in Snohomish County’s product market value, these farmers earned 4¢ per square foot. It’s important to use the square foot cost, as it is the commercial real estate industry’s tool for measuring land and building values. Real estate professionals are ultimately the competition for most undeveloped land also known as farmland, forest land and open space. Today downtown Seattle Class A office space, which is considered the premium space, is offered to tenants at more than $30 per square foot. That’s not just the square foot on the ground, but every square foot for each building story. The value of Class A office space at $30 per square foot cannot even begin to be compared to the value of farmland at 4¢ per square foot.

Now we aren’t putting skyscrapers on farmland, but often residential housing is a real possibility. A 2,000 square foot house selling for $200,000 is $100 per square foot. These numbers also out compete farm revenue!

One could ask, why be a farmer when you can make so much more money selling your land for development? Because farmers perform one of the most important tasks for our livelihood, they grow the food we eat. Without farmers, we would have no food. As members of the eating public, we need to support our local farmers and create real financially viable solutions around farmland preservation.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Malting in the Skagit

Malting! As a kid, it meant malted milkshakes and Whoppers–malted milk covered in chocolate. Ugh! Whoppers were the rage in my Trick or Treat bag, but they tasted awful.

Now I savor a malted drink–Hefeweizen–the German malted wheat beer of my heritage. I like Lagers, IPA’s, and whiskey–all malted. I even add a quarter cup of Nestlé Malted Milk powder to my pancake mix. Yum! But, what is malting?

Malting is…

Wheat Varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Wheat varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Malting is an age-old process, fostered first in ancient Egypt about 6,000 years ago where kernels of barley, wheat, rice or other cereal grains are germinated in water. When the shoot reaches about 3/8 of an inch, germination is abruptly stopped and the sprouted kernels are oven-dried. Depending on the timing and the oven temperature, the dried grain develops differing flavors. The sprouting and drying process allows the grains’ starches to develop sugars, which the palate desires. Up until last century, the malting process was labor intensive. Damp, sprouted grains were spread out on cavernous floors, heated from below, and the grains were turned manually with large rakes until dry. With the advent of mechanization, malting grains were commoditized and standardized.

All superior beers are crafted with malted grains–most often barley or wheat–and then water, yeast and hops are added to the mix. Budweiser is produced from unmalted grains–either corn or rice. (No wonder when my German cousins visited when I was a kid and couldn’t stomach American beer!) Beer aficionados probably already know that mainstream beers are unmalted, but my being only a casual drinker of a good, well-crafted, specialty beer on a hot summer eve, I now know why I like crafted beers! It’s the brewed combination of malted grains, tangy hops, fermented yeast, and cold spring water.

A New Malting Dawn

Now, a new malting dawn is rising an hour north of Seattle in Skagit County, home to Skagit Valley Malting, Dr. Stephen Jones of Washington State University, and a multitude of folks all working to ensure that the region reigns as a preeminent, world class agricultural powerhouse, with products that create flavor, value, and terroir–a sense of place.

Grains ready for malting

Grains ready for malting

Imagine my amazement when Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting said, “there are 15,000 varieties of barley and 20,000 strains of wheat that can be malted!” Just in barley varieties, there are black, purple, red, and many shades of gold. Astonishingly today, in American beer brewing, including the craft brewers, only 10 barley strains are malted according to the American Malting Barley Association. Further, over the past 30 years, barley acreage has dropped 77%. This leaves a multitude of grains to test in the Skagit soils, to create the finest flavor, foster the hardiest plant, find the biggest producers, create the preeminent malts and build the agricultural economy. Dr. Stephen Jones is the Director of WSU Research in Mt. Vernon, the heart of Skagit County in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences with his research concentrating on improving wheat and grain varieties and to support the growing Skagit grain economy.

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Historically, prior to the United State’s commoditization and consolidation of agriculture following World War II, the Skagit agricultural lands had record wheat yields, two times those found on the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington and three times those found in Kansas, which hails as the Wheat State, since it grows more wheat than any state in the Union. Despite the fact that Skagit County lost their wheat and barley markets, the farmers have to grow grains because it is a necessary rotational crop in a healthy agricultural ecosystem. By including grain in a field planting sequence, disease and pest cycles are broken.

Skagit specialty red potato fields

Skagit specialty red potato fields

For example, if potatoes are grown in a field in year one, that same acreage cannot be planted with potatoes until year four. Other crops, such as tulips, grasses, cabbages, cucumbers, and grains can be rotated in. By not planting a field with potatoes again, harmful insects or diseases never get to call that acreage “home” and move in and multiply. No matter what though, by year three, a grain planting cycle is a necessary rotation to maintain soil health, because it returns organic matter to the soil, and the deep root system (about the same height as the steam and wheat spike) breaks up clay soils, allowing natural soil aeration. However, grain rotations are not as profitable for the farmer with gross earnings between $500 to $1,000 per acre ($0.01 to $0.02/square foot). When compared to peonies ($52K/acre or $1.19/SF), tulips ($15K/acre or $0.34/SF) or the specialty crop Skagit Red Potatoes ($12K-$15K/acre or $0.34/SF to $0.28/SF), grains have been downright a money loser.

Now Skagit Valley Malting is selling their malted grains to breweries in Washington, DC, where premium beers are sold at $21 per pint. Pike Brewery in Seattle sells specially crafted beers brewed with Skagit malts. Malting is not only for beer, but for bread, too, such as the loaves at the Breadfarm in Bow, Washington, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, and Manhattan’s Blue Hill restaurant–all featuring malts from Skagit Valley Maltingt!

Opportunity in malting!

Skagit farmers, entrepreneurs, agricultural researchers, and others see opportunity! Beer drinkers rejoice! The Skagit region is charging ahead as an economic agricultural powerhouse in the changing edible landscape. Eaters and drinkers everywhere are looking for new, wholesome, and vibrant taste experiences. Growing grains is getting exciting and is expected to be a money maker!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and a member of the American Planning Association’s Food Interest Group. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

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Cultivating a Thriving Agricultural Economy: Skagit Valley

Bucolic fields of tulips wave in the breeze. Tilled fields are ready for spring planting. Raspberry brambles are tamed, trimmed, and prepped for summer production. Netting is checked, secured, and standing by to be stretched over blueberry acreage.  Strawberries are poised for blooming and fertilization when bees buzz by. Potato barns are emptying getting ready for the upcoming season. This is the thrum of spring in the Skagit agricultural lands.

Roozengarde's Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

Roozengarde’s Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

Sixty miles north from Seattle, Interstate 5 drops 300 feet to just above sea level to the idyllic Skagit valley floor encompassing almost 100,000 acres and stretching out to the distant Chuckanut Mountains about 25 miles away. The valley is bounded by the Salish Sea to the west, the Cascade foothills and the City of Mt. Vernon to the east, rolling hills to the south, and the steeper Chuckanut Mountains to the north.  The Skagit River tumbles from the depths of the Cascade Range, trisects the valley after flowing by Mt. Vernon, before heading to the sea. Prior to the early settlers arriving, this same land was the Skagit River’s delta which teemed with life for salmon, shellfish, crustaceans and birds and an integral part of the culture for the Native Americans. Now conversely with protection by levees, dikes, and tide gates, this same ground ranks among the top 2% of the soils in the world to grow food, fiber, and flowers, predominately in land-based farming.

Protect Skagit Farmland SignDespite its pastoral appearance, as in any community, there continues to be pressure for change. A developer in 1989 proposed a 280 acres amusement park at a key highway intersection on prime farmland igniting the fight for the farm economy. Farm advocates organized, fundraised, and built electoral support to sustain the identity and purpose of this fertile farmland by creating a non-profit organization Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, with its mission its title. Early on this required farm advocates sitting opposite developers, environmentalists, and government staff in hearings, courtrooms, and county offices advocating, cajoling, and fighting for the rights to farm and protect farmland. Skagitonian founders knew that for an agricultural economy to succeed, it takes a critical mass of farmland, irrigation water, labor, farm roads, machinery, equipment and fertilizer suppliers, large animal veterinarians, purchasers, and of course, a farmer. To thrive farming must be a robust, economic driver and sustained by the community. These bonds to farming now run deep not only in the agricultural community, but among all residents.

Then 20 years ago the Skagit County Commissioners established the Farmland Legacy Program funded with a Conservation Futures (property) Tax to create a fund that could match state and federal grant monies to purchase development rights from threatened prime farmland. This program has protected more than 9,000 acres of prime farmland.

Even with this buy in, now 25 years later since Skagitonians started, the conflicts are less forceful, but still intense and important. Now, agricultural, environmental, economic, not-for-profits, Port of Skagit, and government (city, County, State, schools, etc.) people meet, to discuss their differences and reach solutions while maintaining and nurturing the Skagit identity, which is a thriving economy balanced with the natural world. After 25 years, all sectors sit at the table to support a community that embraces farming as a way of life.

Salmonids: An Issue

Even with more than 100 years of farming history, some desire and have the power of the law to return parts of the valley to its original estuarine habitat. Three Skagit River salmonid species are listed as threatened under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, requiring local governments to use measures to protect salmon by 1) ensuring cool, clean water, 2) removing barriers that impede fish passage, and 3) restoring fish habitat. Often it is easiest to implement these salmonid protections on farmland, since it is flat, open and undeveloped. Vegetated streams buffers, upsizing and replacing drainage culverts, and purchasing farm ground to remove dikes and create new fish habitat are all used to protect salmon. Even though all of these are tough conversations to have between farming and fish advocates, what is significant is that the conversations happen and compromises are being made!

Agricultural Economy

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Economic development is a buzzword across the United States and finding projects that create jobs, add wealth, and grow placemaking are sought by many communities. One Skagit agricultural product in its infancy is growing grains, specifically barley and wheat for artisanal products. The boutique booze boom is crafting multiple varieties of specialty whiskeys produced from grains grown in the agricultural rotation sequence necessary to maintain soil friability and health. Mainstream and boutique beer brewers across the United States use only about one dozen barleys with different malt processes to create a myriad of beers. Skagit farmers are growing multiple test plots of some of the more than 20,000 different types of barleys to make craft brews. Skagit Valley Malting is partnering with beer brewers such as Pike Place Brewery to concoct new beer frontiers with the different barley samples. I sampled only four different barley kernels destined for Skagit Valley Malting’s production cycle and was astounded at the flavor nuances. I can only begin to imagine the upcoming beer possibilities!

The Breadfarm, a artisanal baker is using locally grown wheats similarly creating specialty baked goods that capture the flavor of the terroir–or specifically the Skagit sense of place.

The support of multiple governments and the legal structure of the State’s Growth Management Act, have created a framework and standard to protect resource lands thus allowing creativity in food and beverage production that rivals European artisans.

The Beauty

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

Entering the valley after an hours drive north from Seattle, all cares slip away and the eye gaze over the pastoral beauty. Spring is a favorite time for visitors to step into the Skagit ethos. Daffodil and tulip fields are sprinkled in the heart of farm country drawing the young and old to savor the splendor. The deep alluvial soils are turned awaiting their crop. The pulse of the country feeds our soul. Our bodies are awaiting the upcoming season to savor the delicacies of the earth.

Note: Land use planners from around the country attending the national American Planning Association conference in Seattle can visit the Skagit Valley and learn what it takes to Cultivate a Thriving Agricultural Economy. Check out the American Planning Association’s mobile tours for Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

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The Land That Feeds Us: Skagit Valley

The answers are 91, 57, 7, 2, and less than 1.

The questions are:

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?
  2. What percentage of the U.S. population are farmers?
  3. What is the average age of U.S. farmers?
  4. What percentage of U.S. production of fruits, nuts, and berries are grown adjacent to urban areas?
  5. What is the rotation cycle for carrots being grown in the same ground?
Bucolic Summer Days in the Skagit with Mt. Baker Looming in the Distance

Bucolic Summer Days in the Skagit with Mt. Baker Looming in the Distance

“Playing with Food: Fun with Farm Facts for All Eaters!” stimulated the conversation for the Urban Land Institute-NW’s Center for Sustainable Leadership cohort on the bus from downtown Seattle to Taylor Shellfish’s operation on the shores of Samish Bay in Skagit County this past October. In a one and a half hour motorcoach ride, the 25 students were transported from city bustle to a county that is passionate about remaining a strong, vibrant farming and food-producing hub.

What does it mean for this part of Puget Sound to be appreciated as a bioregion, with an emphasis on agriculture, was the day’s overriding theme. The link between city folks and country residents was emphasized as essential  to foster, respect, and cultivate. Without our rural counterparts nurturing the soil, growing our sustenance, and bringing it to market, the city would be hungry. Having locally grown and harvested food is a key ingredient to sustaining a resilient community thereby melting the urban–rural divide. Just as cities need food, rural farmers need eaters–a symbiotic relationship is built.

Skagit Valley Farmland: The Resource

Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland was birthed by five farming families in 1989 when a 270-acre theme park was proposed at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Chuckanut Drive in the heart of Skagit farmland. Now 25 years later, Allen Rozema, Executive Director of the non-profit, works to maintain and sustain a viable economic agricultural cluster with four strategic pillars: 1) agricultural economic development, 2) farmland preservation/land use regulation, 3) infrastructure, including 400 miles of drainage ways, 105 tidegates, and farm suppliers and businesses, and 4) education and outreach.

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Beginning with a crisis, the organization now drives the work to ensure that the Skagit Valley continues to be an agricultural hub in perpetuity. Currently there are 108,000 acres of land in farm production, of which 98,000 acres are zoned for agricultural use, but less than 10% of the food-producing ground is permanently protected with conservation easements. Despite 90%  of the farm properties being agriculturally zoned, farmland is still highly threatened with non-agricultural uses. Farmland is cheap, flat, and seemingly ready for non-farming purposes. Salmon habitat restoration (80 acres), soccer fields (120 acres), wetland mitigation bank (100 acres), wildlife habitat (100 acres), large lot farm estate (40 acres)–these are just a few of the pressures on farmland. Skagitonians’ mission is to shield all farm ground from conversion to others uses, as it would be a “tragedy of the commons” to the vital resource that feeds us.

One of the reasons large blocks of land is optimal for efficient agricultural production is the biological necessity to rotate crops between different fields and not growing the same crop in the same ground in consecutive years. In my own yard I experience the lack of rotation in my Brassicas (kale, chard, ornamental kales, etc.) which are now aphid infested every season. Granted, I could douse them with pesticides, but because I only have a 5,000 square foot lot, I must instead eliminate kale production. The aphids will not find a home on my lot and leave. The Skagit farmers, on a much larger scale, similarly must rotate their crops—potatoes, corn, grains, strawberries, tulips, seed crops, cover crops, and others—to sustain a viable agricultural system, keeping the soil healthy and reducing the need for excessive use of herbicides and pesticides. An example are grain crops, which are a necessity in rotations because they have deep roots, which help with soil friability and are nitrogen fixing to support future crops.

The Skagit’s top crop—red and white specialty potatoes—requires 36,000 acres or one-third of the entire valley’s farm ground every year to retain an economically, sustainable business. Only 9,000 acres or one-quarter of the “potato acreage” is planted in potatoes each growing season, while the remaining “potato acreage” is rotated among the other crops. There are at least ten different red potato growers in the Skagit. Check where your potatoes come from this holiday season.

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Another major Skagit crop is seed production. Nine out of ten bites of food start from a seed. Without seed, there is no FOOD. The Skagit Valley is where 75% of our country’s spinach seed and 95% of its table beet seed is grown. To breed vigorous, viable seed, two to five miles separation between seed production acreage and 12 to 14 years in field rotation is compulsory. These seed-growing requirements demand extensive crop acreage to ensure a pure product. To ensure crop rotation, Skagit farmers gather yearly in the depths of the winter to “pin” or locate those fields they will plant the next growing season. They don’t necessarily own the land they plant, but trade planting ground to be sure crops are properly rotated, that each farmer has adequate acreage and water supply, and that all growing requirements are met. No attorneys, contracts, or memoranda of understanding are necessary to “pin” the fields. Such a feat flabbergasted the attorneys in the ULI class. All “pin” deals are made on a handshake, compelling all farmers to be good land stewards of their land and when they use their neighbor’s ground.

The Farmers: Vegetable, Livestock, and Seafood

Beginning with an understanding of the rhythm of the land base, a three farmer panel was introduced: Jessica Gigot, PhD, of Harmony Fields, vegetable and herb grower, Linda Neunzig, of Ninety Farms, livestock farmer and Snohomish County Agricultural Coordinator, and Bill Taylor, of Taylor Shellfish Farms, fourth generation seafood producer. Directing their comments to this audience of real estate professionals, each farmer emphasized how important it is to build cities as great places where people want to live there, thereby reducing pressures to convert rural lands.

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Having just toured the shellfish farm and feasted on raw oysters, oyster stew and steamed clams and mussels for lunch, Bill emphasized the importance of the superb water quality necessary to sustain Taylor Shellfish’s $60 million family run business which sells seafood products to local and worldwide markets.  Bill expressed concerns on the impacts from climate change which are acidifying and warming the ocean and estuarine waters that provide the food that feeds us. One class participant had an epiphany and linked the importance of his jurisdiction’s wastewater treatment discharge on the health and well-being of his lunch!

Linda stressed the significance of local food production, as an important measure of a region’s sustainability. Can Puget Sound feed itself, if for some reason we were unable to import food from California, Mexico, or Arizona? Typically, Puget Sound grocery stores only have a three-day, non-local, food supply. The dairy system needs hay, to feed the cows, to produce milk. Hay does not have a high profit margin and hayland is highly threatened in Snohomish County. Jessica spoke of her personal choice to go back to the land, to grow food.

The Food Distribution System

Rebuilding a local food system is the effort of Lucy Norris, Director of Marketing of the Northwest Agricultural Business Center. Once upon a time, most food was locally grown with specialty items coming from outside the regional growing area. Cinnamon and coffee are the kinds of food that have always been transported long distances, stored for extended periods, and still be highly usable. Now zucchinis, green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce are available year around being transported from southern climes during the Northwest’s winter months. Living with the food seasonality is no longer a necessity, but is a more sustainable way, by keeping connections to the land, reducing food miles traveled, and protecting our rural landscapes. Re-establishing aggregation or Food Hub facilities and creating local, large-scale and institutional markets are important to Lucy’s success. Bringing in-season blueberries to the University of Washington Medical Center’s breakfast bar was a featured accomplishment–connecting the farmer directly with the food service team.

Playing with Food: The Answers

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?

Seed production fields must be separated at a minimum by two miles, but it can be up to five miles separation depending on the crop. Losing farmland to other uses impacts the viability of this important crop, as seeds are a basic building block for food.

  1. What percentage of the U.S. population are farmers?

Despite being founded as an agrarian society, farmers are less than one percent of the U.S. population, with only  45% of those farmers work full-time in the business. Both Linda and Jessica on our famer panel have “day” jobs, too.

  1. What is the average age of U.S. farmers?

The average of a U.S. farmer is 57 years old and one-third of all farmers are 65 years of age or older. As farmers retire, who will grow our food? Younger farmers are entering the profession, but it is a capital intensive business with low profit margins, high costs (land and equipment), and significant uncertainty (weather, pricing, and pest infestations to name a few).

  1. What percentage of U.S. production of fruits, nuts, and berries are grown adjacent to urban areas?

According to American Farmland Trust, ninety-one (91) percent of U.S. fruits, nuts, and berries are grown adjacent to urban areas, which are the most highly threatened lands for conversion to other uses.

  1. What is the rotation cycle for carrots being grown in the same ground?

According to Nash Huber, Nash’s Organic Produce, seven (7) years are needed for a carrot field’s rotation cycle.

The “tragedy of the commons” would be to squander the vital Skagit Valley farmland resource, that is so critically important to providing an essential ingredient to human life—FOOD. Learning more about the local agricultural system creates a deeper appreciation for the importance of our farmers, the land, and the food they grow and the value of real estate professionals developing great cities.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on ULI-NW’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. Stephen Antupit of CityWorks, Inc. collaborated with Kathryn to create the “Playing with Food” matching game as co-host of this year’s ULI Northwest CSL’s Skagit Bioregion program day. 

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Experienced Farmers–Beginning Farm: Four Elements Farm

Amy Moreno-Sills and her husband Agustin with more than 20 years of combined experience growing food are building their dream at Four Elements Farm, on land in Orting Valley. Amy knows it takes hard work to get a new business off the ground.  She has successfully helped other farmers expand, change, and grow their businesses, and is excited and optimistic about what the future will bring. After completing a Sustainable Agriculture degree in 2001 from The Evergreen State College, she interned at Jubilee Farm (Snoqualmie Valley) for two years, worked for Full Circle Farm (Snoqualmie Valley) for five years, spent two years at Tahoma Farms (Orting Valley) and completed her journey at Terry’s Berries (Puyallup Valley). Now, Amy and Agustin are putting their own seed in the ground and growing a business.

Four Elements Farm

Tilled Acres at Four Elements Farm

Tilled Acres at Four Elements Farm

Four Elements Farm leased five acres on land conserved by PCC Farmland Trust in 2009, when 100-acres of prime farmland located three miles south of Orting, Washington were protected by removing the legal right to develop a residential subdivision and creating an opportunity for farmers to practice their trade. This farm ground was laid down in the 15th century when the Electron Mudflow inundated the Puyallup River Valley with upwards of 15 feet of Mount Rainier’s pyroclastic muck. The Puyallup and other Tribes lived in the Orting Valley and surrounding lands as hunter-gatherers, maintaining their lifestyle for centuries and experiencing the Mudflow, until settlers entered the valley in the mid-19th century. Early crops were hops and produce, and eventually tulips and daffodils, but ultimately, in the second half of the 20th century, the Orting Valley was peppered with small family-owned dairy farms. On what is now Four Elements Farm, Ted Ford ran a dairy operation for 45 years, naturally fertilizing and amending the soil.

Upcoming Season & Long-Term Plans

Amy's Farming Family

Amy’s Farming Family

Amy and Agustin expect to plant 65 different types of crops and sell them via three distribution methods: 1) Four Elements Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) program, 2) on-site at Meadowood Organics in Enumclaw, and 3) through wholesale connections with Charlie’s Produce, Organically Grown Company, Terra Organics, Scholz Farm, Marlene’s Market, and others that could be interested in purchasing produce from a new farm.

Amy is eagerly and optimistically anticipating the upcoming season, as the forecast is for a good growing season and the farm has multiple advantages, as there is plenty of on-site pumped irrigation water, drain tiles to ensure water doesn’t stagnate below seedlings, and barns for storage of equipment. At the same time, California growers are experiencing a major drought and expect to scale back operations, since adequate water from snowmelt is unavailable for all of the State’s agricultural lands.  As in 2012 when only 20% of Michigan’s tree fruit harvest produced and small farmers in Washington State benefited (Ensuring Food Security: Wade’s Vision), California farmers expect to plant at least 12% less land than in normal years. California’s agricultural losses could be Washington’s gain and Four Elements Farm’s opportunity.

Even with all these attributes and opportunities, ultimately the greatest resource is a farmer’s human ingenuity and business savvy. Despite being a new farm, Four Elements Farm does not have beginning farmers. Amy many years of experience makes her job easier with familiarity of the many pitfalls and challenges of running a farm business.  Amy was instrumental in Full Circle Farms growth from a 260 to 5,000 CSA members being responsible for planning, planting, managing labor, ensuring availability of packaging supplies, and assisting the business owner in a constantly, rapidly changing, and increasing customer base.

Fledgling Vegetables

Fledgling Vegetables

On three other farms, working with the WSDA organic certifier, she completed the critical paperwork to create the premium value from organic production.  Knowing that having a willing buyer before you put a seed in the ground is critical to building a viable business. She is innately familiar with the optimal time to pick produce, when and how to wash product, ensuring there are always adequate twist ties on-site ahead of harvest, and all the details of a creating a productive and profitable organic farm. Most importantly, the differences between being a “large-scale gardener” and a farmer are intuitively known.  A produce farmer grows row crops, multi-tasks, makes rapid fire decisions, and changes plans at the first sign of rain or blistering heat, while a gardener is relaxed, knowing it is not a livelihood.

Agustin, partner in the Four Elements Farm team, cultivates and nurtures good tasting food during the extended summer daylight hours while working his day job across the street as farm manager at Tahoma Farms.

With support from the customers, colleagues, and friends, Amy and Agustin are working towards creating the ultimate dream; their own organic farm. With their enthusiasm and dedication, Four Elements Farm has the ingredients to become another small farm success story.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities.  Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, infrastructure, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on working to create communities that include food production.  Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.  Gardow Consulting can also be found on Facebook.  

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What is Sustainable Agriculture?

I am not a farmer, but care where my food comes from. I read labels to avoid unknown, unintelligible ingredients. I cannot feed myself with my gardening skills. Farmers grow my food and I have the utmost respect for the work the work they do. Each season farmers start anew deciding what and how much to grow. It is always a calculated risk based on years of experience, while not knowing what nature’s forces will bring in the upcoming growing season.

Diversified Cropping at Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley

Diversified Cropping at Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley

Sustainable agriculture is a term to describe a food growing process that appeals to those whom care about their food choices. Alternatively, agribusiness, the large-scale, commodity-driven, often chemically-induced, pesticide-protected, government subsidized food production beast worries the sustainable agriculture consumers. Examples abound on why to be concerned. Pork production facilities have caused significant environmental damage to North Carolina river ecosystems from leaks from CAFOs–Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations–where multitudes of pigs are treated only as a food source rather than live animals that should be given respect. Food safety calamities with mainstream products such as peanut butter and cantaloupes have caused recalls, sickness and even death and shaken the confidence of our conventional food supply system.

Whether sustainable agriculture is the answer to food safety and environmental concerns is not certain, but I assert that is part of the solution.

Agriculture is…

What is agriculture? According to the Oxford American dictionary, agriculture is “the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food.” Between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, our ancestors realized that staying rooted during the growing season meant a more secure food source, than the hunting and gathering existence of their forefathers. Our predecessors developed villages, towns, and eventually cities around soils that bore fruits and vegetables, and reared animals, which were domesticated to provide milk, materials for clothing, casings for sausage, and a multitude of other uses.

Goat basking in the sun at Cloudview EcoFarm--Columbia Basin

Goat basking in the sun at Cloudview EcoFarm–Columbia Basin

Improvements to agriculture practices evolved over the eons with the advent 6,000 years ago of the simple plow and irrigation practices thereby increasing yields. The invention of the wheel about 5,500 years ago, vastly eased product movement from rural lands to population centers and increased city densification and development of a merchant class.

Agriculture continued to evolve and beginning in 1800, during the Industrial Revolution and accelerating in the aftermath of World War II, food production surged and worldwide population skyrocketed to 7 billion people today. (Since my birth, the world’s human population has more than doubled, which is astounding.) A significant part of the population increase is attributable to the vast improvements in food production, which increased yields by using artificially-made pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. At the same time, seed stocks were hybridized to strengthen traits that improved transport and storability, increased size, augmented color, and optimized the use of artificial inputs (Roundup® ready seeds for example). For those that support all technological advancements, the increase in food production via agribusiness has been a stellar success.

At the same time there have been losses.  Flavor, which is the joy of eating, has been lost with intense hybridization. Rural communities have been emptied, food safety concerns have increased and topsoil continues to be lost. Many assert that agricultural scientific innovation should be tempered with reverence and appreciation for a natural systems ethos to grow food more sustainably.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Much has been written by scholars and farming specialists on sustainable agriculture, which is considered a system that is “protective of the environment, economically viable, and social responsible” according to a 2002 Washington State University (WSU) Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR), Sustainable Agriculture in Washington State publication. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, funded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, further defines the 3 Pillars of (Farming) Sustainability where there is “(1) profit over the long term, (2) stewardship of our nation’s land, air and water, and (3) quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities.” These are solid, grounded objectives that benefit the common good, but have been largely dismissed by agribusiness.

So many kinds of beets at Nash's Organic Produce stand

So many kinds of beets at Nash’s Organic Produce stand

Concurrently, at least 95% of Americans’ food purchases comes from conventionally grown agribusinesses and unfortunately, the common person is just not exposed nor perhaps even interested in other food production methods, let alone alarmed about issues that protect the natural world or support living wages for the farm workers. Furthermore, most people don’t spend a moment ever thinking about where their food comes from, as it just shows up and is easily available, providing no connection or awareness to any problems or potential fragility in the food system.

Why Should it Matter?

Should Americans care where their food comes from? Should they be concerned about how it is grown or whether the farmer is able to make a living wage? Yes! We are fortunate in Washington State to have extraordinary farmers such as Cloudview EcoFarm, Viva Farms, Nash’s Organic Produce, and many more that are growing food sustainably where natural resources are sacred and workers are treated well. However, for all of these farms to be profitable over the long term, the eating public needs to be educated and to support a sustainable agriculture economy.

My question to sustainable agriculture advocates is how do we ignite the eating public to care about where their food comes from? What solutions do you have? The Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network (WSFFN), located in Mt. Vernon, WA will be updating its strategic plan and collaborating with other like-minded organizations to further sustainable food and farming initiatives. I am on the WSFFN board and welcome your thoughts at Facebook-Gardow Consulting.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog will muse on ways to create a more sustainable world. Gardow Consulting can also be found on Facebook.

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Organic Farms Matter: Uncle Matt’s Organics

Patriarch Benny McLean

Patriarch & Story Teller Benny McLean

Located a half- hour west of Florida’s Magic Kingdome is Uncle Matt’s Organics, a 14-year old family business supplying discerning consumers with organic citrus and juice products. Spending a day with the business’ patriarch and story teller, Benny McLean was the highlight of my Floridian vacation. While my family enjoyed the thrill of Space Mountain® and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin®, I savored the succulent Florida grapefruits and oranges and learned about the challenges of being a farmer not far from Mickey’s home and his 17,500,000 visitors (2012).

The Story

After World War II, US Route 27, was the northern snowbirds conduit to get to the Sunshine Coast, arriving when Florida was predominately home to farmers tending orange groves, strawberry fields, and cattle ranches. The allure of pristine beaches and warm climes brought the northern transplants, despite the mid-60’s television advertisements warning viewers to be wary of buying “swamp land in Florida.”

The Citrus Tower

The Citrus Tower

Clermont, Florida was the epicenter of the citrus industry with the iconic Citrus Tower, opening in 1956, soaring above 300,000 acres of grapefruit and orange groves in Lake County, just west of Orange County, where Orlando lies. Taking the elevator to the top of the Tower provides views to the flatlands from a 450-foot vantage point, since the 226-foot structure sits on a 228-foot knoll, part of the central Florida spine of rolling hills. At the tower base were activities to entertain, products to buy and tours of groves to educate visitors of the delight of citrus.

In the early 1960’s Walt Disney saw that his Los Angeles based Disneyland® was a significant tourist attraction, but realized that to truly create a magic place, he needed control over a much larger land mass. Flying over central Florida, he saw opportunity with its network of highways and vacant parcels where he could create a place of imagination. The Magic Kingdom® opened in 1971 to unprecedented enthusiasm and is now the number one attended theme park in the world. Since then, unparalleled theme park and accommodation construction have continued to fill the central Florida landscape making the Orlando area a destination for visitors from around the world.

Old and New Agricultural Florida

A Snapshot of the Old Red Farm Road and New Asphalt Road

In 1971, Walt Disney World® employed 5,500 workers more commonly known as “cast members” and now boasts it provides jobs for more than 59,000 employees with a $1.8 billion payroll in a 2009 report prepared by Arduin, Laffer & Moore, a conservative-leaning consulting firm. The same report asserts that 2.5% of Florida’s gross state product is because of the Disney theme park businesses. These numbers reveal why there has been a 415% population increase in Orange and Lake Counties, in what had been traditionally a farming region. Regardless of the population influx, devastating Arctic blasts in 1983, 1985, and 1989 were the ultimate death knell of the historic citrus economy. With the freezes, the ever expanding entertainment industry, land being converted to its economic “highest and best” commercial use, and farmers needing to make a living, land was converted to housing, strip malls, and suburbia, leaving places such as Groveland, Minneola, and Tangelo Park as historic names of a bygone era.

Once a Farmer, Always a Farmer

Despite a youthful rebuff of a farming career, Benny’s youngest son, Matt McLean (of Uncle Matt’s fame) equipped with a finance degree has evolved into the “pioneer, agriculturist activist and entrepreneur” in the organic food industry. Uncle Matt’s only grows organically, with no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or chemicals contaminating their products, because it is better for the environment, water quality, and personal health. As Matt says, “before the 20th century all food was organic,” as synthetic fertilizers were initially made in the munitions factories needing to be re-purposed following World War II.

More importantly, with the demise of the Florida orange industry north of the cross Florida I-4 interstate, and only 10,000 acres of Lake County citrus groves now remaining, Matt saw opportunity. In the late 1990’s, no organic orange juice was available. Concurrently, the German market was looking for new citrus sources, since the Teutonic climate is too cold, and the Germans yearned for organics, too. Finally, in 2000, the National Organic Program established the rules around organic production, which created an opening for a fledgling organic orange business to grow.

Organic Farms Matter

Uncle Matt’s Organics is a family-run business, which owns and leases groves, purchases fruit from neighboring farms and supplies all natural, not-from-concentrate, organic juices to markets across the country. The organic orange juice market is only served by Uncle Matt’s and a private label brand. The organic citrus business is small compared to the conventionally grown products, but a critically important part of the food market, since there is ever-increasing growth in the organic food industry. Despite still being small, the organic agricultural market continues to grow at a faster rate than the conventionally grown food and in 2008 was a $21 billion industry and one to two percent of US market according to the Organic Trade Association.

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

Uncle Matt’s is passionate about organics and will not farm as most conventional growers do with petroleum based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Benny’s passion for organics is so strong, that he said some of the local food storage facilities (packing houses) will not store their organic products, because they can’t guarantee their safety. As one packing house owner said, “Rats don’t lie. They can smell the nutrients (in the organic produce).”

From the top of the Citrus Tower, I could not see an orange grove, but could only imagine the undulating rows of fruit trees. Farmland in Florida is so threatened with conversion to development that just prior to the economic meltdown between 2002 to 2007, Florida lost 25% of its citrus acreage, according to the USDA Agricultural Census. From my travels in Lake County it appears that housing starts were up again, as there were multiple tentacles of new roads and subdivisions. Despite the pressures from real estate development, Uncle Matt’s will be the nexus for organic citrus production for the foreseeable future because of the family’s dedication and passion. Uncle Matt’s is here to stay supplying the freshest, most nutritionally complete citrus products for the discerning palate.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is also on the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Board. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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