The New Agri-hood

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

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

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

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

New Agricultural-Residential Neighborhoods

Children's Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

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

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

Prairie Crossing

Children's Garden at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Garden at Prairie Crossing

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

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

The Cannery

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

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

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery's Urban Farm

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery’s Urban Farm

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

Agri-hood Observations

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

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

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

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

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

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

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Another Look at Food & Bridges

Temporary Span over Skagit River

Temporary Bridge over the Skagit River–Summer 2013

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

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

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

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

USDA Ag Census Data

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

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

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

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

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

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

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

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

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Foraging: The Act of Searching for Food

We are all foragers. We search, scavenge, and gather food habitually. My daughter comes home from school and automatically opens the refrigerator and says, “there is nothing to eat in here,” despite it being filled with loads of food. Going to the grocery store is dangerous when hungry, as food items astoundingly show up in my cart despite my best intentions. Traveling the buffet line, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, as everything looks delicious.

Gray Jays Foraging in a Hive in the William O. Douglas Wilderness

Gray Jays Foraging in a Hive in the William O. Douglas Wilderness

When hungry, we crave food just as our ancestors did and thus, become modern day hunter-gatherers. Granted we no longer kill an animal, but we stalk, search and eventually grab the food we yearn for, just as the gray jays in the wilderness poked and prodded the downed hive for bee bits observed on an early September backpacking trip. Our evolutionary heritage is alive and well in all of us today. For the first 1.8 million years of humans’ history we lived in the wild. We gathered nuts, berries, roots, and leaves and pursued game, caught fish, and snared birds and small animals. Humans could just as likely be a wild animal’s lunch, too. We lived one with nature, as we were integral to the ecosystem.

In what we now perceive as ancient history, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, our ancestors started to cultivate plants and domesticate animals, at the same time slowly began our journey away from nature. The initial dawn of agriculture started in the Fertile Crescent, which is a swath of land stretching from what is now northern Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean countries encompassing Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, to the now northern Persian Gulf countries of Syria and Iraq. Animal domestication and plant cultivation continued to travel throughout the world with eastern North America adopting agricultural practices as late as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Amazingly the advent of agriculture is merely 0.2% to 0.7% of the total time that humans have been on this earth and it is not ancient history!

Stokesberry Duck Eggs with Ralph's Greenhouse Beets

Stokesberry Duck Eggs with Ralph’s Greenhouse Beets found in the buffet line at the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Harvest Dinner

No wonder as we wander the grocery aisle, or peruse the farmer’s market or salivate in the buffet line, we tap into our hunter-gatherer instincts and gravitate towards certain foods. At my husband’s milestone birthday party, we celebrated with a tiramisu cake surrounded with lady fingers, topped with mascarpone frosting, and adorned with chocolate nibs–heavy, dense, and delicious. Thankfully, the cake is gone, because even writing this, my taste buds lust for just another morsel. My longings are totally normal, as Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., author of The “I” Diet and professor of nutrition at Tufts University says, “In prehistory, calories were in intermittent supply and very essential for survival,” causing the human desire to crave food instinctively.

Now compared to our early ancestors, as a culture we have so much food that we can afford to throw excess away. Think of your last restaurant visit. Were you a member of the “clean plate club”? Or did you ask for a “take-away” container, to schlep food home for another meal? Did you remember to eat the stored meal? Or did it grow new forms of life and you pitched it? Our ancestors would never throw away food as it was unthinkable, unnecessary, and unwise, as they didn’t know where their next meal would come from.

More importantly than our cravings is the quality of the food we eat. Only since World War II have we mechanized, commoditized, petro-chemically fertilized and sprayed, and genetically modified the products grown in our mainstream food production system. This is a mere 70 years or 0.004% of our human existence and 0.7% of the 10,000 years of agricultural history. We are continually being assured and assuaged that our foods are safe for us and the environment, despite the findings that RoundUp is expected to be classified in California as carcinogen and therapeutic antibiotics are consistently being used in animals being grown for human consumption. RoundUp kills unwanted plants, but what other harm does it cause? The minimal amounts of therapeutic antibiotics found in mainstream meat products are now threatening the effectiveness of medicinal antibiotics used by people to treat life-frightening infections.

My solution is foraging at the Farmers Markets or PCC Natural Markets–my local food cooperative, and organic is my sought after label!

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

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Reconnecting with Fresh Food

Hayton Farms Strawberrries

Hayton Farms Strawberries

Summer brings my favorite foods. Succulent corn on the cob, pints upon pints of Hayton Farms strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, flame-roasted Hatch peppers, and lettuces all bigger than my head. My 5,000 square foot city lot just isn’t big enough to grow many foods, so I count on my local farmers markets for most everything since I only nurture tomatoes, green beans, and Italian prune plums. Whether from my yard or from the farmer, I know the food is as fresh as it can be. It’s not stored in a warehouse for weeks nor traveled thousands of miles to my plate.

Even though unprocessed, raw food appears to be fresh, only recently has my palate been discerning the subtle difference between just picked or foraged food and grocery aisle produce. Just because a pint of blueberries appears to be fresh–bright plump berries, with a little sheen–it doesn’t mean that they were just picked. A head of lettuce may be vivid green, but its connection to the earth may be drab tan indicating its days or even weeks old.

slight but significant difference in lettuce

One of my favorite famers Steve Hallstrom of Let Us Farm of Oakville, Washington, travels the Interstate 5 corridor every Saturday from May until November, leaving the farm at 5 a.m. to bring the largest selection of delectable lettuces to his loyal clientele at the University District Farmers Market in Seattle. Talk to other purchasers at the market and they agree Let Us Farm grows the best.

Located in a rural Grays Harbor County on the Chehalis River floodplain, Let Us Farm practices sustainable, organic farming including intentional crop rotation. By allowing a portion of their 80 acres of fields to go fallow regularly and planting them with a nitrogen fixing legume, the soil is nourished again for subsequent yearly plantings. Steve and his wife Cecelia live on the farm and have had many interns rotate through their farm operation to learn the agricultural trade. As with any profession, it takes at least ten to 15 years to become a master and every season there is still more to learn. Every growing season is different, too much rain or too little, lots of sun or not enough, and a late spring or an early fall.

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Despite the vagaries of the seasons, Steve has accomplished the art of lettuce growing, eschewing herbicides and pesticides in keeping with the organic standards. One choice variety is Galisse, a leafy, lobed, sweet, vibrant green lettuce perfect for salads and sandwiches. The head is as large as a basketball and even with four hungry eaters lasts for two or three meals. Being a thrifty Yankee, I am compelled to buy 2 heads for $5 rather than one head for $3 purchasing Bronze Arrow, Esmerelda, or a bunch of spinach.

Still, sometimes, two heads is more than my family can eat quickly and I store it in my own personal warehouse, the refrigerator. This happened recently, where a Let Us Farm Galisse spent two weeks in the vegetable bin, while I was on vacation. Once home the lettuce still appeared healthy, vibrant, and just as fresh as the day I purchased it, so, I used a leaf to top a sandwich.

Only I knew it was two weeks old! It still tasted okay, but definitely not as good as when I first bought it. Instead of a crisp, juicy, sweet leaf, with flavor just popping in my mouth, it was a smidgen bitter and a tad bit dry.

The Other Lettuce

It got me to thinking how old are the lettuce heads I purchase at the grocery store? Usually Romaine is my top choice, as it is the healthiest variety that is sold at a mainstream store or the co-op year around. Even so, Romaine is often bitter and dull-looking. If my Galisse looked so good after my personal warehousing, how fresh is the grocery store Romaine?

Once picked, fruits and vegetables begin their demise, which can be thwarted by chilling, freezing, canning, and other preservation methods. Sugars begin to naturally oxidize, especially when produce is stored in heat or humidity. Fruits and vegetables respire after harvest causing biochemical changes resulting in a breakdown of the carbohydrates and the production of carbon dioxide and methane.

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Further, fresh food flavor is unpredictable because of its unknown travel or warehouse life preceding its arrival in the produce aisle. Additionally, the varying growing conditions such as watering schedule, sunlight hours, and cool versus warm temperatures can vary the produce taste causing the finicky eater to shun the healthiest foods, just because they don’t taste the same every time. Any delay from farm to fork and just the unpredictability of Mother Nature can be enough for food flavor to change from sweet to bitter or vibrant to bland. No wonder it’s hard to get people both young and old to eat their fruits and veggies. And for some it’s McDonald’s fare, because it is so predictable!

One solution to this disconnect with food tasting differently season to season or week to week is to bring food growing back to the people. I’m not suggesting that we all have Victory Gardens as during WWII, but instead that housing developments are built that are landscaped with orchards, berry shrubs, and community gardens. We all eat, but as a society, most of us have forgotten where our food comes from. It’s not Albertsons, Stop ‘n Shop or Publix, but rather a farm. And on the farm, food grows in the ground, or on a bush or in a tree.

By integrating food production into our communities, we can develop neighborliness around nourishment from the earth’s bounty. We need to reconnect with truly fresh food, so we know how good it really tastes!

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

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Embrace Change–It is Inevitable–Eat Good Food

Summer is here. Saturday, May 23rd, I bought my first flat of Skagit Valley’s fresh Hayton Farms organic strawberries. I can’t remember ever buying local strawberries this early. Some seasons, I’ve had to wait until the first week of July!

Symphonic Spring

Italian Prune Plum Blossoming in March

Italian Prune Plum Blossoming in March

Typically, April and May were months where Seattleites would be tantalized by our symphonic spring. Unlike my Connecticut upbringing where spring arrived like the 4th of July, quickly and with vigor, the classic maritime spring is punctuated by gorgeous days and temperatures gradually rising often times between what feels like endless days of clouds. Expecting summer imminently, usually when June comes, we are socked in with “June Gloom” or “Juneuary” amid low-hanging clouds until after the 4th of July. Outdoor events are scheduled after July 5th, when magically, the giant weather switch in the sky changes and summer officially begins. Summer lasts about 2-1/2 months until mid-September, with little rain and lots of sunshine! However, contrary to the norm, this year the first week in May week had temperatures over 80 degrees! And now, traipsing into June, temperatures are hovering near 80 again!

Another anomaly this year, ski season was cut short. Not enough snow. If there was snow, it was only above 5,000 feet at Crystal and Stevens ski areas. I ski to get into that meditative zone–just the swish of the ski, the pounding of my heart, and cool wind brushing past my face. My last ski day was in January in the sun, on crunch, avoiding rocks–oh, so loud and not fun!

March 2015 Gas Energy Usage

March 2015 Gas Energy Usage

My February 7th to March 10th Puget Sound Energy gas bill confirmed the bad ski season. The weather is different, changing, and four degrees warmer than the previous winter which significantly reduced my energy consumption and my bill! Daily temperatures have continued to increase and since April, I’ve been sleeping with the window open and the fan on! It has just been too hot! Continuing this trend, according to latest forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Forecast System surface air temperatures for this Seattle summer (June, July and August) are expected to be two to four degrees Fahrenheit above normal, which would give us on average 80 degree days and 60 degree nights! It sounds divine for growing food, but not for cooling off our city homes. With weather and predictions like this, it is time to plant your tomatoes, as it will not be the “year of the green tomato!” (Oh, and buy a fan, too, before they are sold out!)

March Blooming Hedge Blueberries

March Blooming Hedge Blueberries

Not surprisingly, Governor Inslee on May 15th declared a statewide drought. This past winter, Seattle had normal quantities of precipitation, but it came as rain rather than snow–hence, the bad ski season. The Pacific Northwest is dependent on snow and thus, snowmelt to quench a thirsty populous. Snow typically accumulates in the Cascades and Olympics through the winter, creating a defacto giant frozen reservoir. With warming temperatures and sunny days, melting snow feeds drinking water reservoirs, irrigation channels, and salmon-bearing streams. The statewide snowpack is only nine percent of normal according the Washington State Department of Ecology, and currently predicted to be the lowest on record in the past 64 years. As of May 29th, there is no snowpack in the Olympic Mountains. According to Cliff Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington and regular commentator on KUOW-our public radio station, western Washington public water systems are predicted to have enough water due to foresight from operators that filled reservoirs with rainwater during the winter. With sufficient water supply and sunny warm days ahead, if you plant your yard with edibles, anticipate a bountiful harvest.

Rather than pining for the cool summers of past or worrying about the hot summers of the future, embrace NOW with gusto and eat (and perhaps, grow) good food!

Eat Good Food!

Late May Prune Plums

Late May Prune Plums

I am looking forward to a plethora of great food from my yard. My perennials are rhubarb, rosemary, Italian prune plums, thyme, blueberries, strawberries, and Interlaken grapes. Plums, arriving in late August, are a staple for my annual zwetchendatschi–the plum tart of my Bavarian heritage. Any over abundance of plums and grapes are dried into prunes and raisins. Annually, garlic, tomatoes, green beans, basil, snap peas, and Japanese cucumbers flourish in my garden. My tomato starts are chosen based on the fruit not growing beyond two inches round to ensure they ripen. My favorites, Stupice for slicing, San Marzano for salsa, and any grape, cherry, and pear tomatoes for salads. I grow what will thrive! It is a joy to see my good food yard!

Late May Low-Bush Blueberries

Late May Low-Bush Blueberries

Farmer’s markets are my salvation for all those delectables I don’t or can’t grow on a 5,000 square foot city lot. Ever since my cabbage moth infestation, I am dependent on farmers to grow my brassicas–kales, chards, and broccoli. Organic farmers minimize pest problems by having enough land to rotate their crops between different fields every four to 13 years. Bad bugs never have a chance to set up camp and grow big families, since their favorite food group keeps moving fields. A legume planting is also part of the rotation sequence to naturally introduce nitrogen back into the soil. With so little real estate and unwillingness to use pesticides, I just abandon crops when pests invade. I will grow brassicas again when I know the bugs have left for new haunts. Hot weather crops, like melons, high acreage products such as corn, and large fruit trees are virtually impossible to grow on a Seattle city lot and all are purchased from my local farmer.

I could fret about the days that just seem too warm, but instead, I savor yesterday, tend for tomorrow, and eat for today.

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 and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! 

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Malting in the Skagit

Malting! As a kid, it meant malted milkshakes and Whoppers–malted milk covered in chocolate. Ugh! Whoppers were the rage in my Trick or Treat bag, but they tasted awful.

Now I savor a malted drink–Hefeweizen–the German malted wheat beer of my heritage. I like Lagers, IPA’s, and whiskey–all malted. I even add a quarter cup of Nestlé Malted Milk powder to my pancake mix. Yum! But, what is malting?

Malting is…

Wheat Varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Wheat varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Malting is an age-old process, fostered first in ancient Egypt about 6,000 years ago where kernels of barley, wheat, rice or other cereal grains are germinated in water. When the shoot reaches about 3/8 of an inch, germination is abruptly stopped and the sprouted kernels are oven-dried. Depending on the timing and the oven temperature, the dried grain develops differing flavors. The sprouting and drying process allows the grains’ starches to develop sugars, which the palate desires. Up until last century, the malting process was labor intensive. Damp, sprouted grains were spread out on cavernous floors, heated from below, and the grains were turned manually with large rakes until dry. With the advent of mechanization, malting grains were commoditized and standardized.

All superior beers are crafted with malted grains–most often barley or wheat–and then water, yeast and hops are added to the mix. Budweiser is produced from unmalted grains–either corn or rice. (No wonder when my German cousins visited when I was a kid and couldn’t stomach American beer!) Beer aficionados probably already know that mainstream beers are unmalted, but my being only a casual drinker of a good, well-crafted, specialty beer on a hot summer eve, I now know why I like crafted beers! It’s the brewed combination of malted grains, tangy hops, fermented yeast, and cold spring water.

A New Malting Dawn

Now, a new malting dawn is rising an hour north of Seattle in Skagit County, home to Skagit Valley Malting, Dr. Stephen Jones of Washington State University, and a multitude of folks all working to ensure that the region reigns as a preeminent, world class agricultural powerhouse, with products that create flavor, value, and terroir–a sense of place.

Grains ready for malting

Grains ready for malting

Imagine my amazement when Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting said, “there are 15,000 varieties of barley and 20,000 strains of wheat that can be malted!” Just in barley varieties, there are black, purple, red, and many shades of gold. Astonishingly today, in American beer brewing, including the craft brewers, only 10 barley strains are malted according to the American Malting Barley Association. Further, over the past 30 years, barley acreage has dropped 77%. This leaves a multitude of grains to test in the Skagit soils, to create the finest flavor, foster the hardiest plant, find the biggest producers, create the preeminent malts and build the agricultural economy. Dr. Stephen Jones is the Director of WSU Research in Mt. Vernon, the heart of Skagit County in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences with his research concentrating on improving wheat and grain varieties and to support the growing Skagit grain economy.

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Historically, prior to the United State’s commoditization and consolidation of agriculture following World War II, the Skagit agricultural lands had record wheat yields, two times those found on the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington and three times those found in Kansas, which hails as the Wheat State, since it grows more wheat than any state in the Union. Despite the fact that Skagit County lost their wheat and barley markets, the farmers have to grow grains because it is a necessary rotational crop in a healthy agricultural ecosystem. By including grain in a field planting sequence, disease and pest cycles are broken.

Skagit specialty red potato fields

Skagit specialty red potato fields

For example, if potatoes are grown in a field in year one, that same acreage cannot be planted with potatoes until year four. Other crops, such as tulips, grasses, cabbages, cucumbers, and grains can be rotated in. By not planting a field with potatoes again, harmful insects or diseases never get to call that acreage “home” and move in and multiply. No matter what though, by year three, a grain planting cycle is a necessary rotation to maintain soil health, because it returns organic matter to the soil, and the deep root system (about the same height as the steam and wheat spike) breaks up clay soils, allowing natural soil aeration. However, grain rotations are not as profitable for the farmer with gross earnings between $500 to $1,000 per acre ($0.01 to $0.02/square foot). When compared to peonies ($52K/acre or $1.19/SF), tulips ($15K/acre or $0.34/SF) or the specialty crop Skagit Red Potatoes ($12K-$15K/acre or $0.34/SF to $0.28/SF), grains have been downright a money loser.

Now Skagit Valley Malting is selling their malted grains to breweries in Washington, DC, where premium beers are sold at $21 per pint. Pike Brewery in Seattle sells specially crafted beers brewed with Skagit malts. Malting is not only for beer, but for bread, too, such as the loaves at the Breadfarm in Bow, Washington, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, and Manhattan’s Blue Hill restaurant–all featuring malts from Skagit Valley Maltingt!

Opportunity in malting!

Skagit farmers, entrepreneurs, agricultural researchers, and others see opportunity! Beer drinkers rejoice! The Skagit region is charging ahead as an economic agricultural powerhouse in the changing edible landscape. Eaters and drinkers everywhere are looking for new, wholesome, and vibrant taste experiences. Growing grains is getting exciting and is expected to be a money maker!

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

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The Elusive Tomato

Growing up in Connecticut, tomatoes were “to die for.” From the end of April to the beginning of June, nature’s winter cloaks were summarily discarded and summer’s heat quickly arrived. May was a time of massive seasonal transition. The last vestiges of cold nights ended, trees seemed to go from bud to full leaf in just one mid-May day, and setting tomato plant starts was a top priority by Memorial Day weekend, to ensure the first cherry-sized bursts of succulent sunshine by the 4th of July. There was something about the heat, the soil, and the rain, that created the tomato of childhood memories. After biting through the tender skin, we slurped the juice from the mouthwatering pulp. Adding just a little bit of salt and cut up chives over a plate of sliced baseball-sized orbs created a sweet and savory treat my family enjoyed every late summer dinner.

Can I still get that powerful, luscious tomato flavor from my childhood? Or is it only a dream? Is it just childhood untainted taste buds that imagined a flavor brimming with complexity?

Tomatoes are available year around in Seattle markets, but never measure up to my childhood recollection. Have tomatoes undergone a transformation to a bland, rock hard, perfectly-shaped red spheres?

How did today’s tomato evolve?

Tomatoes were first domesticated by the Mayans in southern Mexico or northern Central America. By 1521, when Cortes conquered the Aztecan city, now named Mexico City, the native people already combined tomatoes, hot peppers, and salt, into a concoction now known as salsa.

By the late 16th century, the tomato was found on Italian soil, where it was woven into the region’s food culture. Soon after American colonists integrated tomatoes into their meals despite some thinking the orbs were poisonous. However, in the U.S., it wasn’t until the Civil War, that consumption spiked with tomato’s acidity benefiting from new canning technology allowing long-term food storage. The Union troop’s easily carried canned tomatoes, perhaps benefiting the outcome of the war. By 1880, schooner powered trade flourished between Havana, Cuba and east coast ports bringing summer produce to city folk yearning for a change from the repetitive potatoes, beets, and other winter root fare.

My own cherry tomatoes!

My own cherry tomatoes!

Farmers, threatened by the imported food, had political clout and fought back. They wanted to grow the produce on U.S. soil, knowing the northern cities were a huge winter market to satiate with delectable warm weather crops! The fight became so fierce that ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the tomato could be protected by tariffs provided it was classified as a vegetable. Biologically, the edible sweet and fleshy product of a plant with seeds is a fruit! In keeping with politics, the Supreme Court ruled that since tomatoes are served with vegetables, it should be classified as such. Never mind the biological criteria! This monumental high court decision triggered Florida’s entrance into winter time tomato production, so well told in Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit. U.S. farmers no longer had to worry about imported tomatoes, because vegetables (and not fruits) were tariff protected.

Florida: The Fresh Tomato Market

The All Natural Mexican Tomato

The All Natural Mexican Tomato Orb

From mid-October until June, the southern half of Florida “produces virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the U.S…, and accounts for about 50% of all fresh tomatoes produced domestically” according to the Florida Tomato Committee, the controller of Florida’s tomato production. Floridian tomatoes are basically grown in sand, devoid of topsoil, hummus, and nutrients found in the rich bottom-land soils of fertile farmground. Instead the plants are fed chemical fertilizers and blasted “with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal,” as documented by Barry Estabrook. These chemical concoctions not only “feed” and “protect” the tomato, but also expose the farmworkers to excessive chemical contamination causing extensive health problems.

Eventually, the tomatoes are hand-picked green, with no more than a hint of pink to be carted in open-top semi trucks [think six feet deep with no dented or bruised spheres], for washing and sorting into boxes. Crates of tomatoes are gassed in ethylene-filled rooms for “ripening,” before being shipped to markets. Last fall visiting the Tomato Division of Armata Fruit & Produce in the Bronx, I watched pale-red tomato orbs bounce (not roll) down a conveyor belt, while being electronically scanned for color and swept by a mechanical arm into boxes for final “ripening.” These tomatoes are designed to travel long distances, unscathed, and to allure us with their red color. The “look” of the red tomato is intended to trick us into thinking it will taste good!

What’s an alternative?

My own San Marzano tomatoes

My own San Marzano Roma tomatoes

Wait for tomatoes to be in season! Garner the ultimate tomato experience by shopping at the farmer’s market or growing your own! Tomatoes get their flavor from the seed, the sun, the heat, the water and the soil and its micronutrients–creating the terroir or sense of place–of the ultimate fruit (or do I mean vegetable).

Most importantly and no matter the tomato, it should never be refrigerated! Sit it on a counter, stem side up, so as to not bruise its shoulders. Even the winter traveling tomato from Mexico or Florida should may even taste a little better without being refrigerated!

For the best tasting tomato, try growing your own! With our ever increasing summer heat, tomatoes will become easier to grow. “How to grow tomato” websites can be found at Gardeners Supply, PCC Natural Markets, the Seattle-based food cooperative, and the Cheap Vegetable Gardener. I grow Stupice–a two inch diameter slicer, Sweet Million–a cherry, and San Marzano–a Roma, salsa-making tomato all perfect for my northeast facing lot that is in shadows by 4 p.m. on hot summer days. My childhood tomato memories live on!

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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Cultivating a Thriving Agricultural Economy: Skagit Valley

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

Roozengarde's Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

Roozengarde’s Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

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

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

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

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

Salmonids: An Issue

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

Agricultural Economy

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

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

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

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

The Beauty

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

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

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

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

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The Land That Feeds Us: Skagit Valley

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

The questions are:

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

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

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

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

Skagit Valley Farmland: The Resource

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

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

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

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

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

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

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

The Farmers: Vegetable, Livestock, and Seafood

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

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

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

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

The Food Distribution System

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

Playing with Food: The Answers

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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