Is a Vibrant Agricultural Community Important?

“There is a shellfish farmer, sheep farmer and a vegetable farmer in a room of real estate development professionals.”

Samish Bay and Taylor Shellfish Farms

It’s the start of the classic “groan” joke. And, Yes!, it really happened! The sunny last day of February was a great day of learning with ULI- Northwest’s Center for Leadership class. The Salish Sea was shimmering, the tide was up at Taylor Shellfish Farms on Chuckunut Drive and the raw oyster shellfish lunch was delectable. Taylor Shellfish, the 120-year old family-owned business and shellfish operation on Chuckanut Drive, is a 45-minute drive south of Bellingham, Washington and home to a 1,900-acre farm hidden by high tides two times every day. Linda Neunzig, Snohomish County Agricultural Coordinator and owner of Ninety Farms outside of Arlington, Amy Moreno-Sills, PCC Farmland Trust’s Farm to Farmer Coordinator and co-owner of Four Element Farm in Pierce County, and Bill Dewey, Director of Public Relations for Taylor Shellfish and owner of Chuckunut Shellfish, imparted their wisdom on the perils and pleasures of farming. Each farmer further instilled a sense of urgency on remembering where our food comes from and why local farmland and farming is important. Farmland is not just open space.

Food is something we need every day to be vibrant, healthy, and at our peak performance. We expect it to be there whether at the grocery store, at an all you-can-eat buffet, at a local coffee shop, or just in the refrigerator when we wake up in the morning. We don’t think about where food comes from. We just take our food for granted.

Where Does Your Food Come From?

Linda set the stage both as a farmer and an agricultural advocate for Snohomish County. Right after the 9/11 tragedy she was in an elementary classroom outside of Everett, Washington, the next big city north of Seattle.

“Where does your food come from?” she asked the students.

The students shrugged their shoulders and scoffingly said, “The grocery store.” (Like, of course, isn’t that where all food comes from?)

Linda pursued the questioning further, “No, really, where does your food come from?”

With a shrug and disinterest, the students were silent.

With emphasis, Linda said, “A farm.”   

The students nodded their heads, silently acknowledging and realizing, that yes, their food did come from a farm.

Linda drilled down further and asked, “There are only three to five days of food available in a grocery store. What if we can’t get food shipped in from Mexico and California? Is there enough farmland to feed the people in Snohomish County, if food can’t get here?”

The students halfheartedly nodded yes.  

“If you think we can feed the people in Snohomish County, how will we feed the folks in King County? There are a lot more people with a lot more money in Seattle. How are we going to feed them them?”

The students got it. Locally grown food is a necessity for healthy, resilient, sustainable communities.

The Seattle area had just lived through Snowmageddon 2019 in February where grocery stores were stripped of produce and essentials, so the experience of not enough food at a grocery store was very real. Just as the elementary kids realized their food came from farms, the adults, too, had a gut reaction that food just doesn’t come from a grocery store, it comes from farms.

Cooking Paella

Food has been part of my life forever. Yes, I eat! I have deep roots in food. As a teenager, my first vegetable garden was filled with green beans and tomatoes, which continue to be “green thumb” mainstays. In the 1990’s, my livelihood depended on food. I secured real estate sites and permitted Haggen’s grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest. For five years I served as a PCC Community Markets board member approving new grocery sites, developing policy to reward co-op members, and ensuring the co-op’s financial stability. Beginning in 2006, I started a four-year stint as PCC Farmland Trust’s Executive Director, placing conservation easements on vulnerable farmland, raising (at the height of the recession) significant capital to save at-risk farmland, and doubling the number of donors committed to preserving valuable, productive farmland. I developed a fuller understanding of the joys and more importantly the challenges of farming. I, too, humbly realized, I had taken my food for granted. I vowed to continue to work to protect and respect farmland and the farmers that grow our food.

All food, whether at the grocery store, restaurants, sporting events, you name it, comes from farmers. Farmers grow the food on which we are so dependent and we probably never think of thanking them for their work. Farmers are dependent on farmable land and clean, adequate quantities of water to grow the food we eat. Oh, and sun helps, too!

Real estate professionals are dependent on the same resources–land and water–in their business to build communities and cities. Hence putting three farmers in the same room with a group of real estate professionals is an amazing opportunity to cross pollinate understandings and information.

The Farmers’ Livelihoods

Linda, Amy, and Bill all have two jobs-they run their farm and have a “day” job. Linda Neunzig works a full-time “day job” for Snohomish County advocating for the preservation of farmland and the farming economy. If a farmer goes out of business or sells property to a developer, the farmland is lost forever. It impacts the farm economy and the strength of the food growing profession. For a vibrant farm economy, farmers need support infrastructure and enough farms to support a thriving farm economy. Think about it, the dairy economy needs large-animal veterinarians, feed and supply stores, large machinery suppliers, and processing facilities for milk. If there is not enough commerce for the dairy agricultural support businesses, they go out of business. While advocating for the farm economy, Linda also runs Ninety Farms, a purebred Katahdin sheep and lambing business that just birthed its 2,600th lamb! She butchers animals for fine restaurants and discerning customers and sells breeding lambs to other farmers worldwide. Both professions keep her quite busy. 

Amy Moreno-Sills, with her husband Augustin, farm Four Elements Farm on 56 acres in the fertile Puyallup Valley in Pierce County on property that was conserved by PCC Farmland Trust. Four Elements Farm specializes in bringing healthy, wholesome food to the community and their loyal Community Supported Agricultural (“CSA”) customers. The farm is blessed with 70-year old blueberry bushes where customers can U-pick in season. The farm store is set in the middle of the fields and the business is centrally located between the bustling communities of Puyallup and Orting. Not that she doesn’t have enough to do, Amy’s “day job” is to link farms to farmers and visa versus. She ensures new and expanding farmers have access to available land and retiring farmers have an financially rewarding way to sell their land to a farmer. 

Bill Dewey’s almost 30-year “day job” as Director of Public Relations for Taylor Shellfish Farms keeps him hopping to ensure that Samish Bay continues to be a healthy, productive shellfish environment. His other job, a manila clam and geoduck farm business is also located in Samish Bay. During our haven for the day at Taylor Shellfish, Bill emphasized the importance of clean, healthy, cool seawater as critical to growing the best mussels, clams, and oysters.

Oyster Farm at Taylor Shellfish Farms

Bill said that usually only 700 acres of the 1,900 acres of tidelands owned Taylor are farmed at one time. Shellfish delicacies are “planted” regularly at lower tides and harvested as demanded by markets in Seattle and worldwide. Despite what appears to be a large operation on Chuckanut Drive, Taylor’s main office and farm are in Shelton, Washington. With expanding markets and changing seawater conditions, Taylor has had adapt and change their business model. Ocean acidification from a changing climate has impacted how Taylor runs their $68 million worldwide business. Rather than growing seed in the ocean, they are now grown in a laboratory environment in Hawaii to ensure that the seed reaches a large enough mature size to withstand the more challenging natural now slightly more acid seawater home. Stormwater discharge from the built environment, agriculture or other land-based activities greatly impacts seawater health for shellfish or any sea-based food. Fertilizers, car emissions and oils, and inadequate stormwater control facilities can all compound to tip the balance towards inferior water quality to grow healthy sea crops.

Once out of the laboratory, oysters begin their lives as mere specks eventually attaching themselves to old oyster shells. The fertilized shells are bagged and hung on cords that are stretched between posts in the shallow Samish Bay aqua farm. The Samish Sea tides flow in and out twice a day bringing fresh seawater and nutrients to nurture the fledgling bivalves. Once the oysters have grown to full size, they are harvested and shipped to discerning customers. To educate and bring the good seafood story and delicacies to urbanites, Taylor Shellfish has opened multiple oyster and shellfish bars not only on Chuckanut Drive but also in Seattle and Bellevue!

The Follow-up Chatter

After the panel discussion, Linda spoke with a developer on how his firm purchased King County Regional Development Credits for their upzone in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood to build more housings units than originally allowed by the zoning code. Linda explained, “This is the classic Transfer of Development Rights land use tool that is used to protect farmland and forestland from development.”

Sprouting Oysters

Transfer of Development Rights (“TDR”) programs were created more than 20 years, but only now are becoming useful and powerful tools to bring density into the cities, while preserving rural lands for farming and forests. How does a TDR program work? A rural land owner sells the rights to develop her property to a government entity such as a County. For example, a farm owner has 100 acres and has a zoning code right to divide the property into ten lots at ten acres each, consequently creating 10 development rights or building lots. Often a landowner will keep at least one development right for an existing home on the property. The County buys the appraised value of the remaining nine development rights from the landowner. The value of each development right is the appraised cost that a landowner would garner for selling the property to a real estate developer. The County holds the development right in a “bank,” until a developer purchases the development right from the County to increase a building’s density or height in a city. These TDRs or in the City of Seattle parlance Regional Development Credits have been used to create more density in the South Lake Union neighborhood and other places in western Washington. 

And what was exciting to hear was the spontaneous chatter after the panel presentation. Two or three guys in the back of the room were bantering and one said, “Wow, that presentation blew my mind.” The energy was high in their conversation about their realization of agriculture’s vital importance in the Seattle region, for cities, for people, and our quality of life. The health of agriculture is challenged in our region. Ultimately our own health and the region’s health and prosperity is vulnerable and inextricably linked to the health and vibrancy of agriculture. 

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

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Is Flooding Good for Farmland?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flooding and Farmers

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

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Summer Radishes and Carrots

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

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

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

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