Is Flooding Good for Farmland?

As with most any topic, the best answer is, “It depends.” Flooding can be beneficial and also devastating. Throughout history and up to today, food is often grown on lands adjacent to the mightiest rivers, think the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Ganges, and Mississippi Rivers and on floodplains of the smallest creeks. Why grow food in the floodplains? It’s the soil and the water.

In early times, human and animal labor and the powerful force of gravity were the only tools for farmers to mold, shape, and sculpt the landscape to ensure the best possible growing ground. Mother Nature would provide the rains eroding the uplands just enough to loosen the sediments and soil minerals. The drainage ways, creeks, and streams would funnel fast moving sediment-laden waters rapidly downstream to the rivers’ flatlands. Gravity performed its job in the river deltas and floodplains, quickly slowing the waters, the water spreading out to the edges of the valley, dropping the nutrient-laden soils, and hence, building farmland.

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

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

The Nooksack, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Snoqualmie/Snohomish, Green and Puyallup Rivers are western Washington’s mightiest rivers. Each is fed from the snow slopes and nooks and crannies of the Cascade Mountain range filled by the incessant winter storms off the Pacific Ocean. As the Cascade creeks and streams release the water, it tumbles, jostles, tears, erodes, and carries new soils to feed the mighty rivers with depositions to build and augment the prime food growing lands on deltas and floodplains. Of course, not all viable farmland is found only on floodplains, as orchards, wheat and corn fields, and many row-crop truck farms are found on uplands. The upland farms, however, are more dependent on the vagaries of nature’s rainfall or man’s intentional irrigation systems than the farms located in the floodplains. More importantly uplands are much more expensive just because the land doesn’t flood! Many farmers can’t even begin to afford the cost of flood-free farm ground. 

As farming cultures advanced through the eons and became more mechanized with tractors and machinery, the farmers, often times with the governments’ help and financing, moved dirt and brought in construction materials to modify and change the forces of nature and to  control the rivers. Organizations such as diking districts, cities, county governments, and the Army Corps of Engineers built dikes, levees, seawalls, dams, and irrigation channels to control, direct, and channelize the water.

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

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

The Skagit River about one-hour north of Seattle, is a prime example of many of these man-made modifications. Highly fertile and productive farmland was always located at the edge of the Salish Sea in what was originally the Skagit River’s delta. The delta is now modified by levees, dikes, drainage channels, and floodgates–to protect and manage some of the most fertile and productive farmland in the world. About 35 miles upstream as the crow flies from the Skagit delta are two Puget Sound Energy dams, designed to generate hydroelectric power and to control and regulate flood flows. With warm, tropical, moisture-laden clouds pummeling the Cascade Mountains western slopes in what is classically known as a Pineapple Express during the rainy season, all of these manmade structures have modified and controlled the tempests of nature–both the influx of saltwater tides and the devastating floods from excessive rains or rapid snowmelts. In its original condition the Skagit was home and habitat for significant record salmon runs. Today the salmon runs are still the envy of many other watersheds, but are less than when the river was in an unadulterated state. Now, the land in the Skagit watershed grows potatoes, berries, row crops, dairy, tulips and seed crops—including being home to 95% of the beet crop in the world, carries significant salmon runs, and is home to more than 110,000 people. The people in Skagit County have created a structure through the Farm, Fish, and Flood Initiative to debate, analyze and evaluate these competing environment, farming and built communities issues. All of these issues are tough and not easy to resolve, as they are all important and impact many livelihoods.

The State of Washington also evaluates impacts from flood events. According to the 2013 Washington State Enhanced Hazard Mitigation Plan, the lower Skagit around Mt. Vernon is one of the highest risk areas for flooding. As said in the same document, despite the fact that the environment–farmland, habitat, and undeveloped lands–are impacted by flooding, it does not merit the same attention that people, developed property and the economy receives from the effects of flood events. Still farmers often do take the brunt of flooding, as it is land that is readily available to accommodate flood waters. Floods are inevitable, but the question still remains, is flooding good for farmland?

Flooding and Farmers

Katahdin Sheep at Ninety FarmsNever tell Farmer Linda Neunzig, that flooding is good for farmers. Linda farms 50 acres adjacent to the Stillaguamish River, just west of the City of Arlington, WA, at Ninety Farms. She  raises Katahdin lambs for export around the world as breeding stock and to be sold to local high-end restaurants such as terra plata in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. For Linda, her farm, being located on the inside of one of the “Stilli’s” many oxbows, can have devastating flood effects from which there is lots of cleanup and economic loss. “The economic impact from cleaning up the river carried debris, replacing the lost and damaged crops, and removing the excessive silt deposits can be a severe economic and time impact on any farmer, including myself,” says Linda. With each upcoming winter flood season, Linda has to always be prepared to load her 125 breeding ewes into a truck to get them to higher ground,  out of the way of potentially ravaging flood. After any impactful storm, it’s also absolutely necessary to remove debris that has been carried downstream by the flood. Any thick layers of sediment on the fields is either tilled back into the ground or overseeded to ensure that spring grasses can grow again. Flooding for Linda is not an economic or farm benefit.

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Local Roots Farm, a local truck farm, grows multiple row crops including cabbage, rutabaga, tomatoes, kales, beans, and more in the Snoqualmie Valley near Duvall, WA. They sell their product through their thriving Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) business and sell to local restaurants and at several local farmers markets, too. Flooding is not as significant an issue for Siri Erickson-Brown, Local Roots Farm owner and farmer. Specifically, Siri says, “Our farm is located on a reach of the Snoqualmie River which does not have highly erosive flows, but rather the river deposits just the right amount of silt and sediments during the winter months to augment our farm’s soil rather than impact it negatively.” Further, Siri explains, “Being in the Snoqualmie River’s floodplain allows us to have minimal irrigation concerns through the dry summer months. The soils hold the moisture well, allowing us to grow a wide variety of crops.” Siri does however, agree that the flood impacts on the local roads can be terrible. Flooding closes bridges, diverts traffic, and can cause significant cleanup costs and time for many people.

Floods are a constant concern during Western Washington’s rainy season and are often not beneficial to a farmer. Depending on the intensity of a storm–how much water is held in the clouds, the existing snowpack in the mountains, and the ambient air temperatures in both the lowlands and in the mountains, flood impacts to farmland can vary greatly. It’s important to remember that just because the urban legends says that floods benefit farmland, it’s best to ask the farmer. The farmer knows what’s best for their farm.

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

Share

Food Dollar Math: Who Benefits from Your Food Dollars

Western Washington along the Interstate 5 corridor are some of the world’s most prolific farmlands. Puget Sound is blessed with a maritime climate with warm summers, cool winters, and mountain snowpacks that provide ample irrigation water  through most of the growing season thus generating hefty harvests.

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley, Pierce County

Despite an optimal growing climate farmers gross revenues are between 4¢ and 7¢ per square foot according to the 2012 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census. Whatcom County on the Canadian border has the highest agricultural revenue at 7¢ a square foot. Snohomish County, just north of Seattle and Boeing’s home with the world’s largest manufacturing building, has the lowest agricultural revenue at 4¢ per square foot. These numbers also compete with downtown Seattle Class A office space leasing at $30 per square foot. Just a basic home selling for $100 per square foot out competes the arable land value, too. Despite agricultural lands being intrinsically valuable for our health and well-being–we all do eat–the economic value of the land that grows food cannot begin to compete with development. Looking at the huge chasm between development and farm land values is one way to begin to understand  why our country is losing 50 acres of farm and ranch land to development per hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. Farmland valuation versus development values is one gauge, but purchasing food is another measure to understanding why we lose farmland.

Do you know how much of each dollar you spend on food goes back to the farmer? Only 3.5¢ for every dollar spent goes back to the farmer, when eating out, whether at a restaurant or fast food joint. This number is astonishing, but not surprising when looked at more carefully. Farming is not known as a lucrative business. A farmer is better compensated with food prepared at home and gets 16¢ of every dollar spent. The USDA, through the  Economic Research Services division have analyzed these numbers in their Food Dollar Series (2014).

At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

Where does our “at home food dollar” go? Almost one-quarter or 24¢ of it is spent on food processing, which is the creation of products from the raw materials. We all eat food that has been processed. Processed food staples are bread, noodles, yogurt, cheese, crackers, meats, and multiple forms of tomato products. Some products such as tomato paste have been processed a little bit, while others such as bread combine multiple ingredients. Processed foods in a grocery store, show up in the middle aisles, the freezer  section, or the deli. They are in cans, boxes, bags, and jars. There are infinite opportunities to satisfy hunger with processed food! Whether the food is over-salted, has too much fat, sugar, or artificial color is another matter. I use a combination of minimally processed foods like tomato sauce and paste, and dried herbs with fresh ingredients like onions and garlic mixed in a crock-pot, to make a home cooked meal of spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s easy! The packaging of the processed food is small and only adds about 3¢ to the cost of at home food costs.

Once the food is out of the ground, processed and ready to travel to a store, this is bulk of the costs for the “at home food dollar”. Many people are involved in the effort of getting the food to us. Truckers transport food across the county or the country, wholesalers–also known as the middleman– buy raw and prepared products and sell it to retailers, grocers purchase, stock and sell food, and baggers carefully pack bags. All of these trades and more add incremental costs to food, so that in the traditional grocery store model close to half of the “at home food dollar” or 42% is spent on getting food from the farmer to you.

About 15¢ of the “at home food dollar” is spent on all the support services for the food industry around growing, processing, and selling food.  The on farm inputs are called “agribusiness” and cost just over 3¢. Inputs include seed, fertilizer, farm machinery and all that is needed to grow food. Energy is almost 6¢ of the “at home food dollar” equation and covers the cost of getting the oil, gas, and coal to power the food industry. Advertising, legal services, accounting, financing and insurance are the remaining 6¢ of the “at home food dollar”.

As a consumers we are inundated with advertising on television, web pages, billboards, mailboxes, on the radio, and in magazines and newspapers. As a result of these advertisements, one would think that advertising would be a much larger slice of the food dollar, but in reality, it is just a few cents of the “at home food dollar”. Even so, it is incredible to think with the value of the total U.S. food industry at $835 billion (USDA, 2014), that the advertising slice of the “at home food dollar” is about $21 billion. These numbers put some context into the enormity of the United States food system. It’s because we all eat!

Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

Eating food away from home supports farmers less. With almost three-quarters of the “eating out food dollar” spent on foodservice, there is not much less for anybody else including farmers. Restaurants, bars, clubs, fast-food joints and all the other venues where we buy prepared foods eat up 72¢ of the “eating out food dollar.” Food processing, packaging, wholesaling, energy, financing and insurance, advertising, and the other category including agribusiness, legal and accounting, are all a nickel or less of the “eating out food dollar”, as shown on the adjacent dollar. Farmers get a mere 3.5¢ back for every dollar spent eating out. That’s not much.

Making money as a farmer is tough. A farmer earning 3.5¢ on the “eating out food dollar” or 16¢ on the “at home food dollar,” cannot begin to earn enough money to compete with developer looking for a place to put new homes. With the average age of farmers being 59 years old and nearing retirement, it makes farmland even more vulnerable to being sold for houses.

Food Dollar Math Benefiting the Farmer

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

Beets at Nash’s Organic Produce Stand

Shopping at farmers’ markets is a great way for money spent on food to go directly to farmer and not to any middleman or retailer. Once a farmer’s fixed costs for seeds, fertilizers, insurance, table space at the market, labor, licenses, and transportation are covered, any revenue is his. Purchase a seasonal food delivery subscription directly from the farmer through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA subscriber is typically asked to pay a deposit for the subscription before the season starts allowing the farmer to cover his costs for seed, fertilizer, irrigation tape, labor, and other supplies before the first CSA box is delivered. Puget Sound Fresh is a great beginning resource for the CSA search.  Stop by a farm stand on the way home to support your favorite farmer. An eastern Washington farming family has just opened the Tonnemaker Woodinville Farm Stand on 14 acres. They’ll be growing western Washington produce on-site and mixing it up with their outstanding selection of eastern Washington crops like peppers, apples, pears, melons, and more! Washington grows great food and we ought to do our best to support the farmers that grow it!

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

Share

Agritopia®–A Little Bit of Arizona Heaven

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

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

Waiting to Pick Citrus

Waiting to Pick Citrus

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

Agritopia®’s Community

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

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

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

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

Enjoying the Commons

Enjoying the Commons

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

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

Living Next to the Farm

Living Next to the Farm

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

What Makes Agritopia® Special

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

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

Share

Our Vulnerable Food System

Our food system–the system of growing, harvesting, distributing, and selling food–is fragile! To most, it looks in good health. Stop in any grocery store, stroll through Pike Place Market, visit your local farmers market or drive through a McDonald’s and there is plenty of food! From an eater’s perspective, there is no problem. There seems to be enough food, just that perhaps there is a distribution or cost problem because the poor can’t afford or get enough.

Puyallup Bottomlands Farmland

Puyallup Bottomlands Farmland

The food system is vital to our well-being, but goes largely unnoticed because it seems to be working. Our food system is like an onion, though as there are many layers and it is not pleasant to examine the layers as it is uncomfortable or bring tears to our eyes. Peeling back the food system layers, our eyes start to water and focus becomes blurred when realizing how complex and confusing it really is. Similar to slicing and sautéing an onion quickly, it’s much easier to avoid examining the layers of the food system.

This blog will look briefly at elements of the food system and where it is fragile. Realize that 500-page books, year-long college classes, multiple non-profit’s missions, and countless articles have all focused on the system’s frailness, so this is only touches lightly on the topic. Even so, positive changes are happening and we are getting the opportunity to eat more healthfully because more attention is being paid to what we eat and how it is grown. Despite this, there is still much work to be done to build a food system that serves all participants from farm-laborers, to farmers, to food preparers and eaters.

Where do we begin?

Mass produced food is cheap. Most eaters consume cheap food, because deals abound at Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Olive Garden, you name the fast-food chain. Two for the price of one. Buy one (calorie, fat and sugar laden food item), get one free. The mass marketed “drive-thru and go” and nationwide family-diner food providers buy their wares from huge multi-national corporations (think Kraft, ConAgra, just to name a few), that produce oodles of calories. The healthier fruits and vegetables that the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) recommends that we eat often do not show up on the menu or are loaded with croutons, bacon bits, cheese, and dressing defeating the purpose of eating them. Granted there are food chains such as Chipotle that are breaking this traditional mold, but they have had problems scaling their healthy fast-food business model.

The CDC’s recommendations are directly in conflict with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) heavy subsidization (with our tax dollars) of commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy through Congress’ authorization of Farm Bill every five years. The commoditized, subsidized products feed our nation’s cattle, swine, and chicken supply, producing cheap meat products. The healthy diet recommendation that half our plate be filled with fruits and vegetables gets minimal tax dollar support and are consequently significantly more expensive. Hence, the uniformed eater, which too many of us are, chows down on low quality, cheap food. It tastes good or at least tastes the same all the time! It’s portable. It’s quick. It’s inexpensive. It fills us up! The consequences: obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

To add more fodder to a broken food system, the food growing profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Think of the average farm worker. An immigrant (often in this country illegally), earning a very low wage in the heat, rain, mud, and cold to plant, till, prune, and harvest food. Cheap food does not support these minimum wage workers.

Proposed State Route 167 in the Puyallup Valley

Proposed State Route 167 in the Puyallup Valley

Furthermore, farmland, especially when located in proximity to thriving metropolitan areas, is threatened daily for conversion to housing developments and retail shopping malls. Developers aren’t the only threat to farmland. When a State or Federal transportation department looks for a new highway route or overpass, farmland is the cheapest ground around. We have a great example about one-half hour south of Seattle. The completion of Washington State Route 167 from Interstate 5 to downtown Puyallup will be built on some of western Washington’s best farmland–the Puyallup River bottomlands. The proposed highway location is shown on the adjacent map in orange, while some of the farm properties are outlined in bright green. Last legislative session, the Washington State elected officials brokered a deal to fund the highway construction. Funding for building this section of highway has languished in the legislative process for almost 20 years. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) already owns much of the future highway right-of-way and leases the property to local farmers, so soon this farmland that currently grows some of the best iceberg lettuce, celery, and berries will be lost to pavement.

Environmental regulations threaten farmland, too. The Skagit River delta, one hour north of Seattle, was modified with dikes and drainage infrastructure a century ago to create one of the most prolific farming regions in the world. Now Skagit farmland is threatened not so much by housing developments, but by the desire (and legal obligation through the Endangered Species Act) to enhance and protect threatened wild salmon runs. Dikes could be removed but acres of farmland would be lost.

What to do?

These are just a few of the vulnerabilities in our food system. I purchase as much food as possible that is sustainably grown, preferably from a farmer I know. My actions help to create a more robust food system.

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

Share

Serenbe: An Innovative Community

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

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

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

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

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

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

Challenging Public Works Standards

Typical Fenced Stormwater Pond in Seattle

Fenced Retention Pond in Seattle Suburbs

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

Typical Subdivision Grading

Typical Subdivision Grading

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

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

Serenbe Community Map

Serenbe Community Map

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

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

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

A Farm at Serenbe

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Homes in Grange Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

Share

The New Agri-hood

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

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

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

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

New Agricultural-Residential Neighborhoods

Children's Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

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

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

Prairie Crossing

Children's Garden at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Garden at Prairie Crossing

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

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

The Cannery

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

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

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery's Urban Farm

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery’s Urban Farm

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

Agri-hood Observations

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

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

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

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

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

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

Share

Another Look at Food & Bridges

Temporary Span over Skagit River

Temporary Bridge over the Skagit River–Summer 2013

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

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

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

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

USDA Ag Census Data

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

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

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

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

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

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

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

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

Share

Cultivating a Thriving Agricultural Economy: Skagit Valley

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

Roozengarde's Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

Roozengarde’s Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

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

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

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

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

Salmonids: An Issue

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

Agricultural Economy

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

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

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

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

The Beauty

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

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

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

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

Share

The Land That Feeds Us: Skagit Valley

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

The questions are:

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

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

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

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

Skagit Valley Farmland: The Resource

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

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

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

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

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

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

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

The Farmers: Vegetable, Livestock, and Seafood

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

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

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

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

The Food Distribution System

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

Playing with Food: The Answers

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share

Brooklyn Grange’s Edible Green Roof

Take the M train to the 36th Street station. Climb the stairs and exit the station and greeted by the six- story edifice built by Standard Motor Company in 1919. Enter the building. Push the elevator button and be whisked to the roof. Leave the city behind and enter a robust urban farm with views to the bustling New York metropolis below. I was welcomed by Bradley Fleming, Brooklyn Grange’s Farm Manager extraordinaire at Flagship Farm and best man at my niece’s San Franciscan wedding the weekend prior. Atop the roof flourishes a one-acre farm totally hidden from the sidewalk below.

Brooklyn Grange's Flagship Roof Top Farm

Brooklyn Grange’s Flagship Roof Top Farm

Bradley was busy completing the final tasks for the farm’s fifth season. With one more week of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes to be delivered, he expected them to be filled with chard, kale, eggplant, sunchokes, salad greens, green tomatoes, and other delectables. Workers broke down and composted the no longer producing tomato and pepper plants. Scattered around the site were three bee hives producing honey and winding down the job as the farm’s pollinators. Laying hens offered eggs. A compost bin accepted spent vegetative matter which was processed in part by a solar powered forced air system.

Fortuitously, the Standard Motor Company concrete building was built to construction standards that could easily support the weight of Rooflite, the composted soil mixture blend, rain and irrigation water, equipment, and farmworkers. The existing parapet walls met the height requirements for the “fence,” such that workers and guests are protected from falling to the street below. The rooftop drainage system functioned properly and only had to be modified slightly with porous plastic caps that allowed enough water to remain on the roof to irrigate the plants, but allowed any excess to be discharged. It was as though 100-years ago that the architect’s knew the building would once support a green roof to grow produce!

How Is It Built?

Even so, creating the farm was a challenging proposition, as the City of New York would only permit a crane to be located at the western, narrow end of the building where supplies could hoisted to the roof. Materials were hand carried and carted almost 500 feet to the far side of the building to begin construction. First the base layer, an impenetrable cloth sheet that thwarts roots growing into the concrete roof was placed. On top a Conservation Technologies drainage mat, resembling multiple plastic egg cartons butt up against each other, was lain to capture and hold irrigation and rainwater water for the plants’ thirst needs. Finally, a permeable filter fabric was lain to limit soil sediments from filling the plastic cups. Ultimately about 1.2 million pounds of Rooflite were lifted and carted to all corners of the roof for the approximate 10-inch thick growing medium over the one acre site.

Mexican Sour Gerkin

Mexican Sour Gerkin

Then, planting rows, walking paths, and produce washing and aggregation station were sited. Now five years later since initial construction, farming protocols are established. A sprinkler system waters newly planted seed in early season for germination. Drip irrigation lines follow each planting row and run for 20 minutes three times per day during the peak season. Plantings are sequenced such that produce is available from mid-May through late October. Being a small, specialty farm, allows Bradley to experiment with unknown produce varieties. I had Mexican Sour Gerkins for the first time; a miniature, watermelon look-alike cucumber growing on a trellised vine. All produce is organically-grown, but not certified.

As with any farm operation, Mother Nature can have her way. Keeping the soil on the roof, will be the biggest upcoming winter obstacle, as winds can blow fiercely on the roof. This winter they are testing a ground-up hop mixture as a wind cover, that will also compost and provide nutrients for next spring.

Why It Works?

Brooklyn Grange has been profitable since the first year, as they have great produce for sale with diversified produce offerings and have benefited from New York City’s green initiatives. New York City has a combined sewer and stormwater system that can become inundated with as little as a quarter inch of rainfall, prompting policy makers to create a Green Roof Tax Abatement program that pays property owners to reduce their stormwater runoff. Water captured by the plant material and farm ground reduce stormwater runoff, thus limiting the impacts from this one-acre building’s impervious surface.

Roof Top Chickens at Brooklyn Grange's Flagship Farms

Roof Top Chickens at Brooklyn Grange’s Flagship Farm

To expand their business with the expertise gained from Flagship Farm, Brooklyn Grange now offers design, consulting, and construction services for other building owners that want green roofs–whether food producing roofs or solely vegetative roofs. Sedum roofs require much less soil coverage and water, which significantly reduces roof weight and therefore are suitable for those structures that are not as robustly built as the Standard Motor Company’s building. Weddings, farm to table events, and rooftop yoga are other services that are available on Brooklyn Grange’s urban oases.

Whether these intense green roof farms are replicable across the country remains to be seen. The lack of urban growing space, the unbelievable amount of traffic, and the green roof incentives are a few of the many reasons that Brooklyn Grange has been successful in reducing the miles that great food must travel to satiate a customer base yearning for fresh, local produce.

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.

Share