Where Sustainability Reigns and Community Flourishes

My yard peaked in abundance in September. The last tomatoes were picked before the fall rains came. At the same time, ideas percolate about creating community where families thrive because children play, elders impart wisdom, Millenials connect and food is grown. Sustainable living at its best is where the most important aspects of life, nourishment in mind and body, are met.

Late Fall Roma Tomatoes–perfect for salsa

Through the summer, gathering my evening meal from the plethora of plums, gaggles of grapes, bountiful beans, and tons of tomatoes, I knew I was eating the most tasty, healthful food from my 5,000 square foot city lot. Even as the weather changed, I snipped chives, gathered thyme, and harvested rosemary, as additions to roasts, stews, and salads. Each night at the dinner table, I would announce, “The beans, basil, and tomatoes are from our garden.” My kids would respond, “Oh, Mom, do you have to tell us where the food is from?” in that teenage whine.

Of course I want them to know, because I want to expand my joy and add community and neighborliness beyond my dinner table. Incorporating a sense of shared purpose, not in an “invitation-only” environment, would be ideal. In four short years, there will be only two diners at my table. Preparing and enjoying a meal together is one of the greatest pleasures in life. As I age, and am no longer able or willing to garden or spend as much time in the kitchen, I want that just-picked fresh prepared food experience at my table. Granted, I can schlep to the farmers market or purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, but to live among neighbors and have great food surrounding me, would be my idyllic setting. I don’t want to be destined to grocery store only choices.

Children's Play Area at GROW

Children’s Play Area at GROW

Recently, I experienced two ventures GROW Community and Heyday Farm  that are flourishing on Bainbridge Island, which is across Puget Sound by ferry just west of Seattle. GROW Community is a predominately owner-occupied development with compact single-family structures.  For rent, apartment living is being built now with townhouse and stacked living planned for the next phase. Heyday Farm is a full farm experience set in rural Bainbridge Island.  Melding these two concepts together would generate the shared, community I seek focused with a food environment. Each project is unique on its own, but combining them would make a spectacular place to live.

Reigning Sustainability

Heyday FarmHeyday Farm is on historical island farm property that had been fallow, but its owners wanted to create a sustainable farm business and hired a farm manager to facilitate creation of their vision. Craig Skipton, a trained landscape architect with a penchant for being his own boss is the farmer and visionmaker creating, developing, and growing the farm brand that permeates the island. Vegetables are cultivated in raised beds and greenhouses. Cattle is kept on the main farm for meat and cheese production. Chickens flourish in moveable hoop houses on an adjacent property.

The main property is the showcase, with the classic farmhouse, where guests can stay overnight, enjoy a farm-fresh dinner or take a class on how to use fresh produce in cooking or canning. Further, the commercial kitchen is canning central where pickles, krauts, and chutneys are produced for sale in local markets.

Having a GROW Community concept right next door to Heyday Farm would meld two innovative concepts and create a community where couples, families, and singles would thrive.

Community Flourishing

GROW’s first phase featured 23 detached, energy efficient, sustainable homes and adjacent rental apartments that were all built using One Planet principles. (The for sale homes sold out quickly and the rental apartments will be completed soon.) One Planet is a British-based non-profit organization that applies the “princples at the design, construction and long-term management stages of a development … to create places where it is easy, attractive and affordable for people to live within a fair share of our planet’s resources.”

GROW Community Gardens and Pathway=Community

GROW Community Gardens and Pathway=Community

The Ten One Planet Principles provide design approaches to allow communities to reduce their ecological footprint by applying zero carbon and waste concepts, using sustainable building materials, reducing transportation infrastructure, minimizing impacts to land use and wildlife, incorporating local, sustainably grown food, and creating a community that integrates health, happiness, and well-being into the development. GROW has included the One Planet features by integrating on-site community owned and maintained garden spaces between the homes, parking areas separated from the living spaces, small lot sizes, energy-efficient homes, and the added bonus of affordable solar powered electricity.

Inside the homes are compact, but light and roomy with strategically placed amenities that offer comfort, space, and easy livability. Many units have a separate, detached room with toilet facilities, that could be used by visiting grandparents, an independent teenager or an office. Since garages are non-existent, each single-family unit is equipped with a discreetly, designed structure for bikes, garden supplies, and other outdoor based storage. Cars are on the southern end of the community in a standards asphalt lot, but placed strategically such at the full-southern exposure is available for solar.

Occupants at GROW are families with children, empty-nesters or singles. It is a true mélange of people with differing life stages, occupations, and backgrounds, that all want to be part of true community, while maintaining an independent, but neighborly home life.

The ideal community-based components are thriving on Bainbridge at GROW and Heyday Farm. Now is the time to find the right piece of land and political environment that will allow meshing a residential community and farm environment together to create a fabulous place called home. My dream of being at home in a neighborly, sustainable community can happen. I want to say, “Today, I picked the zucchini, yellow squash, and thyme  that you are eating in the ratatouille tonight!”

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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Incredible: Brooklyn Whole Foods

I was wowed when visiting the newly opened Whole Foods store located on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York! The high-end, natural and organic foods market is strategically located in an up’n coming area of Brooklyn, despite the fact that the Gowanus Canal is a Superfund site and one of the nation’s most “extensively contaminated water bodies” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The South Brooklyn area is rebounding with youthful energy, as it is more affordable and hip, as evidenced by my 30-year old niece and her husband living there despite having jobs in Manhattan.

Rooftop Farm

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

Touring the store was on top of my New York City “must do” list as I had heard that the 20,000 square foot Gotham Greens rooftop farm grows more than enough greens and tomatoes to supply the thirteen metropolitan New York Whole Foods stores with surplus product to sell to other stores, too. The pesticide-, insecticide-, and herbicide-free hydroponically grown produce uses 1/10th the amount of water and produces 20 times the yield of in-the-ground grown and harvested product. The climate controlled environment beneath the louvered glass enclosure is vigilantly monitored and adjusted by Gotham Greens staff to provide just the correct amount of light, air, and heat every day, depending on the growing season.

Whole Foods entrance, greenhouse and parking lot--Brooklyn, NY

Whole Foods entrance, greenhouse and parking lot–Brooklyn, NY

Gotham Greens leased a bare rooftop allowing them to construct the greenhouse and command central, where computers, sensors, and attentive personnel grow kale, basil, lettuces, other greens, and tomatoes year around. Some items such as red lettuce grow better in the autumn and become a seasonal Gotham Greens feature. Every week, 10,000 beneficial bugs are released beneath the glass, to ensure the produce remains pest free while guaranteeing pollination. Crops are harvested every three to six weeks, while tomatoes are picked daily, year-round from long draping indeterminate vines that grow across the greenhouse. Packaged products are “shipped” downstairs and delivered to twelve other Whole Foods stores.

More Sustainable Attributes

The edible rooftop was incredible, but all the other attributes made the store an outstanding example of pushing the envelope on sustainability into a realm that is testing new ideas and making them plausible and perhaps even feasible for future forward thinking real estate projects. Having a few moments to look out over the Whole Foods grounds from the second store outdoor balcony before our tour began, I took in all the advanced thinking, cutting edge innovations and was energized by new possibilities in future development projects.

J’aime Mitchell our Whole Foods guide began by talking about the store’s infrastructure, which is mundane to many and often doesn’t get the respect it deserves, except from engineers like me. Only 5% of the on-site stormwater runoff leaves the project site, as the rest is captured for re-use or infiltrates. The parking surface is built with porous pavers, which immediately return rainwater into the ground and eventually the canal. Cars are parked beneath solar panel canopies that meet 25% of the store’s energy needs, but also serve as a rainwater collection system. The captured stormwater flows and in-store hand-washing wastewater are directed to a large storage tank beneath the parking lot creating a graywater system that is cleaned and filtered and used for toilet flushing and irrigation water. The stormwater and graywater management systems are impressive as water was used twice, but there was more!

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

The parking lot was dotted with an overhead light system that is totally powered by solar and wind. As the wind blows or the sun shines the battery packs beneath each light standard are adequately recharged such that no auxiliary power source is needed for a securely illuminated lot. Further, human power brings a multitude of customers by foot and bike evidenced by the endless line of bike racks that were moderately filled during a mid-week non-prime time and a smaller than average parking lot. J’aime said that additional bike racks had been added to accommodate the weekend cycle traffic.

And There is More

Entering the store vestibule, which is an important buffer between a bitter cold winter or a steamy hot summer and a pleasant shopping environment, the gaze travels upwards to the greenhouse’s tomato section. Draping vines fill the space 20 feet above eye-level, growing fresh bursts of year-round sunshine.

Gotham Greens Basil

Gotham Greens Basil

In the produce section, Gotham Green products are featured along with a multitude of other locally grown fruits and vegetables in an interior setting designed to recognize the region’s historic past. Brick facades were evident throughout the store such as in the upstairs bar/eating establishment and adjacent to the produce section that were repurposed from a Newark, New Jersey Westinghouse factory that had been razed brick by brick. Board walks and building materials from the ravages of the Superstorm Sandy were crafted into benches, wainscotings, and produce bins rather than landfilled. Admirably, Whole Foods took historically significant materials from tragedy and times past reintegrating them into a vision of beauty and purpose.

Finally, the Brooklyn Whole Foods took the initiative to install a refrigeration system that only uses carbon dioxide rather than more typical synthetic refrigerants. Reaching back into early 1900’s technology, European and Canadian grocers have been thwarting conventional synthetic refrigeration systems as they can leak into the atmosphere and are detrimental to the environment by hurting the ozone layer or contributing to climate change or both. Whole Foods has now joined this trend and installed their first “old is new” carbon dioxide refrigeration system. One aspect of this system is the refrigerated products being protected by clear, plastic, vertical drapery which allow the coolness to stay in the case rather than chill the aisles. Customers must reach through the curtain to their milk or other perishable product, as I did as a child.

Besides all the environmental and sustainable innovations, the store was light, airy, and inviting. Once back in Seattle, I couldn’t stop talking about the incredible Whole Foods–Brooklyn and how it is pulling the future of sustainability, reuse, and locally-grown into today.

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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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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Flood Info 101: Flood Season is Here

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

Remnants of the November 2006 Flood

Remnants of the November 2006 Flood

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

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

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

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

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

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

King County’s Flood Alert System

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

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

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

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

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

Thurston County’s Emergency Management System

Anticipated Chehalis River Levels on January 11, 2014

Anticipated Chehalis River Levels on January 11, 2014

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

Chehalis River Historic Flood Stages

Chehalis River Historic Flood Stages

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

Pierce County’s Flood Alert and Mapping System

Pierce County Rivers Flood Forecast

Pierce County Rivers Flood Forecast

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

Snohomish County’s Flood Mapping System

Oct. 29, 2013 Snohomish County Flood Map

Oct. 29, 2013 Snohomish County Flood Map

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

Prepare Yourself

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

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and principal of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities.  Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include local food production.  

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Food & Bridges

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

Temporary Span over Skagit River

Temporary Bridge over the Skagit River–Summer 2013

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

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

Land:  How it is Used

Club House at Trilogy at Redmond Ridge

Club House at Trilogy at Redmond Ridge

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

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

The Simple Economics of Food Production and Development

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

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

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

Limousin Cattle on a Snohomish County Farm

Limousin Cattle on a Snohomish County Farm

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

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

Walgreens

Walgreens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bread: The Ubiquitous Food

Wheat growing at the Munich Botanical Garden

Wheat growing at the Munich Botanical Garden

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

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

Wade’s Wheat

Raw wheat kernels

Raw wheat kernels

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

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

Skagit County Wheat

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

Test bread loaves in the Washington State University bread lab

Test bread loaves in the Washington State University bread lab

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

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

Recreating the Food System

A busy buzzing bee

A busy buzzing bee

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

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

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

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Oysters: The Indicator Species

Oysters on the half shell, the willingness to savor this gastronomic treat that I inherited from my parents.  The slippery, mildly briny, sometimes sweet oyster, swallowed with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of pungent, fresh horseradish is something I relish at the local shellfish bar.  I have never eaten raw oysters with my parents, but knew they enjoyed the delicacy, until being succumbed by Hepatitis A in June 1974 with tainted east coast bivalves.  That summer was BORING being isolated on our family’s one-acre wooded, suburban lot, as my parents recovered from being exhausted by their jaundiced liver disease.

Since 1992, a Hepatitis A vaccination has been available to ward off the infection, as the disease can be contracted worldwide from water polluted by untreated sewage which is used for washing fresh produce, drinking water, or discharged to shellfish beds.  What if, rather than protecting ourselves by vaccination, our worldwide priority was to keep our estuaries, rivers, creeks, and drinking water sources clean and uncontaminated?

Local Northwest Shellfish

Shellfish rafts and one of the 64-foot custom mussel harvesting vessels

Penn Cove Shellfish rafts and one of the 64-foot custom mussel harvesting vessels

Penn Cove, a quiet, mostly rural inlet in Puget Sound with the 1,850 resident Coupeville metropolis on its southern shores, is on the east side of Whidbey Island and is home to Penn Cove Shellfish, LLC, the largest mussel producer in the United States and a significant distributor of Manila Clams, Kumamoto oysters and 30 varieties of Pacific oysters.  The Jeffords family established the company 28 years ago, creating a truly sustainable, premium shellfish operation.  Orders received at command central by 11 a.m. Pacific time, are shipped world-wide and received at their final destination within 24 hours of being plucked from the sea.

The route of the Skagit and Stilliguamish Rivers that feed Skagit Bay and Penn Cove

The Skagit and Stilliguamish Rivers routes that feed Skagit Bay and Penn Cove

On a brisk, but sunny March day, I savored a Kusshi–a tray raised Pacific oyster with a delicate, sweet flavor, a Baynes Sound–a tray-raised and beach hardened larger Pacific oyster with a bit too much brine for my taste, and a Kumamoto–its own species served with the Philadelphia flip allowing the oyster to be drenched in its natural juices, raised on longlines in the cool Pacific waters with just the right amount of oyster flavor and a mild fruity finish.  Just as there is a terroir, or differentiation in flavor, color, size or other characteristic of a land-based crop because of its growing conditions, the vast majority of Crassostrea gigas, more commonly known as Pacific oysters, develop their size and flavor based on their home marine environment.   An oyster’s aquatic dining table is dependent not only on the health of its immediate surroundings, but also on upland conditions.  Penn Cove Shellfish staff monitor the water quality regularly ensuring that only the freshest water from Puget Sound and the Skagit and Stilliguamish Rivers are feeding these critters.  Clean storm water runoff, uncontaminated discharges from sewage treatment plants, and controlled and metered application of agricultural fertilizers are critical to conveying fresh water suitable for raising bivalves in Penn Cove.

I swallowed my shellfish with unimpeded joy knowing they are one of the lowest animals on the food chain, rated as “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Green List, and the freshest I could get.

Oyster Capital of the World

Today, a quick internet search of the “oyster capital of the world” flags Long Beach, South Bend, and Willapa Bay, Washington, all northwest breeding grounds for bivalve farming as receiving this moniker.  Mussel, clam, and oyster cultivation is prevalent all along the west coast with the largest concentration of businesses in Washington, putting it on track to become the nation’s largest shellfish supplier as the number one and two locations in the United States, Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico, harvests sizes are decreasing.

Just 130 years ago, it is astounding to think that “New York (City) was the undisputed capital of history’s greatest oyster boom,” according to Mark Kurlansky in The Big Oyster, History on the Half-Shell.   Beginning with the Dutch settlement in 1613 in what is now known as the Big Apple, New Yorkers feasted on locally-harvested oysters and shipped them to international markets from Arthur Kill, Staten Island, and Jamaica Bay, Long Island, now home to the John F. Kennedy International Airport.  By 1930, all of the commercial oyster beds in the New York metropolitan area were shuttered from dirty, silty, storm water runoff,  thousands of  pounds of heavy metal industrial wastes entering the marine environment via sewage system discharge points daily, and sewage sludge being dumped only 12 miles out to sea, which was not far enough away to prevent impact to the shellfish beds.  Oysters cannot and did not survive this harsh, industrialized environment.

Today, few people remember tasting a New York Harbor raised oyster.  The demise of the New York world-class oyster business should serve as a reminder to remain vigilant about protecting our Puget Sound water resources and concurrently our marine habitat and shellfish industries, as oysters truly are an indicator species.   Thankfully here in Washington, we are years away from needing a Hepatitis A vaccination to protect ourselves from locally infected shellfish or drinking water and only need it when we travel outside the country to places where water quality standards are lax.  My mother, after a 39-year hiatus, is even considering slipping a Washington grown oyster with a dab of cocktail sauce down her throat on her next west coast visit.

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

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