Incredible: Brooklyn Whole Foods

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

Rooftop Farm

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

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

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

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

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

More Sustainable Attributes

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

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

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

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

And There is More

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

Gotham Greens Basil

Gotham Greens Basil

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

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

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

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

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An Agricultural-Residential Development Solution

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

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

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

A New Community Development Solution

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

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

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

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

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

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

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

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

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

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

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

Notes: 

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

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

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

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

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Know Where Your Food Comes From

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

Corn Tassels in the Sunlight

Corn Tassels in the Sunlight

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

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

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

Evolution of Seeds

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

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

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

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

New Seed Advances

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

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

Pole Beans in my Garden

Pole Beans in my Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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What is Sustainable Agriculture?

I am not a farmer, but care where my food comes from. I read labels to avoid unknown, unintelligible ingredients. I cannot feed myself with my gardening skills. Farmers grow my food and I have the utmost respect for the work the work they do. Each season farmers start anew deciding what and how much to grow. It is always a calculated risk based on years of experience, while not knowing what nature’s forces will bring in the upcoming growing season.

Diversified Cropping at Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley

Diversified Cropping at Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley

Sustainable agriculture is a term to describe a food growing process that appeals to those whom care about their food choices. Alternatively, agribusiness, the large-scale, commodity-driven, often chemically-induced, pesticide-protected, government subsidized food production beast worries the sustainable agriculture consumers. Examples abound on why to be concerned. Pork production facilities have caused significant environmental damage to North Carolina river ecosystems from leaks from CAFOs–Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations–where multitudes of pigs are treated only as a food source rather than live animals that should be given respect. Food safety calamities with mainstream products such as peanut butter and cantaloupes have caused recalls, sickness and even death and shaken the confidence of our conventional food supply system.

Whether sustainable agriculture is the answer to food safety and environmental concerns is not certain, but I assert that is part of the solution.

Agriculture is…

What is agriculture? According to the Oxford American dictionary, agriculture is “the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food.” Between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, our ancestors realized that staying rooted during the growing season meant a more secure food source, than the hunting and gathering existence of their forefathers. Our predecessors developed villages, towns, and eventually cities around soils that bore fruits and vegetables, and reared animals, which were domesticated to provide milk, materials for clothing, casings for sausage, and a multitude of other uses.

Goat basking in the sun at Cloudview EcoFarm--Columbia Basin

Goat basking in the sun at Cloudview EcoFarm–Columbia Basin

Improvements to agriculture practices evolved over the eons with the advent 6,000 years ago of the simple plow and irrigation practices thereby increasing yields. The invention of the wheel about 5,500 years ago, vastly eased product movement from rural lands to population centers and increased city densification and development of a merchant class.

Agriculture continued to evolve and beginning in 1800, during the Industrial Revolution and accelerating in the aftermath of World War II, food production surged and worldwide population skyrocketed to 7 billion people today. (Since my birth, the world’s human population has more than doubled, which is astounding.) A significant part of the population increase is attributable to the vast improvements in food production, which increased yields by using artificially-made pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. At the same time, seed stocks were hybridized to strengthen traits that improved transport and storability, increased size, augmented color, and optimized the use of artificial inputs (Roundup® ready seeds for example). For those that support all technological advancements, the increase in food production via agribusiness has been a stellar success.

At the same time there have been losses.  Flavor, which is the joy of eating, has been lost with intense hybridization. Rural communities have been emptied, food safety concerns have increased and topsoil continues to be lost. Many assert that agricultural scientific innovation should be tempered with reverence and appreciation for a natural systems ethos to grow food more sustainably.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Much has been written by scholars and farming specialists on sustainable agriculture, which is considered a system that is “protective of the environment, economically viable, and social responsible” according to a 2002 Washington State University (WSU) Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR), Sustainable Agriculture in Washington State publication. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, funded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, further defines the 3 Pillars of (Farming) Sustainability where there is “(1) profit over the long term, (2) stewardship of our nation’s land, air and water, and (3) quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities.” These are solid, grounded objectives that benefit the common good, but have been largely dismissed by agribusiness.

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

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

Concurrently, at least 95% of Americans’ food purchases comes from conventionally grown agribusinesses and unfortunately, the common person is just not exposed nor perhaps even interested in other food production methods, let alone alarmed about issues that protect the natural world or support living wages for the farm workers. Furthermore, most people don’t spend a moment ever thinking about where their food comes from, as it just shows up and is easily available, providing no connection or awareness to any problems or potential fragility in the food system.

Why Should it Matter?

Should Americans care where their food comes from? Should they be concerned about how it is grown or whether the farmer is able to make a living wage? Yes! We are fortunate in Washington State to have extraordinary farmers such as Cloudview EcoFarm, Viva Farms, Nash’s Organic Produce, and many more that are growing food sustainably where natural resources are sacred and workers are treated well. However, for all of these farms to be profitable over the long term, the eating public needs to be educated and to support a sustainable agriculture economy.

My question to sustainable agriculture advocates is how do we ignite the eating public to care about where their food comes from? What solutions do you have? The Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network (WSFFN), located in Mt. Vernon, WA will be updating its strategic plan and collaborating with other like-minded organizations to further sustainable food and farming initiatives. I am on the WSFFN board and welcome your thoughts at Facebook-Gardow Consulting.

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

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Organic Farms Matter: Uncle Matt’s Organics

Patriarch Benny McLean

Patriarch & Story Teller Benny McLean

Located a half- hour west of Florida’s Magic Kingdome is Uncle Matt’s Organics, a 14-year old family business supplying discerning consumers with organic citrus and juice products. Spending a day with the business’ patriarch and story teller, Benny McLean was the highlight of my Floridian vacation. While my family enjoyed the thrill of Space Mountain® and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin®, I savored the succulent Florida grapefruits and oranges and learned about the challenges of being a farmer not far from Mickey’s home and his 17,500,000 visitors (2012).

The Story

After World War II, US Route 27, was the northern snowbirds conduit to get to the Sunshine Coast, arriving when Florida was predominately home to farmers tending orange groves, strawberry fields, and cattle ranches. The allure of pristine beaches and warm climes brought the northern transplants, despite the mid-60’s television advertisements warning viewers to be wary of buying “swamp land in Florida.”

The Citrus Tower

The Citrus Tower

Clermont, Florida was the epicenter of the citrus industry with the iconic Citrus Tower, opening in 1956, soaring above 300,000 acres of grapefruit and orange groves in Lake County, just west of Orange County, where Orlando lies. Taking the elevator to the top of the Tower provides views to the flatlands from a 450-foot vantage point, since the 226-foot structure sits on a 228-foot knoll, part of the central Florida spine of rolling hills. At the tower base were activities to entertain, products to buy and tours of groves to educate visitors of the delight of citrus.

In the early 1960’s Walt Disney saw that his Los Angeles based Disneyland® was a significant tourist attraction, but realized that to truly create a magic place, he needed control over a much larger land mass. Flying over central Florida, he saw opportunity with its network of highways and vacant parcels where he could create a place of imagination. The Magic Kingdom® opened in 1971 to unprecedented enthusiasm and is now the number one attended theme park in the world. Since then, unparalleled theme park and accommodation construction have continued to fill the central Florida landscape making the Orlando area a destination for visitors from around the world.

Old and New Agricultural Florida

A Snapshot of the Old Red Farm Road and New Asphalt Road

In 1971, Walt Disney World® employed 5,500 workers more commonly known as “cast members” and now boasts it provides jobs for more than 59,000 employees with a $1.8 billion payroll in a 2009 report prepared by Arduin, Laffer & Moore, a conservative-leaning consulting firm. The same report asserts that 2.5% of Florida’s gross state product is because of the Disney theme park businesses. These numbers reveal why there has been a 415% population increase in Orange and Lake Counties, in what had been traditionally a farming region. Regardless of the population influx, devastating Arctic blasts in 1983, 1985, and 1989 were the ultimate death knell of the historic citrus economy. With the freezes, the ever expanding entertainment industry, land being converted to its economic “highest and best” commercial use, and farmers needing to make a living, land was converted to housing, strip malls, and suburbia, leaving places such as Groveland, Minneola, and Tangelo Park as historic names of a bygone era.

Once a Farmer, Always a Farmer

Despite a youthful rebuff of a farming career, Benny’s youngest son, Matt McLean (of Uncle Matt’s fame) equipped with a finance degree has evolved into the “pioneer, agriculturist activist and entrepreneur” in the organic food industry. Uncle Matt’s only grows organically, with no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or chemicals contaminating their products, because it is better for the environment, water quality, and personal health. As Matt says, “before the 20th century all food was organic,” as synthetic fertilizers were initially made in the munitions factories needing to be re-purposed following World War II.

More importantly, with the demise of the Florida orange industry north of the cross Florida I-4 interstate, and only 10,000 acres of Lake County citrus groves now remaining, Matt saw opportunity. In the late 1990’s, no organic orange juice was available. Concurrently, the German market was looking for new citrus sources, since the Teutonic climate is too cold, and the Germans yearned for organics, too. Finally, in 2000, the National Organic Program established the rules around organic production, which created an opening for a fledgling organic orange business to grow.

Organic Farms Matter

Uncle Matt’s Organics is a family-run business, which owns and leases groves, purchases fruit from neighboring farms and supplies all natural, not-from-concentrate, organic juices to markets across the country. The organic orange juice market is only served by Uncle Matt’s and a private label brand. The organic citrus business is small compared to the conventionally grown products, but a critically important part of the food market, since there is ever-increasing growth in the organic food industry. Despite still being small, the organic agricultural market continues to grow at a faster rate than the conventionally grown food and in 2008 was a $21 billion industry and one to two percent of US market according to the Organic Trade Association.

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

Uncle Matt’s is passionate about organics and will not farm as most conventional growers do with petroleum based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Benny’s passion for organics is so strong, that he said some of the local food storage facilities (packing houses) will not store their organic products, because they can’t guarantee their safety. As one packing house owner said, “Rats don’t lie. They can smell the nutrients (in the organic produce).”

From the top of the Citrus Tower, I could not see an orange grove, but could only imagine the undulating rows of fruit trees. Farmland in Florida is so threatened with conversion to development that just prior to the economic meltdown between 2002 to 2007, Florida lost 25% of its citrus acreage, according to the USDA Agricultural Census. From my travels in Lake County it appears that housing starts were up again, as there were multiple tentacles of new roads and subdivisions. Despite the pressures from real estate development, Uncle Matt’s will be the nexus for organic citrus production for the foreseeable future because of the family’s dedication and passion. Uncle Matt’s is here to stay supplying the freshest, most nutritionally complete citrus products for the discerning palate.

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

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Sustainable Development: Incorporating Agriculture

What is a sustainable community? Currently, in real estate development lexicon, it is a transit-oriented project with sidewalks, bike paths, served by public transit with green/energy efficient buildings, and perhaps limited parking. But, there is a new aspect of sustainable development which integrates: Growing FOOD!  Without food (and water), humans cannot survive, which is why including food production in a real estate project makes sense.  Over the past 80 years, Americans have disassociated more and more with food seasonality and where our sustenance comes from and purchased food based solely on price rather than nutritional value, or on how or where it is grown.

Grapes Growing in my Yard

Grapes Growing in my Yard

Growing up in Connecticut, I clearly remember the previous season’s Macintosh apples in my sack lunch and did not like its mealy April texture. With New Zealand fall-harvested apples during the northern hemisphere’s spring, the fresh crop crunch could be savored any time of the year. Grapes harvested in my yard in September are a distant memory, but right now I can have Chilean bursts of summer sweetness. Because of trends like these our food travels an average 1,500 miles from field to fork.

Since the inception of plowed agriculture, food was locally grown and families ate with the seasons, which meant eating the luscious tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob, peaches and other warm weather produce during the summer and preserving the extras into jams, jellies and relishes for the winter season. It also meant that fall-harvested crops, such as carrots, potatoes, beets, and parsnips were over-wintered in cold storage or in the ground in the Pacific Northwest to be pulled as needed. Granted winter meals were garnished with spices and treats from distant lands, but most cold weather fare included meats, grains, and root vegetables that could be stored, slaughtered or caught when summer abundance had passed.

Prairie Crossing:  An Early Agricultural Community Adapter

Now forward thinking people want to take control of their food sources and know where their sustenance comes from. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 200 developments across the nation have an agricultural twist. I visited one of the earliest examples, Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, located about an hours drive north of Chicago in the middle of suburbia.

Prairie Crossing Homes and Plowed Farmland

Prairie Crossing Homes and Plowed Farmland

Prairie Crossing is a conservation community, a model of sustainable development, which integrates preservation of natural habitat, connecting the community with trails, beach, and play areas, while incorporating an organic for-profit farm and a non-profit education farm. The Prairie Crossing property was purchased in 1987 by a group of neighbors that wanted to preserve the open space and agricultural land. Beginning in the 1990’s a community was designed and developed with 359 single family homes, 36 condominium units, a small retail center, a charter school, and a neighborhood gathering center, all adjacent to two separate railway lines into Chicago and Milwaukee. The project incorporated innovative landscaping and stormwater management systems, trails, pocket parks, and homesites on 677 acres that had been slated for a traditional 2,400 home subdivision. Entering the community on a brisk, cold, November day, I could feel the tenor of endless taillights in the neighboring sprawl development slip away.

Prairie Crossing Fruit Forest

Prairie Crossing Fruit Forest

I went to Prairie Crossing to learn about the 100-acre organic farm operation owned by Sandhill Family Farms, but came away with so much more. Mike Sands, Senior Associate of Liberty Prairie Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Prairie Crossing development graciously spent the morning with me explaining the history of how this conservation community came to be. Homes designed in keeping with the midwestern architectural tradition grace the property with swaths of open prairie separating neighborhoods, which are connected by ten miles of trails. Mike’s excitement for this real estate project is an inspiration for me to build a place that connects the community with its sustenance and creates a sense of belonging in the Pacific Northwest.

Local Seattle Communities with Agriculture

Artichoke at Burke-Gilman Gardens P-Patch Community Garden

Artichoke at Burke-Gilman Gardens P-Patch Community Garden

Washington is a place where values of place, connection, and belonging can be found and nurtured. Specifically, Seattle has a robust P-Patch program, more commonly known as a community garden program, where 1,900 gardeners grow food on small plots on more than 60 locations across the city. In my neighborhood, Burke-Gilman Gardens, a small apartment complex owned by Capital Hill Housing, is home to twenty-six 100 square foot P-Patch plots. Of the multitude of P-Patches across the city some have cooperatively managed composting operations and tool sharing, but all are filled with luscious produce.

These are just a few examples of real estate projects that include food production that could be used in the Pacific Northwest to create an agricultural conservation community.  My wish for 2014 is that stronger, tangible connections are made with where our food comes from, how it nourishes us, and the community that it creates.

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

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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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Food: A Political Act

“I didn’t know food was so political,” was my Dad’s comment after reading Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food.  Dad like the vast majority of people, ate when he was hungry.  He was eating food long before the  calories from fat or grams of sodium were found on food labels.  Food for Dad was pure pleasure and of course, a necessity!  Like my Dad, I ate what has put in front of me, and my diet included not only the wholesome foods my mother or I cooked, but also calorie-laden sweets and snacks, until my once upon a time skinny person metabolism changed.  I now have to be much more mindful of what I put into my body, so I don’t become classified as overweight by today’s U.S. Department of Health Standards.

Unlike my Dad, eaters born since the advent of the television age are more readily trained on what and how to eat by food company advertising, journalism and the government.  There are countless commercials on television, the internet, in the movies, on billboards, covering t-shirts, on race cars and buses and everything else you can imagine.  There are daily articles in newspapers, blogs, radio broadcasts, and conversations with friends about what to eat or not to eat.  Different parts of government, whether it is the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the local county government, or a classroom teacher provide information to willing listeners on food policy.  No longer are we just eating the wholesome food of earlier generations but instead consuming foods, as Pollan says, our “great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  Paying attention to the constant food babble on our meal choices is never-ending.

Typical Food Company Advertising

McDonald's Bus Advertisement

McDonald’s Bus Advertisement

An unrecognizable concoction in earlier generations now advertised on the sides of buses, are the ubiquitous Chicken McNuggets®–a breaded, processed chicken chunk–created by the giant food company McDonald’s.  The chicken chunk does include the well-known fowl as its first ingredient, but also a myriad of other ingredients not found in my kitchen including “hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ” and “dimethylpolysiloxane.”

TBHQ also known as “tertiary butylhydroquinone” is a petroleum based preservative product added to edible vegetable and animal fats, to prevent spoilage.  The US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) has legally limited the quantity of TBHQ to 0.02% of any product’s oil and fat content.  According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, as little as a single gram (1/30th of an ounce) of TBHQ consumption, can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.”

The other mysterious ingredient is dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foaming agent similar to silicone products found in cosmetics and the childhood toy, Silly Putty.  While no known harmful effects have been found from dimethylpolysiloxane’s use in foods, I’m sure my great grandmother did not add it to her cooking repertoire.

Food Journalism

Journalism has also added immensely to the politics of food.  Newspapers have long included recipes and feature articles on food in the Wednesday paper with the inserts of the tantalizing, money saving coupons.  Now discussions on food issues are just as likely to show up on the front page of the paper or have dedicated websites such as Food Safety News.

Newspapers chronicled the late 1980’s rise and quick decline of oat bran as a health fad to lower cholesterol levels.  In 1993, it was Jack in the Box’s turn where under-cooked, fecal-infested, hamburgers were served with four children’s lives lost.  Beginning in 2001, there have been compromised honey imports into the United States from China via other countries.  Now in the honey scandal, people have been charged, fines have been paid,  and the saga continues to this day.  [I know I can trust my local honey producer Snoqualmie Valley Honey Farm.]  There is the continued diet craze where recommendations on what to eat and how much to eat are made.  There is the Atkins Diet, Weight Watchers, DASH, and numerous other diet programs to consider and evaluate.

Journalism is invested in keeping us well-informed, aware, and perhaps sometimes afraid about what we ingest.

Government’s Food Policies

Our U.S., state, and local governments also dispense a stupendous wealth of food information.  The Center for Disease Control, local health departments, and schools are working to implement wellness programs and physical activity guidelines to reign in the obesity epidemic.  The Farm Bill authorized by Congress approximately every five years, impacts rural farming communities, international trade, food and nutrition programs (also known as Food Stamps in the old vernacular), conservation programs and a myriad of other food policy and agricultural issues.

1943 USDA --7 Basic Food Groups

1943 USDA –7 Basic Food Groups

Of course, the U.S. Department of Agricultural has a vested interest in food issues, too, and took on a critical role during World War II, when the U.S. last experienced food scarcity.  By November 1943, sugar, meat, butter, coffee and a multitude of other food products were rationed, because of shortages and to supply food to the troops.  Concurrently, the government created the first food poster with 7 equally important food categories.  The 1943 categories, Group One–Green and Yellow Vegetables…, Group Two–Oranges, Tomatoes, Grapefruit…, Group Three–Potatoes and Other Vegetables and Fruits, Group Four–Milk and Milk Products…, Group Five–Meat, Poultry, Fish, or Eggs…, Group Six–Bread, Flour, and Cereals…, Group Seven–Butter and Fortified Margarine, look silly today.  Who today would recommend butter or fortified margarine (to which Vitamin A was added), on par with any of the other six food groups?

From 1956 to 1992, my formative years until adulthood, the seven food groups were reduced to the basic big four; meat, dairy, grains and fruits and vegetables, in equal amounts.  It seemed simple for my grade-school mind to grasp.  Beginning in 1992 until today, recommendations on what we should eat has changed three more times, twice in a triangular form, more commonly known as a food pyramid and now as My Plate, where a dinner plate is divided into four portions with an added dairy product.  Most likely, the recommended food offerings will continue to evolve.

Back to the Politics of Food

Dad was flummoxed by the often contradictory noise about what, when and how to eat.  He couldn’t be bothered with it.  Why would Dad have wanted to pay attention to all this information, when he could just enjoy eating?!

Dad always found my passion for good food and the farms an interesting curiosity.  He taught me to pick strawberries, plant a garden, and stop at the roadside stand to purchase fresh tomatoes and corn.  But, what was different, was that I spent time making deliberate food choices, eating vitamin-charged kale over an iceberg lettuce salad and serving whole wheat spaghetti.  I wouldn’t always eat the ice cream or piece of cake that was served, but was more judicious in my choices.

Yes, Dad, what we eat is a political act, whether we like it or not.  Each item we eat is supporting a farmer that grew the food.  Purchasing nuts, grass-fed beef or cider at the farmer’s market directly supports the farm operation and local economies and farmland preservation, while eating Chicken McNuggets® does not.  Even so, with all the food choice hype, we need to get out of our heads and just enjoy simply eating.

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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