Sustainable Development: Incorporating Agriculture

What is a sustainable community? Currently, in real estate development lexicon, it is a transit-oriented project with sidewalks, bike paths, served by public transit with green/energy efficient buildings, and perhaps limited parking. But, there is a new aspect of sustainable development which integrates: Growing FOOD!  Without food (and water), humans cannot survive, which is why including food production in a real estate project makes sense.  Over the past 80 years, Americans have disassociated more and more with food seasonality and where our sustenance comes from and purchased food based solely on price rather than nutritional value, or on how or where it is grown.

Grapes Growing in my Yard

Grapes Growing in my Yard

Growing up in Connecticut, I clearly remember the previous season’s Macintosh apples in my sack lunch and did not like its mealy April texture. With New Zealand fall-harvested apples during the northern hemisphere’s spring, the fresh crop crunch could be savored any time of the year. Grapes harvested in my yard in September are a distant memory, but right now I can have Chilean bursts of summer sweetness. Because of trends like these our food travels an average 1,500 miles from field to fork.

Since the inception of plowed agriculture, food was locally grown and families ate with the seasons, which meant eating the luscious tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob, peaches and other warm weather produce during the summer and preserving the extras into jams, jellies and relishes for the winter season. It also meant that fall-harvested crops, such as carrots, potatoes, beets, and parsnips were over-wintered in cold storage or in the ground in the Pacific Northwest to be pulled as needed. Granted winter meals were garnished with spices and treats from distant lands, but most cold weather fare included meats, grains, and root vegetables that could be stored, slaughtered or caught when summer abundance had passed.

Prairie Crossing:  An Early Agricultural Community Adapter

Now forward thinking people want to take control of their food sources and know where their sustenance comes from. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 200 developments across the nation have an agricultural twist. I visited one of the earliest examples, Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, located about an hours drive north of Chicago in the middle of suburbia.

Prairie Crossing Homes and Plowed Farmland

Prairie Crossing Homes and Plowed Farmland

Prairie Crossing is a conservation community, a model of sustainable development, which integrates preservation of natural habitat, connecting the community with trails, beach, and play areas, while incorporating an organic for-profit farm and a non-profit education farm. The Prairie Crossing property was purchased in 1987 by a group of neighbors that wanted to preserve the open space and agricultural land. Beginning in the 1990’s a community was designed and developed with 359 single family homes, 36 condominium units, a small retail center, a charter school, and a neighborhood gathering center, all adjacent to two separate railway lines into Chicago and Milwaukee. The project incorporated innovative landscaping and stormwater management systems, trails, pocket parks, and homesites on 677 acres that had been slated for a traditional 2,400 home subdivision. Entering the community on a brisk, cold, November day, I could feel the tenor of endless taillights in the neighboring sprawl development slip away.

Prairie Crossing Fruit Forest

Prairie Crossing Fruit Forest

I went to Prairie Crossing to learn about the 100-acre organic farm operation owned by Sandhill Family Farms, but came away with so much more. Mike Sands, Senior Associate of Liberty Prairie Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Prairie Crossing development graciously spent the morning with me explaining the history of how this conservation community came to be. Homes designed in keeping with the midwestern architectural tradition grace the property with swaths of open prairie separating neighborhoods, which are connected by ten miles of trails. Mike’s excitement for this real estate project is an inspiration for me to build a place that connects the community with its sustenance and creates a sense of belonging in the Pacific Northwest.

Local Seattle Communities with Agriculture

Artichoke at Burke-Gilman Gardens P-Patch Community Garden

Artichoke at Burke-Gilman Gardens P-Patch Community Garden

Washington is a place where values of place, connection, and belonging can be found and nurtured. Specifically, Seattle has a robust P-Patch program, more commonly known as a community garden program, where 1,900 gardeners grow food on small plots on more than 60 locations across the city. In my neighborhood, Burke-Gilman Gardens, a small apartment complex owned by Capital Hill Housing, is home to twenty-six 100 square foot P-Patch plots. Of the multitude of P-Patches across the city some have cooperatively managed composting operations and tool sharing, but all are filled with luscious produce.

These are just a few examples of real estate projects that include food production that could be used in the Pacific Northwest to create an agricultural conservation community.  My wish for 2014 is that stronger, tangible connections are made with where our food comes from, how it nourishes us, and the community that it creates.

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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Celebrate with Food: Eat from Local & Afar

What is on your Thanksgiving table? Where did your food come from? For a dozen people my table is laden with parsley from my yard, oodles of vegetables and fruit from the farmer’s market, a pre-cooked naturally raised turkey from my neighborhood grocery store, and specialty treats and additions from miles and seas away. To provide a Thanksgiving repast of my foremothers it takes something from everywhere to complete the meal.

I support local agriculture, because it is easy to do, sustains local farmers, protects the rural economy, maintains the country landscape that is critical to the Northwest quality of life, and most importantly the food is fresher. Adding delectable food products into my Thanksgiving meal from outside the northwest foodshed, inserts flavor and connects me with my heritage. My holiday spread will feature food from outside my door to across oceans.

My Yard

I live on a 5,000 square foot city lot on the backside of a hill that faces northeast. In the summer, sun is plentiful and I strategically locate blueberries, a plum tree, tomatoes, beans, basil, and other summer producing plants in raised beds to grow food.

Dino Kale in my Yard

Dino Kale in my Yard

By November with minimal sunlight, parsley, rosemary, thyme, dino kale (Lacinto Kale) and chard continue to thrive growing alongside four different types of over-wintering garlic. Kale is the ubiquitous northwest biennial vegetable growing over a meter tall. It tops the charts in nutritional value providing beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C and calcium along with potentially blocking cancer growth, lowering cholesterol and of course, adding fiber. Kale can be a stand-alone vegetable, but works better for my family in soups and stir-fry recipies.

This holiday, garlic from my 2013 harvest, kale, and Italian parsley are all in my stuffing.

The Farmers Market

The pre-Thanksgiving University District Farmers Market was bustling in part, since there was no Seattle rain to be found. The farmers’ stalls were loaded with carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and other brassicas sweetened by the autumn’s cool temperatures. Four separate trips to my car were necessary to carry my load of glass bottled cider, Yukon Gold potatoes, hazelnuts, sweet potatoes, onions, leeks, apples, pears, cranberries, and a posy of ornamental kale flowers.  Other shoppers pushed folding metal carts filled to the brim, employing an auto trip stash reduction method, that I should consider.

Winter Kale Bouquet

Winter Kale Bouquet

The sweet potatoes and decorative kale bouquet were my unexpected purchases. More than 96% of the nation’s sweet potatoes are grown in North Carolina, California, Mississippi and Louisiana with the vast majority grown in the Atlantic coast state, so buying northwest grown tubers was notable. An abundance of sweet potatoes along with tree fruits are a specialty of Lyall Farms in the Yakima Valley with its hot summers and plentiful irrigation water. My Thanksgiving meal is complete by cooking my annual tradition, Mollie Katzen’s Sweet Potato Surprise with apples, bananas and ginger blended into orange sweet potato goodness.

The Asian immigrant farmers, creators of year-round floral beauty have fashioned an almost rose-like bouquet using the tops of decorative kale. Throughout the summer, larger kale leaves were removed to surround summer splendor. Now with only the cream and burgundy colored tops remaining, farmers design bouquets with statice and wheat stalks to grace my Thanksgiving table.

Grocery Store and the World

Sustainably Raised Turkey

Sustainably Raised Turkey

Having never learned to cook the Thanksgiving icon, my naturally grown pre-cooked turkey comes from the grocery store. It doesn’t meet the criteria for a locavore purist, but it saves me from family strife and an under-cooked bird. But, with each morsel of meat, I thank the animal that graces my table remembering its beauty and the nourishment it gives me.

All prepared foods include some product grown in another part of the world, as spices are a common import.  Even the lowly peppercorn native to southern India, is grown throughout the tropics and is an essential ingredient. The world has a long history of food imports, whether spices from the Far East, citrus from warmer climates or exotic treats from faraway lands.

As a child, my grandmother would tell me the stories of her grandfather, E. Eugene (“Gene”) Hawkins, born in Long Island, New York as the oldest son of a ship’s carpenter. In 1894, at age 49, he became part owner of the 372,960 ton B.J. Hazard schooner, a work horse of the Atlantic. As the ship’s captain, he engaged in coastal trade predominately between New York and Havana, only knowing what his return cargo would be upon port arrival.

Ripe Oranges in December

Ripe Oranges in December

Other times Gene sailed to the warm Mediterranean climate. On leaving the Long Island port on one journey with his wife Georgianna, he said to a fellow East Patchogue captain, that he would kill a pig, if they met mid-ocean. A pig roast ensued in the Atlantic doldrums. On another winter voyage with a load of oranges, he waited six weeks for the tides and the winds to cooperate at the Straits of Gibraltar. Sadly, his cargo was rotten upon reaching homeport.

On Thanksgiving, cranberry-orange relish will adorn my turkey. Remembering that citrus was a extraordinary winter delicacy transported by my ancestors, oranges always show up in our Christmas stockings, too.

As the holiday season approaches, pay attention and include local foods in your celebrations, and be sure to take pleasure in the treats from far away.

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. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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Flood Info 101: Flood Season is Here

Despite a dry month, October 1st is the start of the regulated flood season in King County, Washington which ranks 13th out of 39 counties in agricultural revenue and is home to Seattle, the State’s largest city. From almost 1,800 farms, $127 million is earned growing food, fiber, and animal feed, even though the County houses almost one-third of the State’s 6.7 million people. Combined Snohomish, King, Pierce and Thurston counties generate $435 million in agricultural revenue from over 6,000 farms.

Remnants of the November 2006 Flood

Remnants of the November 2006 Flood

It has been almost 7 years since the November 2006 election day 100-year storm.  In 60 degree weather, Monday, November 6, 2006, 3.29 inches of rain fell at Sea-Tac airport. Concurrently, the warm, tropical, moisture-laden clouds, also known as a Pineapple Express, pummeled the Cascade Mountain’s western facing slopes about 60 miles east of Seattle, melting newly fallen snow and sending torrents of water into the lowlands. The flat Snoqualmie Valley received more than 32 million gallons per minute (71,800 cubic feet per second [c.f.s.]) of turbid, rapid-flowing water carrying anything not secured.

2006 Flood at Full Circle Farm, Carnation (Photo courtesy of Stewardship Partners)

2006 Flood at Full Circle Farm, Carnation (Photo courtesy of Stewardship Partners)

Only two years and two months later, in January 2009, another 100-year Pineapple Express storm inundated the Snoqualmie Valley with an amplified repeat performance surging 37 million gallons per minute (82,900 c.f.s.) downstream reaching an unprecedented flood stage of 62.21 feet near Carnation, which was almost one foot higher than the 2006 record of 61.28 feet.

Despite the misnomer that a 100-year storm happens only every 100-years, in scientific terms it is the storm that has a 1% probability of happening in any particular year.  With probability theory, there is really a 63.4% chance of a 100-year storm occurring in each wet season. Consequently, the chances of another devastating flood happening is much greater than it not occurring.

Thankfully, many western Washington counties have heeded Mother Nature’s wrath and now provide tools for farmers and homeowners to be warned of upcoming fury from exceptional weather systems.

King County’s Flood Alert System

King County has designed a message alert system to send texts, e-mails or phone calls to those who have signed up with the free King County Flood Alerts system for timely information on flood events. Notification of 3-different flood stages on the Cedar, Green, Tolt, and White Rivers, Issaquah Creek and for the Snoqualmie Basin are sent.  The first notification level is Phase 2 indicating minor flooding in some areas. The Phase 3 message designates moderate flooding, while a Phase 4 notice signifies that there will be road closures and major impacts from the deluge. These alerts show the level of storm impact and are beneficial even for those people not directly in harm’s way, since excessive rainfall can impact travel plans and localized flooding, too.

Floodzilla's Snoqualmie Stream Flow, Nov. 19, 2013

Floodzilla’s Snoqualmie Stream Flow, Nov. 19, 2013

Another informative Snoqualmie River tool is Floodzilla, created by a computer geek that wanted real time information on predicting whether there will be a noteworthy flood event.  He didn’t want to receive notifications as each flood phase was reached, since that could be in the middle of the night.  Rather he wanted to see what the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) computer model predicted for future flood potential.  His model can forecast flood elevations up to three days ahead based on anticipated rainfall, which gives homeowners time to prepare for a flood.

As shown on the above graph, the Snoqualmie River is expected to reach minor flood stage at Carnation (red line), mid-day Tuesday, November 19th and then begin to recede. The forecast is predicting additional precipitation late Wednesday or early Thursday morning, which will slightly increase the river’s flow, but not reach flood stage.

Thurston County’s Emergency Management System

Anticipated Chehalis River Levels on January 11, 2014

Anticipated Chehalis River Levels on January 11, 2014

Thurston County Emergency Management has the most usable interface for flood monitoring for the layperson for the Black, Chehalis, Deschutes, Nisqually and Skookumchuck Rivers.  The two pieces of information on the Emergency Management website are 1) a graph of the river water elevation for a full week, including the previous 3 days, the next 3 days and today and 2) a table depicting the different flood elevations with the potential impacts from too much water in the drainage basin. On the graph above, the amateur flood watcher can see whether the water elevation is expected to continue to rise on the Chehalis River at Grand Mound, or when the flood stage is expected to start falling.  On this January 11, 2014 graph, the flow and water rates are expected to rise through the weekend with the weekend storm, but no significant flooding is currently expected.

Chehalis River Historic Flood Stages

Chehalis River Historic Flood Stages

At the same time, as shown on the table to the right, there are dates of past flood events with the expected damage at each flood elevation which can help homeowners anticipate whether they should consider evacuating to higher ground or not. With the expected 11.5 foot water elevation later this weekend, the river is not anticipated to reach the 12.2 foot elevation when minor flooding begins with banks overflowing into nearby fields and over a few roads.  It will be interesting to monitor the online real-time graph throughout the weekend to see if there will be additional flood concerns. Minor fluctuations in temperature in the mountains, where the precipitation changes from snow to rain or the intensity of the lowland storm changes could change the current predictions.

Pierce County’s Flood Alert and Mapping System

Pierce County Rivers Flood Forecast

Pierce County Rivers Flood Forecast

The Pierce County Alert System has a flood alert system where the County will e-mail, text or phone you with critical information about the status of specific County rivers.  More importantly, the County has a “quick look” flood status map, called the Pierce County Flood Monitor, which expeditiously depicts where flooding is occurring.  This map is real time, but does not give any indication of anticipated future flood flows.

Snohomish County’s Flood Mapping System

Oct. 29, 2013 Snohomish County Flood Map

Oct. 29, 2013 Snohomish County Flood Map

Snohomish County Flood Warning System has a great map that is updated every 15 minutes with flood information at key locations along major County rivers.  Depending on the color of the square on the map, a quick observation of the flood status can be determined.  A green square signifies normal flow, a yellow square depicts a Phase 2 flood elevation, which has minimal impacts, Phase 3 (orange) and Phase 4 (red) signify increasing flood concerns. Clicking on a square pops up a new window where the river elevation in relation to the flood phases can be compared.

Prepare Yourself

As we head into flood season it is important to find out what information is available in your County and sign-up for alerts or “bookmark” your river resource, so you can take precautions to protect your livelihood and home.  These are amazing tools our government have created to help us prepare for flooding and it is important to take advantage of them.  With a 63% chance of a 100-year storm event any given wet season, it is critical to be prepared.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and principal 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 local food production.  

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Food & Bridges

C-  is the report card grade for Washington State bridges given by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Seattle Section in the 2013 Report Card for Washington’s Infrastructure. Bridge vulnerability was confirmed on May 23, 2013 with Interstate 5 collapsing into the Skagit River in the 8th largest agricultural county by revenue in Washington. A mere 75,000 vehicles cross this vital connection between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia daily.

Temporary Span over Skagit River

Temporary Bridge over the Skagit River–Summer 2013

How do bridges and food connect? Both are vital to a highly functioning society and neither gets the respect they deserve. We count on Safeway to always have milk. Our favorite fast-food haunt satisfies any late night urge. Food is always available, except when it isn’t. Calamities in food supply can happen just as unexpectedly as a Skagit River Bridge failure.

Societies have had food disasters. Somalians in the early 1990’s lost 300,000 people to starvation and the 1996 North Korean famine left 600,000 dead. The 1930’s dust bowl which was instigated by substantial drought and poor farming practices in the Great Plains did not produce famine, but instead massive migration. Generally, Americans have been blessed with food abundance and cannot fathom insufficient supply ever being a problem. As a society, we have money and expect that we can either grow or import our food, if we need to. That is, unless we can’t.

Land:  How it is Used

Club House at Trilogy at Redmond Ridge

Club House at Trilogy at Redmond Ridge

For 30 years I worked on permitting, designing and advocating for housing and commercial land development projects, including the mixed-age Snoqualmie Ridge and the seniors-only Trilogy at Redmond Ridge master-planned communities. Twenty years ago, both were controversial projects mired with in-depth environmental, engineering, legal, regulatory, and political review and approval processes. Having recently visited these projects and talked with residents, these developments have created stellar neighborhoods and communities. Despite the challenges, the developments satisfied a need by creating a place called home. With the anticipated population growth in the Puget Sound region, there continues to be a need to construct new communities and developments.

More recently I added another layer of understanding on how land can be used. For three years, I led PCC Farmland Trust in its expansion from a one-person non-profit operation to a larger organization conserving and stewarding additional organically farmed property, doubling the donor-base, and tripling the revenue. But, more importantly, this experience expanded my understanding of the vulnerability of our farmlands and local food system. As with our bridges, our local food system would likely garner a C- , if grades could be calculated.

The Simple Economics of Food Production and Development

Why would our food system warrant such a mediocre grade? The average age of U.S. farmers is 58 years old and close to retirement, which is close to the same age as the Skagit bridge. Just as bridges age, so do farmers.

Who will be the next farmers that will grow our food? Many children of farmers have left the land to work in other businesses and professions. There are young people who are turning to growing food, but unless a farmer inherits land, it is too expensive to buy. The farming profession is poised for significant change with older farmers ready to go out to pasture and a small cadre of younger farmers interested in taking the farmers’ reins. Yearly, the average age of farmers continues to increase, indicating that the food growing vocation is not filling its ranks.

City people (me included) want to protect farmland. We want local food. We value rural landscapes. We appreciate reducing the miles our food travels. We want to support our local farm families. We want to eat good, healthy food.

Limousin Cattle on a Snohomish County Farm

Limousin Cattle on a Snohomish County Farm

But, here are the facts. Based on the 2007 United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Census condensed by American Farmland Trust the average market value of products sold in Whatcom County is $3,182 per acre, the highest of the Puget Sound I-5 corridor counties, while Snohomish County is the lowest at $1,635 per acre. The average market value in Pierce County is $1,749 per acre, Skagit County farms receive $2,360 per acre and King County farms garner $2,582 per acre. Top crops in Whatcom County are raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, milk and dairy products and corn to create silage to feed the dairy industry, while Snohomish County’s principal crops are horses, nursery, greenhouse, floriculture, and sod. These revenues are good in the farming industry, especially in contrast with the average market value of $730 per acre in the number one agricultural county in Washington, Yakima County according to the USDA’s Agricultural Census.

The commercial real estate industry values development on a square foot basis. Using this same standard the Whatcom County farmer earns 7 cents ($0.07) per square foot per year. Granted there are farmers that earn upwards of $30,000 per acre direct marketing to their customers and perhaps hosting weddings, a fall harvest celebration, or other agri-tourism activity. Their return is 69 cents ($0.69) per square foot per year.

Walgreens

Walgreens

Compare this with a typical suburban icon, a Walgreens drugstore, which is indicative of any chain store whether a Starbucks, Safeway, or Taco Bell. According to the financial numbers given on the Walgreens website, their 14,500 square foot typical building footprint, selling 18,000 items, with 20 to 25 employees has annual sales of $8.7 million. Using the commercial real estate standard, annual Walgreen sales are $600 per square foot per year.

Compare earning 7 cents per square foot per year as a Whatcom County farmer alongside $600 per square foot gross per year as a Walgreens and it is obvious why the standard economic model favors development. Even earning 69 cents per square foot per year, a direct-marketing farmer does not even begin to pencil against Walgreens’ value either.

Even so, food is vital to a community and fighting to save farmland is critical to our health and well-being. We all need food, unless we want to eat pabulum, which still needs to be made from products that are grown. We can support our Puget Sound farmers, by paying more for local farm goods, because we know it supports our rural families and landscapes and by supporting government policies and programs that protect farmland.

We know we will never be able to increase farm values on par with that which is generated on commercial or industrial land properties, but perhaps we can show our respect for our food production lands by giving it the attention it deserves.

Loss of farm ground is not as dramatic as the loss of a significant highway bridge, but each are as compelling and critical to our Puget Sound quality of life. Highways get immediate attention and investment to repair the vital transportation link. As we whittle away our farmland, we need to set an alarm as our food supply deserves the same, if perhaps not more attention than our transportation system.

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. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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Bread: The Ubiquitous Food

Wheat growing at the Munich Botanical Garden

Wheat growing at the Munich Botanical Garden

Bread eaten as a sandwich, croutons in a salad, crumbs encasing a chicken leg, or slathered with pizza sauce. Bread is ubiquitous. Most Americans just eat bread with no thought of how it got to their plate. Someone has to grow, pick, clean, process, package, ship, and display each slice of bread we eat. Coming out of the 1960’s back to the land movement, food pioneers began to speak out about the system that provides our bread. Most of America was eating white, fortified, mass-produced, purified, plastic-wrapped bread. The early Foodies knew we were missing the benefits of whole grain and realized our agricultural system was becoming industrialized and centralized. Recently more eaters are becoming motivated to understand where our food really comes from.

In Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s White Bread–A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the bread industry’s consolidation and concentration phenomena is extensively researched and exposed some of my favorite bread products such as Boboli pizza, Thomas’ English Muffins and Oroweat as owned by the Mexican conglomerate Bimbo. I am not against buying food from a foreign national company, I just like to know it when I do and where it comes from.

Wade’s Wheat

Raw wheat kernels

Raw wheat kernels

Bread companies being run by a distant owner can create homogeneous loaves, as Wade Troutman, a 4th generation farmer growing wheat, canola and other small grains on 5,000 acres of owned and leased land near Bridgeport, Washington knows.  Prior to meeting Jeff Weissman, the former owner of the Lake Forest Park Great Harvest Bakery, Wade was selling all of his wheat to the commodity market, which shipped it to China to be processed and returned it to the United States for industrialized bread production. Wade had never eaten the product from his fields. Jeff changed this and made Wade’s Wheat special, by grinding it in his stone mill and selling the premium bread product to his loyal customers. I remember the day I met Wade and he told me the story when he tasted his first slice from his home-grown wheat. He was so happy, he cried. Selling wheat directly to the baker, with no middleman taking a cut, allowed Wade to savor his livelihood and to have a secure retirement when that day comes.

Jeff no longer owns the bakery, but rather than returning to the commercial market, Wade now sells his wheat to the Fairhaven Mill in Burlington, Washington, a family owned specialty grain miller. Three years ago, ten percent of Fairhaven’s grains were from Washington and now 60% are Washington-grown products.

Skagit County Wheat

On Cinco de Mayo, I was fortunate to spend the day touring the Washington State University (WSU), Mount Vernon, Washington bread lab at an event sponsored by Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, more commonly known as The Network which brought members and guests together to reconnect with our sustenance. Our host Dr. Stephen Jones has been conducting wheat variety experiments since 1991, as has been done at WSU since 1894. Dr. Jones does not focus on product from “The Wheat State,” more commonly known as Kansas, but on select strains of the 162 different wheat varieties that were grown from Sequim to the Palouse across Washington State between 1840 and 1950. A Red Russian variety currently being trialed on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound shows promise by generating 119 bushels per acre, which is more than double the average 45 bushels per acre found on Kansas farms.

Test bread loaves in the Washington State University bread lab

Test bread loaves in the Washington State University bread lab

The quantity grown is not the only attribute being tested in these wheat trials. The quality and terroir is also being rediscovered by growing wheat in places that it has not been grown for 50 years. Of the 80,000 acres of fertile Skagit County farmland located about an hours drive north of Seattle, currently 15,000 acres are in wheat production–re-establishing the terroir or a sense of place. Scott Mangold, owner of the Breadfarm, a small artisan bakery in the Skagit Valley can “pick up chocolaty overtones and a hint of spice in the bread” grown on the outskirts of LaConner on Hedlin Farms.

Dr. Jones created multiple loaves from choice local grains for us to savor while we enjoyed a potluck lunch amongst the flowering springtime beauty.

Recreating the Food System

A busy buzzing bee

A busy buzzing bee

This foray into understanding where my bread comes from has deepened my understanding of how broken our food system really is. No longer do we know from whence our food comes from, unless we make a point of knowing that fact.

I support The Network because I know it is doing the work to recreate and reinvigorate a regional and local food economy that is prosperous, ecologically sound and socially equitable. I do want to know where my food comes from and how it is grown. Will you take the leap into knowing where your food comes from, too?

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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Vulnerability of Agricultural: Kent Valley

Foodies and agricultural preservationists reminisce the vast acres of lush agricultural soils now covered by asphalt, shopping malls, aerospace giants, and warehouses in western Washington’s Kent Valley.

Historic Kent Valley

For generations, the Kent Valley, with its meandering Green River, was home to a robust agricultural community feeding the  burgeoning Seattle metropolitan area.  What is less remembered or romanticized are the ferocious floods that used to plague the valley.  Dave Sprau historian for the White River Valley Museum, writes that floods were expected to overflow the Green River banks “nearly every winter.”  These were not just nuisance floods, but significant floods that left two to three feet of water running through living rooms, while the waterway momentarily considered new paths as rivers are wanton to do.

Old Kent Valley Barn

Old Kent Valley Barn

Today, the answer to these devastating floods would be to elevate or relocate an existing home out of the flood’s fury.  Any future development would be restricted by strict building codes requiring flood doors to allow water passage beneath an elevated home or to transfer the legal right to develop flood prone property to land more suitable for higher density development, usually in a neighboring city.

Accommodating inundation waters was not a solution for our predecessors, as farmers and landowners were looking to decrease the annual cleanup process from continued flood devastation.  As a result beginning in 1926, a new group the Associated Improvement Club of South King County with its subgroup “The Need for Flood Control in our Valley” began to look for solutions to control the river.

Kent Valley Heritage Farm adjacent to suburban development.

Kent Valley Heritage Farm adjacent to suburban development.

The Great Depression and World War II intervened and delayed significant progress on Green River flood solutions.  However, by 1955, a location at the base of Eagle Gorge on the Green River and a congressional appropriation accelerated  erection of the earthen dam now known as the Howard A. Hansen Dam, named after the man that worked tirelessly to ensure its completion.  As construction commenced, the Green River gave one last punch in 1959 with a flood that cost upwards of $35 million in today’s dollars.  By 1962, the Green River was officially tamed and what once was a water-logged, soggy, flood-prone farming valley looked highly desirable for urban/suburban, commercial (Southcenter Mall) and industrial (Boeing) development, since it was flat, dry, and easy to access.

American Farmland Trust in its January 2012 publication entitled, Losing Ground:  Farmland Protection in the Puget Sound Region states that King County lost 162 square miles of farmland between 1950 and 2007.  The lower Green River basin between Auburn and Tukwila, which corresponds to the acreage of the cities of Kirkland, Bellevue, and Redmond combined,  is approximately 1/3 of those lost farmland acres.

Recent Flood Threats in the Kent Valley

During the original dam design in 1949, concern was expressed about a 10,000 year old geologic formation that was created when a mountainside slid into the Green River proposed for the right abutment.  At the time, confident with 10,000 years of geological solidification, designers thought the failure risk was minimal and developed a dam design that further decreased any threat.

Temporary levee reinforcement on top of existing levee

Temporary levee reinforcement on top of existing levee

Fast forward to 2009, and an inspection of the Howard A. Hansen structure after a significant winter storm revealed seepage through the right river abutment  and dam fragility.  Local and state governments scrambled to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure, by reducing the water held behind the barrier, developing escape routes and warnings, and temporarily raising levees in the flat former farmlands to mitigate any impacts from a possible deluge.  Concurrently, engineers worked fervently developing a solution for dam integrity.

Why was it so compelling that the dam be fixed?  What was at risk besides loss of life, limb and property (as if that was not enough), if the structure failed?  Why do we work so hard to protect human built features from the potential ravishing destruction that nature or man’s failing could bring?  Farm advocates were breathlessly watching to see if this was a rare opportunity to slowly bring the valley back to its agricultural roots.

Kent Valley is Washington’s Economic Engine

What is critical to know is that elected officials, business people, and our state economy could not tolerate a catastrophic dam failure.  To evaluate the importance of the Howard A. Hansen Dam, Washington State Department of Commerce in cooperation with King County prepared an April 2010 analysis of the Economic and Revenue Impacts of Potential Flooding in the Green River Valley and found that the Valley’s economic impact on the State’s economy is staggering:

  • 1/8 or 12% of Washington’s Gross State Product equaling $107 million per day resides in the valley;
  • About 100,000 jobs or approximately 8% of all jobs in King County are found in the inundation area;
  • $112 million in annual property tax is collected on real estate worth $10 billion in taxable value; and
  • Approximately $100 million in annual Business and Occupation tax (10% of the current legislative biennium shortfall) is paid by valley businesses to the State’s coffers.
Kent Valley trucking business

Kent Valley trucking business

Crisis averted.  As anticipated, an engineering solution was found and completed by the start of the 2011-2012 winter wet season to stabilize the abutment thereby substantially decreasing the odds of any major flood event in the valley.

Will Kent Valley ever revert to its agricultural roots?  Probably not.  Will other western Washington valleys be able to maintain their agricultural economies?  Maybe or maybe not.  Some issues to ensure long-term agricultural production are out of our local control such as national food corporation policies, prices of products from international and domestic markets, and impacts from climate change.  These issues we can influence but most likely cannot easily change.

However, there are issues over which we have power to affect our local food economy.  To effect that influence, it takes political will and a community dedicated to maintaining a vibrant agriculture economy, by farming food production lands, removing development rights from rural lands, maintaining farm animal veterinarians, feed stores, and other agricultural infrastructure, creating land use regulations kind to growing food, and developing solutions to adapt to climate and market change.  We can have western Washington locally grown food provided we continue to work, advocate, and support it.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., local food advocate, a 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.

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Food: A Political Act

“I didn’t know food was so political,” was my Dad’s comment after reading Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food.  Dad like the vast majority of people, ate when he was hungry.  He was eating food long before the  calories from fat or grams of sodium were found on food labels.  Food for Dad was pure pleasure and of course, a necessity!  Like my Dad, I ate what has put in front of me, and my diet included not only the wholesome foods my mother or I cooked, but also calorie-laden sweets and snacks, until my once upon a time skinny person metabolism changed.  I now have to be much more mindful of what I put into my body, so I don’t become classified as overweight by today’s U.S. Department of Health Standards.

Unlike my Dad, eaters born since the advent of the television age are more readily trained on what and how to eat by food company advertising, journalism and the government.  There are countless commercials on television, the internet, in the movies, on billboards, covering t-shirts, on race cars and buses and everything else you can imagine.  There are daily articles in newspapers, blogs, radio broadcasts, and conversations with friends about what to eat or not to eat.  Different parts of government, whether it is the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the local county government, or a classroom teacher provide information to willing listeners on food policy.  No longer are we just eating the wholesome food of earlier generations but instead consuming foods, as Pollan says, our “great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  Paying attention to the constant food babble on our meal choices is never-ending.

Typical Food Company Advertising

McDonald's Bus Advertisement

McDonald’s Bus Advertisement

An unrecognizable concoction in earlier generations now advertised on the sides of buses, are the ubiquitous Chicken McNuggets®–a breaded, processed chicken chunk–created by the giant food company McDonald’s.  The chicken chunk does include the well-known fowl as its first ingredient, but also a myriad of other ingredients not found in my kitchen including “hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ” and “dimethylpolysiloxane.”

TBHQ also known as “tertiary butylhydroquinone” is a petroleum based preservative product added to edible vegetable and animal fats, to prevent spoilage.  The US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) has legally limited the quantity of TBHQ to 0.02% of any product’s oil and fat content.  According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, as little as a single gram (1/30th of an ounce) of TBHQ consumption, can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.”

The other mysterious ingredient is dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent similar to silicone products found in cosmetics and the childhood toy, Silly Putty.  While no known harmful effects have been found from dimethylpolysiloxane’s use in foods, I’m sure my great grandmother did not add it to her cooking repertoire.

Food Journalism

Journalism has also added immensely to the politics of food.  Newspapers have long included recipes and feature articles on food in the Wednesday paper with the inserts of the tantalizing, money saving coupons.  Now discussions on food issues are just as likely to show up on the front page of the paper or have dedicated websites such as Food Safety News.

Newspapers chronicled the late 1980’s rise and quick decline of oat bran as a health fad to lower cholesterol levels.  In 1993, it was Jack in the Box’s turn where under-cooked, fecal-infested, hamburgers were served with four children’s lives lost.  Beginning in 2001, there have been compromised honey imports into the United States from China via other countries.  Now in the honey scandal, people have been charged, fines have been paid,  and the saga continues to this day.  [I know I can trust my local honey producer Snoqualmie Valley Honey Farm.]  There is the continued diet craze where recommendations on what to eat and how much to eat are made.  There is the Atkins Diet, Weight Watchers, DASH, and numerous other diet programs to consider and evaluate.

Journalism is invested in keeping us well-informed, aware, and perhaps sometimes afraid about what we ingest.

Government’s Food Policies

Our U.S., state, and local governments also dispense a stupendous wealth of food information.  The Center for Disease Control, local health departments, and schools are working to implement wellness programs and physical activity guidelines to reign in the obesity epidemic.  The Farm Bill authorized by Congress approximately every five years, impacts rural farming communities, international trade, food and nutrition programs (also known as Food Stamps in the old vernacular), conservation programs and a myriad of other food policy and agricultural issues.

1943 USDA --7 Basic Food Groups

1943 USDA –7 Basic Food Groups

Of course, the U.S. Department of Agricultural has a vested interest in food issues, too, and took on a critical role during World War II, when the U.S. last experienced food scarcity.  By November 1943, sugar, meat, butter, coffee and a multitude of other food products were rationed, because of shortages and to supply food to the troops.  Concurrently, the government created the first food poster with 7 equally important food categories.  The 1943 categories, Group One–Green and Yellow Vegetables…, Group Two–Oranges, Tomatoes, Grapefruit…, Group Three–Potatoes and Other Vegetables and Fruits, Group Four–Milk and Milk Products…, Group Five–Meat, Poultry, Fish, or Eggs…, Group Six–Bread, Flour, and Cereals…, Group Seven–Butter and Fortified Margarine, look silly today.  Who today would recommend butter or fortified margarine (to which Vitamin A was added), on par with any of the other six food groups?

From 1956 to 1992, my formative years until adulthood, the seven food groups were reduced to the basic big four; meat, dairy, grains and fruits and vegetables, in equal amounts.  It seemed simple for my grade-school mind to grasp.  Beginning in 1992 until today, recommendations on what we should eat has changed three more times, twice in a triangular form, more commonly known as a food pyramid and now as My Plate, where a dinner plate is divided into four portions with an added dairy product.  Most likely, the recommended food offerings will continue to evolve.

Back to the Politics of Food

Dad was flummoxed by the often contradictory noise about what, when and how to eat.  He couldn’t be bothered with it.  Why would Dad have wanted to pay attention to all this information, when he could just enjoy eating?!

Dad always found my passion for good food and the farms an interesting curiosity.  He taught me to pick strawberries, plant a garden, and stop at the roadside stand to purchase fresh tomatoes and corn.  But, what was different, was that I spent time making deliberate food choices, eating vitamin-charged kale over an iceberg lettuce salad and serving whole wheat spaghetti.  I wouldn’t always eat the ice cream or piece of cake that was served, but was more judicious in my choices.

Yes, Dad, what we eat is a political act, whether we like it or not.  Each item we eat is supporting a farmer that grew the food.  Purchasing nuts, grass-fed beef or cider at the farmer’s market directly supports the farm operation and local economies and farmland preservation, while eating Chicken McNuggets® does not.  Even so, with all the food choice hype, we need to get out of our heads and just enjoy simply eating.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., local food advocate, a 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.

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Skagit County: Creating New Food Production Models

What’s happening just north of Seattle in agriculture?  Who is bucking the trend of urbanization in the Interstate 5 corridor in the Puget Sound region?  What new agricultural innovations are being created?

Skagit County, Washington, located one hour north of Seattle along the burgeoning Interstate 5 corridor is fighting the nationwide trend of converting prime farmland into stripmalls and subdivisions, more commonly known in traditional appraiser’s parlance as the “highest and best use”.  From 1950 to 2007, Skagit County lost more than 52,000 acres of prime farmland, but looking at the numbers more carefully, during the boom real estate years from 1997 to 2007 the County actually had a net increase of 6.6% or almost 6,800 farmable acres.  In the same boom years all of Washington State lost just over 800,000 acres of farmland about three-quarters the size of Skagit County.

Skagit Farmland

Skagit Farmland

Granted Skagit County has its Walmart, outlet mall, freeway businesses, and housing developments, but Skagit County Commissioners had the foresight 17 years ago to enact the Farmland Legacy Program to protect valuable farmland resources as its “highest and best (agricultural) use.”  Skagit County now boasts agriculture as its number one industry according to Washington State University (WSU)-Extension despite being on the forefront of counties threatened by intense urban/suburban development.

Skagit County farmers currently cultivate 108,500 acres generating more than $300 million in sales of produce, horticulture, livestock and dairy according to WSU.  The County is widely known for its potato production generating 95% of all the red potatoes grown in the state and is the largest tulip and daffodil bulb grower of any county in the country.  As with any business, after 100 years in the County, 2010 saw the demise of green pea cultivation and processing.  Despite this loss, growers are eagerly looking for new opportunities and methods to maintain the rural agricultural economy.

Viva Farms

In 2009, Viva Farms put their first spade in the ground.  Viva Farms, a local non-profit started by Sarita and Ethan Schaffer, a husband-wife duo started revolutionizing the possibilities in local food production, attacking the local foods challenge with a vengeance, creating partnerships and leveraging opportunities.

Viva Farms located on Highway 20 at the entrance to the Port of Skagit County

Viva Farms located on Highway 20 at the entrance to the Port of Skagit County

Early on, Viva Farms secured 33 acres of prime farmland owned by the Port of Skagit County to create their sustainable agricultural vision.  Why would a Port District intent on creating economic growth and strengthening local economics lease property to farmers?  As the Port’s Executive Director, Patsy Martin said, “Leasing property to an up and coming farmer just made sense.  The Port Commissioners wanted to make a difference in the community.  With the Viva Farms model, which trains new farmers, creates value-added products, and distributes products to the community through box deliveries, it had the potential to contribute immensely to the community.”   Patsy saw not only the possibility of growing food, but a drive to generate value-added food products and distribution systems that could expand into new markets and opportunities.  The Port of Skagit County facilities would be there to support these endeavors.

With the Viva Farms model, a minimum one acre and up to 5 acres of farm ground is leased to a new or burgeoning farmer, (often with Latino heritage,) with the ability to use shared equipment, on-site infrastructure such as irrigation water, and acquire low-interest loans.  Courses are offered in tandem with WSU-Extension in Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching and Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Farm Business Planning.   Farmers are encouraged to find their own markets for product sales, and some farmers have even created closed loop businesses, growing food and preparing and selling their finished products from their own mobile food truck.  Surplus produce can also be sold through Viva Farms’ association with Growing Washington, a company offering boxed delivery service along the I-5 corridor from Seattle northward.  Once farmers are confident in their agricultural skills and implementation of their marketing plan, they often look for larger parcels in the Skagit flatlands to expand their business.

In another step towards strengthening the local food economy, Viva Farms recently leased available warehouse space in the Port’s industrial complex to build a processing, cleaning, aggregation, and distribution warehouse for the growing box delivery service confirming Patsy Martin’s intuition.  Farm goods from Viva Farms as well as from other farms in the region, will have a central, easy access location to quickly distribute the freshest products to the discerning palettes throughout Puget Sound.

Sustainable agriculture is also getting recognition from Washington’s newest congressional representative, Suzan DelBene.  Washington with a statewide $6.7 billion agricultural economy according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, now has representation in the House Committee on Agriculture, which is critical to fostering the economic importance of food production in our state.  In recognition of the possibilities available in the Viva Farms model, Representative DelBene visited the farm in January 2013 to expand her understanding of the County’s innovative agriculture economy.

Skagit Farmland Legacy Program

As Viva Farms is expanding its presence, so is the County’s Farmland Legacy Program.  Established in 1996 by the Skagit County Commissioners, the Farmland Legacy Program assesses a 6-1/4% per $1,000 of property valuation Conservation Futures tax on all properties in the County.  Conservation Futures monies are leveraged with Federal, State, and private donor funds and distributed via a rigorous evaluation process to worthy farmland preservation projects in the County.  Farmers are compensated for the removal of the right to develop their farm and to maintain its “highest and best (agricultural) use”.

Raspberry plants getting prepared for summer production

Raspberry plants getting prepared for summer production

Since 1996, the Farmland Legacy Program has year by year removed development pressure on valuable fertile ground and now protects 7,000 acres or 6% of the County’s farming land base in perpetuity.  This was accomplished by engaging the farming community, neighboring cities, non-profits and citizens to form and advocate for the program, by collaborating with the government and private donors for financing, and developing a viable, strong farming community vision.

As the program has progressed, once skeptical farmers see the benefit of a thriving agricultural community, of being paid for their development rights and now want to participate, too.   With ever increasing community support and enthusiasm for protecting Skagit’s agricultural economy, the Legacy Program submitted half of all farmland protection projects to the Washington State’s WWRP-Farmland Preservation Program (Page 2 of the document) for funding in fiscal year 2014.  Skagit projects are in the top two-thirds of all projects as ranked by a farmland advisory board comprised of farmers and agricultural experts, but are only asking for 10% of the total WWRP-Farmland Preservation Program’s request.  Funding for these Skagit parcels are dependent on constituents asking their senators and legislators to grant support the WWRP-Farmland Preservation Fund.

Skagit County is a happening place where political leaders, entrepreneurs, farmers, and citizens are ensuring the strength and well-being of the rural agricultural economy and bucking the trend of losing agricultural land.  The benefit is fresh, locally grown food for now and in perpetuity.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., local food advocate, a 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. 

 

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Ensuring Food Security: Wade’s Vision

Food and water are necessities.   If we don’t have food to eat, we go hungry.  Hungry people are bad for society.  We take food for granted.

Setting the Stage: Puget Sound

In Seattle we often live up to our reputation and it rains.  This December, it’s been cold enough that the precipitation in the mountains is snow.  Too much or too little rain has huge impacts on food availability.  Even when there is heavy rain, the grocery store is open and there is plenty of food to buy; except when there isn’t.

Asian Pears at Rockridge Orchards

Asian Pears at Rockridge Orchards

Four years ago getting produce to Seattle was practically impossible.  January 7, 2009, Seattle was isolated by Mother Nature with a warm tropical rainstorm from Hawaii, also known as a pineapple express.  Gallons upon gallons of water fell on saturated lowlands and melted fresh snow in the mountains causing hillsides to collapse, rivers to overtop their banks, and levees to break.

Storm statistics recorded seven inches of rain falling in Olympia in a 72-hour period and up to 20 inches of rain pummeling the Cascade Mountains.  Interstate 5 was closed for a 20-mile stretch between Olympia and Portland due to flooding.  All the major mountain passes were closed, blocked by avalanches and mudslides.  The outcome of the storm; no truck deliveries could be made from the east or south.  Seattle was virtually isolated.  Grocery stores had signs posted apologizing for produce shortages and anticipating their next shipments, held hostage by the reverberations of the storm.

It took three days for the storm obstructions to be cleared.  The three day inconvenience does not make it into the record books as a notable Western Washington storm, but the significance of such an event could be prescient for the future.

Setting the Stage:  Michigan

Another blip in disaster records happened in Michigan in March 2012.  Winter 2011-2012 had been unseasonably warm with average temperatures 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.  But even without the typical lower winter temperatures, the trees had met their seasonal chilling requirements, preventing early spring growth and priming the tree to begin blossoming with any indication of spring-like weather.  Trees begin their yearly fruit cycle when temperatures reach 45 degrees Fahrenheit and growth rates double with every 18 degrees Fahrenheit increase.  Continued cool days and frosty nights typically moderate blossoming rates.

Beginning March 11, 2012 and continuing for 12 days, Michigan experienced unseasonably warm temperatures teasing fruit trees and accelerating the blossoming schedule.  Night time temperatures did not suspend fruit development, as they were 10 degrees above normal.  The 2012 Michigan heat wave reported new climatological records with daytime temperatures up to 40 degrees above normal, dramatically increasing growth rates.

Fruit trees when dormant can withstand significant freezes, but once blossoms appear temperatures below 28 degrees damage yields and below 24 degrees can obliterate the harvest.  March 24th the warm weather pattern broke and Canadian cold returned.  Across Michigan there were subsequently at least 15 freezes below 28 degrees and 5 events below 24 degrees, savaging blossoms and reducing the summer fruit harvest to 20% of normal.

Rockridge Orchards—Enumclaw, Washington

Wade Bennett, owner of Rockridge Orchards located just outside of Enumclaw, Washington, is a regular vendor at the University District–Saturday farmers market, always found in the southeast corner.  As a regular customer, I purchase honey crisp apple cider, raspberry apple cider vinegar, and seasonal specialties such as Asian pears, Macoun apples, and Japanese cucumbers.

Rockridge Orchards farmer Wade Bennett

Rockridge Orchards farmer Wade Bennett

Wade started farming after receiving a severance package from Universal Studios, purchasing his first farm at $1,500 per acre, and only anticipating taking a short break from the corporate world.  He planted juicy, sweet Asian pears, because it was his wife’s favorite and he was unwilling to spend $3/pound for the orbs.  Some local Korean women happened to see his crop and purchased it all.  He was hooked and planted more.

Now 20 years on the farm, additional acreage most recently purchased in the mid-2000s at $40,000 per acre, and in his late 50’s (the average age of a U.S. farmer), Wade has the opportunity to ponder on the future of farms, food, and local agriculture.  He operates a year-around farmstand outside of Enumclaw, sells at multiple farmers markets, and engages in the future of western Washington food production as a King-Pierce Farm Bureau and a Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance board member.  (Even with this level of commitment to farming, he readily admits if someone offered him $100,000 per acre, he would take it in a heartbeat.)

So, Why Retain the Local Farm?

Rural estate adjacent to Rockridge Orchards

Rural estate adjacent to Rockridge Orchards

Wade acknowledges that the I-5 corridor will continue to attract business investment and accordingly people, pressuring currently vacant land (also known as farmland and forest land) to be converted to its “highest and best use.”  In appraisal parlance, raw land as it is converted to housing, commercial, or industrial use, creates higher economic value.  The act of development generates jobs, increases taxes paid, producing economic growth, thereby creating wealth.  Food lands do not generate these significant increases in wealth, as food is a commodity.  But, without food, we have nothing, as it is the sustenance of life.

Wade’s vision is to create permanent agricultural corridors west of the Cascade Mountains sandwiching the cities from the Canadian to the Oregonian border.  Each urban area would be confined with the specific intention of protecting our long-term food security.  This is a bold idea beyond the simple economics of real estate, as the agricultural value of the dirt would be considered rather than just its “highest and best use.”

Wade’s vision is relevant to the floods in Washington and freezes in Michigan.  During different weather calamities, we can be dependent either on a local or a distant farmer for our sustenance.  Having local farmers is critical to feeding ourselves when disaster strikes, Seattle is isolated and food cannot be trucked in.  Alternatively, when Mother Nature devastates our local foods, having distant suppliers is important.  With the damage of the Michigan 2012 fruit crop, wholesalers trolled the west coast markets for fresh, available fruit to feed the mid-west populace.  Wade enjoyed a stellar year selling fruit to mid-west distributors and prices even higher than direct marketing in Seattle.

Conserving western Washington’s agricultural corridors are vital to our region’s long-term economic and food security.  By guaranteeing continued Puget Sound farming, we are more secure against the vagaries of nature that could impede our ability to eat.  It takes a bold, forward-thinking populace demanding and financing protection of our sustenance lands to never lack food.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and principal 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 local food production.

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Nash’s Real Food from the Ground Up

I spoke to soil recently, receiving wisdom from the earth.  Nash Huber–iconic organic farmer–was speaking from depth of his soul on soil and our human connection to it through the food we eat.  My psyche was mesmerized by his words.

Nash’s Journey

I consider myself beyond fortunate to know Nash.  Nash is of sauerkraut heritage, as am I.  He grew up on a family farm in Illinois, but left the homestead to be schooled in organic chemistry, analyzing corn and soybeans, the antecedent of our industrialized food system.  In 1969, he traveled to the Olympic Peninsula to get back to the land, to reconnect with his farming roots.  It wasn’t until 1979 that he founded Nash’s Organic Produce first renting or borrowing garden-sized plots.

Now with 400-acres farmed in the fertile Dungeness River Delta, nine landlords, and 40-years of growing food for the burgeoning organic market, he focuses on infusing us with his passion for the land.  The land is the root for all Nash does.

“We have a microclimate here in the lower Dungeness Peninsula that is so unique. It is one of the two best places in the world for growing brassica seeds,” enthuses Nash.   I remember the first time I heard this as if it were yesterday: the Dungeness Peninsula and northern Europe are the best places to grow these specific seeds.

Nash’s Best Carrots

The Dungeness climate, soils, and an abundance of irrigation water fosters a year around agriculture production system with spinach, basil, and cauliflower in the summer and brussels sprouts, cabbage, and the legendary Nash’s Best carrots in the winter.  (If you have never experienced one of Nash’s Best, then you must.  I recommend a blind taste test with Nash’s Best and the ‘other carrot.’)

Nash’s infusion of soil soul guided me on my procurement mission for our Thanksgiving Feast ingredients.  Full integration of the best of the maritime Northwest’s November produce ladened our table.  Roasted brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage is the ultimate brassica mélange.   Mashed potatoes from spuds grown in flat bottom-land soils, roasted winter squash, and cranberry-ginger preserves fresh from locally harvested bogs filled the table.

I also challenged myself for the first time to make kimchee, Korea’s national pickle dish.  I couldn’t resist the Napa cabbage, leeks, and radishes at Nash’s University District Saturday market stand and I wanted to honor my children’s heritage on Thanksgiving.  Kimchee requires planning ahead.  The cabbage and other vegetables are salted overnight to soften them, and then fermented with garlic, chilies, and gingerroot for up to a week,  to create the Korean spicy pickled concoction, favored by the discerning palette.

Savoring Thanksgiving, I thanked Nash for giving me that sense of knowing that, “We must get back to the land.”  As with every conversation with Nash, I leave settled, whole, and complete.  It is a breath of fresh air to be back in the soul of the earth, breathing, centering, being enveloped in what is most important in our lives–food and the land that grows it.

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 local food production.

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