Stokesberry Sustainable Farms: Feeding the Seahawks

“The Seahawks are fueled by the Stokesberry’s eggs and chickens!” Piquing my 16-year old daughter’s interest in organic, sustainable farming was impossible until the 2014 Super Bowl champs were involved. Jerry and Janelle Stokesberry are an unassuming farming couple providing superb meat and egg products for the Seattle Seahawks, and for discerning palettes at restaurants and wise shoppers at farmer markets.

Farm to Team

How do the Stokesberrys supply fresh organically grown chickens and 60 dozen eggs a week to stoke the Seahawks?

Baby Red Sex-Link ChicksIn late May, I spent time on the farm learning about their operation, collecting eggs, cuddling a baby chick, and feeding the chickens destined for the barbeque. Observing the farm rhythm, helped me appreciate the demands and determination that it takes to create a bountiful food abundance not only for the Super Bowl team, but for all their customers. Eaters who care about where and how their food is grown are grateful for the attention the Stokesberrys put into raising their animals.

Thankfully, all of the animals have adequate space to roam and enjoy life, until they are processed for the dinner table. Unlike the mainstream meat production system, there are no animals confined to cages or living in isolation. All the animals are fed their natural diets, making healthy protein products for humans.

The Home Farm

Stokesberry Sustainable Farm is tucked away in semi-rural Thurston County, just minutes from the I-5 thoroughfare, the bustle of modern living, and State’s political epicenter. The Stokesberrys had a only short time for a visit, as they along with their two full-time workers had many daily chores to accomplish, orders to fill, and paperwork to complete.

Red Sex-Link LayersFirst stop was the Red-Sex Link chicken hoop houses. Red-Sex Link chickens are bred for their incredible egg laying ability at 265 to 300 eggs per hen per year and just as importantly different feather colors between the sexes. Roosters not only crow at break of dawn, but anytime they want to, so quickly become chicken soup, since the neighbors are ungrateful for the noise. Many jurisdictions outlaw roosters, since they disturb the peace. With the differentiated colored Red-Sex Link poultry, the roosters can be quickly culled leaving only egg producers.

The Stokesberrys do not raise their layers from eggs, but rather purchase hatched chicks, which upon arrival are immediately housed under heat lamps and soon after moved to larger quarters. Once five months old they are moved to the hen house, where laying begins. Happy chickens clucked around my legs, as I reached inside the hen boxes for the warm containers of compact protein. Five hundred dozen eggs, equating to 6,000 individual eggs, are harvested from the hens weekly with 12% of their yield being Seahawk nourishment.

DucksNext stop was the duck house.  Duck eggs are popular because of higher fat content and consequently more flavor than chicken eggs. Those allergic to chicken eggs, can often eat the alkaline duck eggs which lack a particular protein that is found in the acidic chicken eggs.  Duck eggs are larger and have a noticeably tougher shell, which gives them a longer refrigerated shelf life, too. The ducks were content in their pen waddling around in a tight group.

The home farm has multiple hoop houses for chickens and ducks and a small area for pigs. Bob, the boar (male pig) is housed by himself in an open air pen, as the sows adjacent to Bob were tending a drift of piglets.

The Pasture

A 20-minute pastoral drive away, the Stokesberry’s lease eleven acres of pasture where they raise several cattle, a small herd of sheep, and meat chickens! The meat chickens are raised for slaughter and are actually ugly, since they have a scrawny feather coat. Fewer feathers makes for easy plucking! Upon arrival, five chickens were wandering outside their chicken tractor, having escaped through a hole and trying to figure out how to get back in. Chickens are not loners, but prefer hanging out with their brethren, and don’t often wander off.

Now, “What is a chicken tractor?”

Chicken Tractor with Cornish Cross MeatersA chicken tractor is just over a foot high, 12-foot square wood framed home with no bottom, covered with wire mesh sides and corrugated metal roof, designed so the chickens are not attacked by predators, protected from the rain, and still able to see their surroundings. About 100 Cornish Cross meater chickens live beneath each tractor, pecking at the dirt for grubs, bugs, seeds and other delectables. Every day two people must visit the pasture to refill the grain troughs and move the tractor, since the grass is matted and mottled from the chicken excrement.

Moving the tractor takes about 10 minutes. First the lid is removed enabling the grain troughs to be refilled. The forward end of the tractor is lifted with a dolly, and two–four inch diameter pipes are placed beneath the frame on the forward part of the tractor. Two people push the back end of the wood structure forward rolling over the pipes, until the chicken home has moved one tractor length. The chickens walk quickly ahead while the tractor advances, because they know the grass will be greener and filled with more morsels than the day-old ground they are leaving. As the urban gardener knows chicken manure is a primo fertilizer. By the time the next brood of chickens is returned to this portion of the pasture, the grass will be green again.

The final chore of my visit was to relocate the electric fence to move the cattle to greener pastures. As with the chickens the cattle are regularly moved to ensure that the animals always have superb grass to eat and don’t over-graze or over-fertilize the field.

The Stokesberrys attentively tend their animals and business such that the Seahawks’ chef, Mac McNabb knows he is getting premium product for the best football team in the country. Now, what Seahawk can only eat duck eggs, rather than chicken eggs? My daughter knows!

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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An Agricultural-Residential Development Solution

Local produce heaven is now… asparagus, strawberries, cherries, snap peas; followed by string beans, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, peaches; culminating with apples, corn, winter squash. What would make every food summer more perfect? Living in a community that grows, savors, entertains, and surrounds itself with good food. A weekly trip to a local farmers’ market or attempting to grow my favorite foods on a city lot are just not enough.

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Our country began as an agrarian society, but with industrialization, rural towns lost population and families moved away from living adjacent to where their sustenance grew. Larger farms and companies, such as Dole, Kellogg, and Kraft now grow, store, process and supply most of the food we eat. King County residents eat $6 billion of food every year with only 2% or $120 million of agricultural products grown in county. Non-profits, governments, farmers, and consumers are working to strengthen the food system so a greater percentage of our food economy is local. Purchasing and consuming local products taste better because the food has traveled fewer miles and is therefore fresher. Keeping food production local, adds jobs. Rural landscapes stay bucolic rather than being punctuated with houses and strip malls. Much work needs to be done to re-integrate food production into people’s lives, to strengthen the local food market, and to increase market share of regionally grown products. What is another option to re-connect people with their food?

A New Community Development Solution

A new type of neighborhood is cropping up in the United States that includes food production, as a facet or even a centerpiece of a development project. There are foodies that want to live adjacent to where their sustenance is grown and are willing to pay a premium to live in these new projects. Good design is a necessity to minimize the inconveniences of odors, noises, and other activities of life adjacent to a farm. Except for Skokomish Farms with 40-acre lot sizes located 33 miles northwest of Olympia, Washington in a rural area of the state, an agricultural-residential project has not been built in Washington. The Puget Sound region is ripe to create a development that integrates farming with intergenerational living, attention to the natural environment, and green homes with good value.

Why is this type of development model needed? With a 2.8% growth rate over a one-year period ending July 1, 2013 (3), Seattle is the fastest growing big city in the nation adding 18,000 new residents and 15,000 new jobs. At the same time apartment buildings and micro-unit apartment structures, also known as apodments, have sprouted throughout the city creating dense neighborhoods and a true in-city living experience. Not only did Seattle grow, but concurrently the rest of the Puget Sound region increased by more than 44,000 new people. Combined the entire region grew by 62,000 people or the equivalent of the city of Marysville located in Snohomish County. King, Snohomish, and Thurston counties had growth rates of more than 1% during the same time. Noticeably, 30% of the new Puget Sound residents moved into Seattle, while the remainder moved elsewhere in the region. This suggests there is demand and desire to still live in less-dense communities, where housing is more affordable or perhaps to just be outside an urban environment. With surging population, undeveloped land is under pressure for conversion to its “highest and best use” in appraised value, which is development.

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Simultaneously, the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 quinquennial agricultural survey was released, documenting trends in the local farm economy. Surprisingly and perhaps worrisome is the shrinking average and median farm size over the last 15 years. Kitsap County’s average farm size dropped 74% from a high of 53 acres in 1997 to 14 acres by 2012, while the median farm size dropped during the same period from 11 acres to 6 acres.(4) Skagit County has made significant strides, by increasing the number of farms by 50%, but even so, average individual farm acreage dropped 24% to 99 acres and median farm size fell 53% to 20 acres in the same 15 year period.  Almost all the Puget Sound counties now have median farm acreage of 10 acres or less, except Whatcom at 16 acres and Skagit at 20 acres. During the recent recession, all of the counties analyzed saw median farm size drop. The historical decline in total farmland actually slowed in the last 5 years, but there was still a net loss in farmed acreage, too.

Nonetheless with increasing population and decreasing farm sizes, farmland is still highly threatened, so perhaps now is the time to test a new model that re-integrates food production into people’s lives and protects some farmland in perpetuity.

The agricultural-residential development is a solution for an under-utilized property, such as an old golf course, a former farm in an incorporated city, or fertile ground in an urban-growth area that is destined for development. Obviously, the governing jurisdiction would need development codes that allow farming in a residential project.

Homes, cottages, townhouses, perhaps some commercial development could be built adjacent to a farm that is protected in perpetuity. The farm needs to be large enough to be commercially viable and support a livable income. The farmer would run a business that would sell to both the residents but also outside customers. A symbiotic relationship between grower and eaters would ensue.

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

What else should this type of project include? What should be the minimum farm acreage? What protections should be incorporated into a homeowners agreements to ensure that a farmer can do his/her job without nuisance complaints from neighbors? What should the buffers be between the farm ground and residential units? Should the project include a restaurant featuring the farm’s products? Should there be any restrictions on what should be farmed? Animals? Produce? Organic vs. non-organic? What other amenities are important? What other questions need to be asked?

Across the country agricultural-residential communities are sprouting including Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing and Serenbe Farms. Each has its own characteristics and community. By living in an agricultural community, the pulse of the growing season will resonate throughout the lives of the families that call the farm home.

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. 

Notes: 

1)1997 Population Data Used: Table CO-EST 2001-12-53-Time Series of Washington Intercensal Population Estimates by County: April 1, 1990 to April 1, 2000, Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Release Date: April 17, 2002.

2) 2002 & 2007 Population Data Used: Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population for Counties of Washington: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007 (CO-EST2007-01-53), Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Release Date: March 20, 2008.

3) 2012 & 2013 Population Data Used: Estimates of Resident Population Change and Rankings: July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Release Date: March 2014.

3) 1997, 2002, 2007, 2012 Agricultural Data: US Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, Table 1: County Summary Highlights for 1997, 2002, 2007, & 2012 respectively.

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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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Know Where Your Food Comes From

I was born before trucking in out-of-season foods was the norm and consequently grew up eating local foods. Granted we could get iceberg lettuce and citrus shipped in mid-winter from California or Florida, but our usual nightly dinner fare was frozen beans, peas, or vegetable medley with meat and potatoes.

Corn Tassels in the Sunlight

Corn Tassels in the Sunlight

When summer abundance arrived our dinners changed dramatically. My Dad made regular evening stops at Wade’s Farmstand** in the Connecticut River Valley before traveling over the mountain on his way home from work to purchase the freshest radishes, cucumbers, blueberries, strawberries, melons, and corn! The silken ears were freshly picked every day, because picked corn loses its sweetness with each passing hour turning the flavor to pasty starch. The strawberries burst with flavor and had to be slurped. Radishes came in rounds, spikes, as big as carrots and the colors varied from the bright red to white and every shade in between. Melon diversity ranged from smooth to rough skin with red, orange, and green inside.

Hot humid summer days, moved into crisp, clear fall days with a plethora of apple varieties, Mcouns graced the farmstand table for what always felt like a short time, while McIntosh being storage apples were available until spring. Pears, peaches, plums all thrived in the Farmington River Valley at a slightly higher elevation, upstream from its confluence with the Connecticut River.

At home, Dad also had a penchant for the ripest, most recently picked tomatoes and would grow upwards of 20 different plants, including cherries, beef steaks, early and late varieties just for the optimal burger tomato, plate of tomatoes with chives, or to just pop in the mouth. I started my first garden before I was a teenager planting Blue Lake bush beans, which continue to be my favorite.

Evolution of Seeds

Despite the wealth of food diversity I had growing up, unbeknownst to me produce choices were becoming homogenized and limited. Scientists were developing seed stock with characteristics that favored pest resistance, optimized color, generated uniform size, and insured durability for travel. Americans became busier and dependent on the grocery store, where they were trained to expect flawlessly shaped, perfectly colored, unblemished, pest-free fruits and vegetables and learned to shun the misshapen, blemished, but more flavorful produce found at the local farmstand. The seed stock changes limited produce options available at supermarkets where the customers were retrained to shop for food with their eyes, rather than with their taste buds.

Diminution of Seed Stock over 80 years (prepared by RAFI-USA)

Diminution of Seed Stock over 80 years (prepared by RAFI-USA)

Produce variety loss is documented by RAFI-USA (Rural Advancement Foundation International) a non-profit that “cultivates markets, policies and communities that support thriving, socially-just, and environmentally-sound family farms,” and is depicted by the graph which illustrates the seed diversity decrease from information found at the United States’ National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) [formerly known as the National Seed Storage Laboratory], located in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 1903, there were 544 different types of cabbage seed and 80 years later there were only 28, a 95% drop in seed variety. The seed selection plunged by more than 90% for all crops shown on the illustration, except for squash which fell 88% and tomato varieties which only decreased by 81%! As every high school student learns in their first biology class, diversity of a species is critical to survival and resilience. This precipitous decline in crop variety is detrimental to the sturdiness of the food system. If a weight were placed on the top of above graphic, the spindly legs of the seed stock at the bottom would collapse.

New Seed Advances

Genetically engineered (“GE”) foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (“GMO”), were first introduced for human consumption and have been expanding in the marketplace.  The genetically engineered seed stock technology is revered by some, since science has engineered away pest problems by modifying plant genes. Others slander the science, since there have been no controlled studies or tests on how these genetically modified plants will impact human health or the natural environment.

Examples of GE foods are corn, soybeans, and sugar beets which have all been designed to be “RoundUp Ready,” containing a glyphosate-resistant trait and are widely grown in the United States. Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Roundup®. When it is sprayed in the fields of corn, soybeans and sugar beets it destroys the weeds and does not kill the main crop, which has been genetically modified to tolerate the Roundup® application. With American diets about 70% processed foods and the prevalence of these three crops in those foods, it is highly concerning.  With 88% of the corn, 94% of the soy, and 95% of the sugar beets being genetically modified, the long-term strength of these crops is questionable, the stability of the food system is being highly compromised, and is about as sturdy as a one-legged stool.  Resilience is built through diversity and the basic tenet of biology is being challenged by relying on this technology for such a large segment of the food system.

Pole Beans in my Garden

Pole Beans in my Garden

With the corn, soy and sugar beet industry essentially dominated by genetically modified crops, we are living in a time of a potential food catastrophe. If a disease, pest, fungus, superweed, or other annoying agricultural problem gets triggered, it is not unfathomable that a plant type may mutate or infect other plants. Thankfully, organic foods can not and do not include genetically engineered ingredients and are an available option for consumers. We can purchase organic foods and know we are not eating an untested science experiment.

Forward thinking eaters, are working for sustainable food systems that are “protective of the environment, economically viable, and social responsible.” Personally, I support a strong local food system and want to know where and who grows my food, to limit processed foods, to support my local farming economy, and to buy organically grown products as often as possible.

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. 

**I am happy to see that Wade’s Farmstand is still located on Simsbury Road 95 years after its founding, as you drive west out of the Connecticut Valley with the motto, “I don’t try to sell anything in my stand that I wouldn’t want to eat myself. I’ve found that the consumer will come back to the stand only if you give him top quality.”

Note: The graphic describing the diminution of seed varieties was created by RAFI-USA. RAFI-USA does not endorse, review, or authorize the content stated on Gardow Consulting.  

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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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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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A 10-Year Old Boy’s Travel Snack

I sat next to Gabe on an Embraer on a two-hour late afternoon flight out of Raleigh, North Carolina. Gabe had the tell-tale wristband on. He was flying alone, leaving his Dad to go home to Mom. Gabe had tears in his eyes as he sat down. Immediately, my Mom instincts kicked in. I didn’t want him to cry.

I started asking questions. Gabe was 10 years old, having celebrated his birthday two weeks before with his Dad and his three younger siblings. He was flying to Utah, through Chicago, to his Mom’s house where there were two older brothers. Gabe was the middle kid, craving attention and I was willing to give it.

We played the “dot game,” the age-old game my Opa taught me, where all you need is a pencil and paper. I created a 100 by 100 dot grid. The game started slowly, as old-fashioned games do and I completed the first box. Strategy is critical to this game where you try to create the most squares by connecting the dots on the grid. With the fast pace of today’s gaming, Gabe had not taken the time to search for a non-scoring line to draw. From then on, I gave Gabe hints to find the optimal moves so I would not be the runaway winner.

Mid-Flight Snack

Frito-Lay Munchies

Frito-Lay Munchies

As the numbers of completed squares increased, Gabe reached for his backpack for a mid-flight snack. He pulled out an eight ounce bag of Frito-Lays Munchies Cheese Fix® (a glorious combination of Cheetos®, Doritos®, Rold Gold® pretzels, and Sun Chips®), a 12-ounce Mello Yello®, and a TWIX® Cookie Bars. My jaw dropped and my motherly instincts again wanted to intercede with a healthy food option. But, alas, I had nothing in my bag to feed this growing boy, nor would a 10-year old grasp a good food conversation.

Living in Seattle, with our abundance of fresh food choices and rabid passion for healthy eating, we are sheltered from middle America eating choices. Granted we read about the supersizing of Americans and high rates of childhood obesity, which fortunately Gabe did not emulate, but the Seattle-area food movement is immune to the pervasive marketing and poor grocery choices found in less food aware regions of the country.

According to North Carolina’s Eat Smart Move Campaign, the state has the dubious honor of being the 5th worst state for obese children, with one-third of the State’s 10 to 17 year olds overweight or obese, when using the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Children’s Body Mass Index (BMI) Calculator. The calculator, a tool which incorporates teen growth patterns, measures whether a child is at a healthy weight based on their weight, height and birth day. About one quarter of my home state of Washington’s middle and high school children are overweight or obese, which is also cause for concern.

In Seattle, we are protected from what much of the rest of the State is experiencing according to the 2010 survey by the American College of Sports Medicine which ranked Seattle as the 8th fittest city in the country with areas of excellence meeting or exceeding the target goal with more farmers’ markets per capita, a higher percentage of people using public transportation, biking or walking to work, and lower deaths rate from cardiovascular disease than other parts of the country.

What’s in a Snack?

As I watched Gabe eat his treats, I wondered what the dietary implications were. Back home, I found that Gabe’s snack had:

Twix Cookie Bars

Twix Cookie Bars

  • 1540 calories or three-quarters of the calories he would need a day for this moderately active youngster.
  • 20 grams of saturated fat, more than 100% of his saturated fat for the day.
  • 1860 mg of sodium, which is more than 90% of his salt intake per day.
  • 91 grams of sugar or more than double the recommended sugar eaten per day, according to the American Heart Association.
  • Two doses of Yellow Number 5, the artificial food color tartrazine, which is derived from coal tar, and recommended to be banned by British and European Union Parliaments because it “reportedly exacerbates hyperactive behavior in children,” according to Ruth Winter’s, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives.
  • 8 grams of fiber or about 1/3 of the recommended fiber in a diet for a 10 year old, according to the Nemours Foundation.

This is what America is eating! If Gabe does not eat more healthy food, he too, could be on a track to obesity. I know we can do better! But, as Jim Baird, farmer and owner of Cloudview EcoFarms says, “Changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things for people to do. If we can get young people started eating healthier now, we really have a chance to have a healthier population.”

I know how hard it is to change eating habits.  I recently started serving my family brown rice rather than white rice.  My teenage son looks at me with his glaring eyes, as I tell him, “I’m just trying to help you have a better diet.” We have a long way to go, but as we each continue make one positive food change at a time, we become a healthier society.

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