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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Vulnerability of Agricultural: Kent Valley

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

Historic Kent Valley

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

Old Kent Valley Barn

Old Kent Valley Barn

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

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

Kent Valley Heritage Farm adjacent to suburban development.

Kent Valley Heritage Farm adjacent to suburban development.

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

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

Recent Flood Threats in the Kent Valley

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

Temporary levee reinforcement on top of existing levee

Temporary levee reinforcement on top of existing levee

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

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

Kent Valley is Washington’s Economic Engine

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

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

Kent Valley trucking business

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

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

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

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

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Skagit County: Creating New Food Production Models

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

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

Skagit Farmland

Skagit Farmland

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

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

Viva Farms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skagit Farmland Legacy Program

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

Raspberry plants getting prepared for summer production

Raspberry plants getting prepared for summer production

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

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

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

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

 

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Ensuring Food Security: Wade’s Vision

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

Setting the Stage: Puget Sound

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

Asian Pears at Rockridge Orchards

Asian Pears at Rockridge Orchards

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

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

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

Setting the Stage:  Michigan

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

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

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

Rockridge Orchards—Enumclaw, Washington

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

Rockridge Orchards farmer Wade Bennett

Rockridge Orchards farmer Wade Bennett

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

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

So, Why Retain the Local Farm?

Rural estate adjacent to Rockridge Orchards

Rural estate adjacent to Rockridge Orchards

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

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

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

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

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

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Farming Land You Don’t Own: The ‘Urban Fringe’ Farm

When you farm land you don’t own, you must do your homework prior to getting on the land to ensure your business interests are protected.  Spend the time needed to thoroughly understand the land.  The landowner is not looking out for your interests.  Ask good questions.  All agreements must be in writing.  Trust your gut.

Farming leased land is the least expensive way for new farmers to start doing what they love best:  farming.  It’s also the best way for existing farmers to expand their operation.  Western Washington lease rates range from as low as $200/acre to more than $1,000/acre.  More expensive land has easier access to Seattle markets, reliable irrigation water, and housing.  Less pricey land is prone to significant flooding or has contract clauses to quickly evict the farmer.  This is the story of two farmers, Jake Sterino and Nicole Capizzi producing food on leased land in the urban fringe.

Leasing in the path of future development

Often landowners lease land in the queue for future development.  Throughout most of the 20th century, the Puyallup Valley was home to large-scale farm businesses producing oodles of food.  But cities grow, farmers age, and what was once rural land is threatened by encroaching cities.  Farmland which is flat, cheap and easy to develop are targets for constructing urbanizing infrastructure.

Classic is the future 6-mile extension of Highway 167 slicing through the lower fertile Puyallup River valley which has been slated for construction for 20 years, and the Port of Tacoma has it on its “must-do” list.  The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) leases the agricultural land to a long-time Puyallup Valley farmer, Jake Sterino.  Jake is uncertain when WSDOT will invoke its 90-day vacation clause, but with a $1.5 billion shortfall and no foreseeable construction funding, food production keeps on.

Sterino Farms advertising display at QFC

Jake, as the fourth generation farmer continues his family’s almost 100-year old business farming the fertile soils bringing berries, lettuce, cabbage, celery and sweet corn to Puget Sound markets.  Jake completes his yearly harvest season with the ubiquitous Halloween orb.

QFC, Fred Meyer, and Town & Country Markets feature Sterino Farms in store promotions, as a local Puyallup farmer.  Do these retailers know the threats to this farmland?   In the near term, highway construction in the Puyallup is stalled, but Jake has hedged his bets.  He’s farming 100 acres in eastern Washington, too.

Leasing under-used land in the urban setting

Nicole Capizzi of Amaranth Urban Farm has created a smaller scale farm business on two tracts of urban land.  She begins each season by renting early-season greenhouse space at Rainier Beach Urban Farms & Wetlands, a project of Seattle Parks & Recreation and Seattle Tilth.

With pallets of starts, she begins her season in south Seattle, in a working class neighborhood beneath the flight path.  Nicole farms a one acre irrigated property, in the midst of an in-city riding facility.  The farmground sits uphill from the horse compound. She is fortunate to have covered barn space to store equipment and an open air gazebo to wash and sort produce.  Delivery bins, abundantly filled with tender greens, heirloom tomatoes, winter squashes, and bouquets of color, are delivered three times a week to her CSA, co-op, and restaurant customers.

Late season cover cropping on Amaranth Urban Farm in Kent

Nicole tills another one acre parcel incorporated into Heritage Farm Thoroughbred Training Center in Kent.  King County had the foresight in 1984 to preserve Heritage Farm as agricultural open space, in what is now surrounded by a burgeoning suburbanizing community.  To the south, suburban Kent neighborhoods abut the farm.  In 2009 Tukwila annexed the last undeveloped 500 acres in the northern Kent Valley anticipating construction of neighborhoods and businesses creating 25,000 jobs over the next 25 years.   This leaves the 30-acre Heritage Farm property a future rural oasis in the middle of these two growing cities.  In the meantime, the area around the farm is still pastoral.

Surrounded by youngsters learning horsemanship on the riding ring, Nicole cultivates crops in this small section of what was once an immense agricultural valley.  With less than 10 miles from farm to table, produce is super fresh ensuring full nutritional benefits to the eater.  Harvested food from this farm is brought back to the Seattle farm for washing, sorting, and processing.

I was fortunate to meet Nicole when she was searching for the piece of land to create her dream as an urban farmer.  To see her accomplishments is gratifying, but I know there were many hours of effort behind her success.  Likely, the small scale urban farm is replicable, but, as Nicole says, “If we are really going to create this robust local, just, secure food system everyone is talking about, some of us are going to have to be the professionals (farmers) who actually do the work.”

Jake and Nicole are compelled to labor in the eternal enterprise of growing food, ensuring our plates are filled with plentiful produce.  Despite being on leased land, we are blessed with their bounty and perseverance.

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 will be giving a workshop at the Tilth Producers of Washington conference at Fort Worden on Saturday, November 10th on Growing Food on Land You Don’t Own.  Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.

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My Well-Stocked Pantry: Nourishing the Future

Italian Prune Plums Sweetening in the Sun

I can, dry, and freeze some of the food I grow or purchase from the farmers’ market.   I do not live a life like Barbara Kingsolver as described in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where she purchased or grew (almost) all of her food locally and put much of it up for winter.  My winter food stash gets built for pleasure, enjoyment and being able to say to my family, “I canned this last summer.”

My forays in the garden make me realize the perils, challenges, and joys of being a farmer.  This summer, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get a green bean crop, as we didn’t get any warm, sunny days until the middle of July.  Summer started with June Gloom, but more than two months of sunny days since have generated less than a millimeter of rain.

Even with the continued gorgeous days and trivial amounts of rain expected in the near term, I can tell our Seattle summer is coming to an end.  The shadows are getting longer, as the sun begins to edge back towards the south and my plants are starting to get tired and slowing production.  I pulled my only zucchini plant out last week, as it was covered with powdery mildew having completed its useful life.

I continue to harvest snap beans, but their production is dawdling, which makes my kids happy since they are tired of the nightly bean dish.  How many ways can you serve beans and keep teenagers happy?

Endings

My Dad–Ernie Gardow

As my garden season is ending, this is also a season of personal change and new beginnings.  For endings, my Dad, after 6 months of cancer treatments, lost his battle with lymphoma this summer.  I was fortunate to be able to spend time with him before he died.  The harvest season brings many memories of Dad, as he was the person who taught me how to grow a garden and gave me my Italian prune plum tree, because he noticed how untended plum trees grew wild adjacent to the Burke-Gilman Trail.

This season, I harvested over 100 pounds of Italian prune plums, from the tree blessed in the sunniest location in my yard.  Last year, not a single plum grew on my tree because of a pest infestation.  With plum abundance this year, I made my yearly zwetchendatschi, that Dad made every summer.  My kids wait in anticipation for their yearly zwetchendatschi, too!  And this year, they helped!

Zwetchendatschi–Bavarian Plum Cake

Zwetchendatschi is a Bavarian treat made with a butter, flour, egg, and sugar sweet mellow dough decorated with plums, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and baked in a hot oven.  I also dried several gallon bags of plums to nibble on through the winter. With the remaining plums, I made 16 pints of plum chutney from Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling.

Another ending will be my webpage name, landmattersfoodmatters.com, which will be transitioning to gardowconsulting.com.  Land and food matter, as does clean water, breathable air, community, friends, and family.  As a society, we must focus on those items that are most important to our health and well-being, rather than those that are transient in our lives such as the next best cell phone or tablet computer.   Gardow Consulting will continue to address quality of life and liveability issues through project completion, which are critical when considering land use matters.

Beginnings

For a new beginning, I have enrolled in the year long Urban Land Institute’s Center for Sustainable Leadership course.  One of the objectives of the class is to “build the intellectual foundation, strategic thinking, business and policy infrastructure, and professional tools to improve the resilience of our region.”  This inaugural class is expected to develop a cadre of up and coming leaders who will be poised to tackle the region’s future real estate, land use and environmental challenges.

And as with every end there are new beginnings.  Now is a time for new beginnings.  I bring the past with me, as a well-stocked pantry, able to nourish me for tomorrow and what the future will bring.

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.

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Ancient Wisdom: Aging Farmers

The plight of the farmer

Farmer Cho with Mr. Hong discussing the state of farming in Korea

In Korea, as in the United States, the story is the same: aging farmers, expensive land, and not enough respect for the sustenance they provide. In April, I had the pleasure to meet with Farmer Cho, a 60-year-old strawberry, rice, and beef cattle farmer living about one-hour east of Seoul in the Yang-pyeong valley. Farmer Cho, who is the average age of a farmer in Korea, was just starting to make money with his strawberry crop and getting ready for his rice season. I spoke with Farmer Cho through our guide, Mr. Hong, who had no farming knowledge and had never even been on a farm. My daughter and I each picked an $18 quart of strawberries as an agri-tourist activity. Our guide didn’t pick strawberries, but he sure enjoyed the basket of fruit I gave him as his tip!

Farmer Cho’s farm operation

Farmer Cho manages 2.5 acres in the 37-acre farm valley, where 30 different farmers till the land. The valley is filled with rice paddies, peppers, onions, garlic, cherry trees, and more. So few acres with so many farmers surprised me, but the smallest farm is only 0.25 acres. With such small amounts of acreage, Korean farmers would never be able emulate the American food production system with our large acreage farms, since the whole country is only the size of Indiana with 40 million people!

Farmer Cho has 63 head of cattle that have limited real estate in the barns and are fed a purchased grain product and leftover rice grass from previous seasons. His operation is certified organic by the Korean government, and he uses the cattle-generated manure to fertilize the rest of his operation.

Organic certification has been a benefit to Farmer Cho as the Korean government purchases his products to serve in the Korean public school system. If he grew non-organic cattle, he would earn $2,600 per animal, but with the organic cattle he is able to earn $7,000 per animal. Even with the premiums paid by the government, the cost of land is prohibitive to any new farmer at $260/square meter or about $1.1 million per acre.

A typical Korean rice paddy

To assist with training a new generation of farmers, each of the eight Korean provinces has an agricultural college, and each farmer is given a $170,000 loan towards training new farmers. Further, when the land changes ownership, 30% of the new farmer’s profit is paid to the old farmer to cover the costs of the loan and land transfer, while the remaining 70% of the profit is directed to the new farm owner. These are significant incentives, but it is unclear whether they are adequate to continue the long history of Korean food production, as evidenced by the population of Korean farmers dropping from 25% to 7% over Farmer Cho’s lifetime.

I asked our guide to ask Farmer Cho whether farming is a respected occupation in Korea. Mr. Hong did not translate my question and only shook his head, “no.”

Washington Farmers

In my home state of Washington, there is a resurgence in small farm creation and expansion. Boistfort Valley Farm and Viva Farms are hiring upwards of 40 people between their two farms in positions varying from farm manager, market manager, production crew, and grants manager. According to the USDA’s Farmland Information Center website, Washington state saw an increase in number of farms and farmers from 2002 to 2007, despite a decrease in acreage farmed and a 7% increase in the number of farmers over age 55. Whether the positive trends continue and the negative trends slow their rate of growth in the next agricultural census, remains to be seen.

We must continue to work as a community to save farmland and support local foods, so our farmers here and abroad can profitably farm and create the best, most nutritious, local food.

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