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.

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.