The Land That Feeds Us: Skagit Valley

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

The questions are:

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

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

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

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

Skagit Valley Farmland: The Resource

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

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

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

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

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

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

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

The Farmers: Vegetable, Livestock, and Seafood

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

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

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

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

The Food Distribution System

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

Playing with Food: The Answers

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One thought on “The Land That Feeds Us: Skagit Valley

  1. From Ellen Bynum, Friends of Skagit County: Thanks for reporting on Skagit County’s farmland. Key to the protection of 10% of Skagit’s farms is the Skagit Farmland Legacy Program, started in 1996 and managed by Skagit County. Using the WA State Conservation Futures Tax, local property tax is matched with Federal grants and has provided more than $22,000,0000 to purchase development rights to permanently protect the acres. Individual contributions to the Farmland Legacy Program are fully tax-deductible and can be made to Skagit Farmland Legacy Program, 1800 Continental Place, Mount Vernon, WA 98273.

    Farmers cannot farm without the land. The biggest threat to Skagit farmland is conversion to other uses. Two wetland mitigation banks in Skagit were created from a total of 1,100 acres of prime ag soils. Some of the acres may continue to be farmed, but most will become constructed wetlands. The Nookachamps loam soils (in the top 1% in productivity per acre in the world) were mined and sold for fill – under the new WalMart store in Mount Vernon, for example.

    In 2008 we counted 3,000 acres of converted farmland. At this rate it will not take long to convert the 90,000 acres of Skagit farmland from food production to other uses like fish & wildlife habitat, wetland banks, road widening, mitigation, etc.

    Friends of Skagit County made the first individual donation to the FLP and we ask that all of your readers do the same on an annual basis until all of Skagit’s farmland is protected forever. Tell your friends to help save Skagit farmland today!

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