Would you give me some insight on how the preserving some of the land and developing the commission that brought things forward has helped the area?
In King County now, only about 40,00042,000 acres are still being actively farmed. In some cases it is a very different kind of farming, and we felt that there were different things we needed to do. (First) we needed to do a better job of linking the farmers with the marketplace.
(Then) we needed to do a better job of bringing more education into the community, about (things like) what you have to be sensitive to when you are living near a farm
because we clearly have some very wealthy people living near some of these farms. The green pasture looks wonderful, but when the cow lets off an odor, thats not so pleasant.
So, they need to understand that this community values keeping the farms, even though some of these activities might not be what youre used to and during cropping times they may be operating fairly late in the day and have equipment out on the roads that suburban workers are used to using. So we needed to do education, we needed to do signage, we needed to make sure that if we needed anti-harassment ordinances in place, we had them and pretty much we dont have problems with that anymore. (Now) people are OK with the activities; they understand the value and a lot of people just appreciate being around it.
In a way the farmers have done some things themselves that have helped. (For example) they have gone to subscription farming, (where) people are buying shares in their crop. This is a fairly recent happening, about 58 years maybe. What I find in going to a place they are doing this is that there is a whole different community out there that people might not have thought would be interested in this and they are interested in it because they think it is teaching their children a lot of lessons about how their food is produced and why it is important to support the farmer locally. They sometimes get involved in working for their shares and sometimes they pay for their shares. They dont have any trouble paying for it, but they want to be able to take their family out to the farm to be able to pick the herbs and the flowers and so forth and sort of connect the family with the roots of producing your food.
It has been amazing to me (that) some of these people, who are very highly educated and have highly technical jobs
this has become a very important part of their family lifeto go out to the farm, to help the farmer stay in business. Its very valuable to them to have it near their community. Its something we probably wouldnt have thought of 10 years agowe just more or less thought if we could cut down the value of the land and somehow keep the farmers on the land so they can produce a crop and if we can sort of do the signage and all this we will be fine. But, we also needed to connect them with the new marketplace and in our area the new marketplace is developing and growing very niche crops for the restaurant industry. So, we did a program of having the chefs go out to the farms and cook at the farm and have an open house day where people can come and see what is going on. We now have five-star restaurants that go to particular farmers, some of these are new, young farmers by the way, and ask them to grow certain kinds of root and leaf crops that they then use in their restaurant for all the specialized things we do.
It used to just be the fish and maybe some beef from eastern Washington. But, its a whole different world now in terms of the whole restaurant industry here. And, so that has been a very important part of connecting the farmer with the restaurateur, who is very concerned about quality, freshness, sometimes organically grown and the kind of products they want to go with the kind of cuisine they are making.
The second thing we felt we needed to do was make a connection to the major big retail and grocery outlets. Weve managed to do that. Now its not totally out there all the time, large amounts of it, but we had Larrys and QFCs and some others start because they serve a very specialized niche. For instance, Larrys Market has always had an organic section. But, with our Puget Sound Fresh Program, which sort of started leading us into the linkage to neighboring counties, we now have an identifiable product in the supermarket where people can go in and see that this is something that comes from a local farmer, this is what the product is, this is what the farm is, and you can go into Larrys produce area now and youll see it all year-round. Whether its mushrooms, or root crops, or berries, or whatever it is...and they must be successful with it because this is the second full year that Larrys will have it. So, this is the kind of thing that is going to cement the farm-to-market relationship and make it economically viable for the farmers to produce the crops here and have a market to sell them here whether its directly to a restaurant, whether its to the family itself through subscriptions, or whether its through the market. And, its also the kind of thing that will bring in younger people that want to get into this kind of business.
What was Washington State University Cooperative Extension-King Countys role in this project?
Well, Cooperative Extension has been a very good partner in terms of working with the farm community on educating them on some things they need to do to make their farm friendly for the community and for the environment, because we all have to deal with the other issues now. Of course in western Washington, a lot of the farmland is where a lot of the major tributaries are, and its very important to keeping the fish economy going, too. We know that it is very important to maintain as much of the farmland as we can because it is a lot better in the long run for the waterways than developing it intensely.
A good example would be the Greenriver Valley where we still have some farms operating and they probably provide enormous water quality and flood protection. People are unaware of this because so much of the valley is paved over and not providing any flood protection and very little water quality. It becomes an important element in the balance for it, but also I think people are beginning to realize that you cannot forever into the future decide, I can get grapes from Venezuela and I can get tomatoes from Florida, etc., etc.,
but that it is important (to have) a certain self-sufficiency within your own community and that the farmers need special help to do that.
And, one of the reasons we started talking with neighboring counties and really tried to reach out to the whole western Puget Sound Farm Link Program was we realized that in order to have a more complete marketplace, when you go either to a Larrys or to your local farmer, that they needed to have the ability to connect with other farms to bring in other products that would fill out their product line, so to speak. (For example) I can go to my root connection in the Sammamish Valley
now, I dont buy subscription because I couldnt eat it all, but they have a little store where I can go buy the same products and now they bring in things from Skagit and from Snohomish and other areas that theyre not growing on their land. They have a fairly small plot of land, and so when you go during the season you can buy everything you need except for meat, but you can find fruit, vegetables, tubers, all kinds of things and you can get flowers, too, because they grow flowers and herbs. Not all the farms are like that, but it was important to start linking people.
I think theyre all benefiting from sort of the pioneering we did here with Extension on education programs
talking to people about how to market, educating people more about how to operate with animals, how to convert your land, if you need to, to a different kind of crop. I think the subscription farmers a very different farmer now because they have discovered people are willing to pay good money for fresh flowers. So they will go get herbs, and theyll get lettuces and tomatoes and fruit and everything and theyll buy flowers, too, and theyll get better flowers if they get them from the farmer. But, you cant go into a supermarket now that doesnt have a whole division that is just full of flowers, and yet we have land here that is just as close by where the farmer can produce that and its a one-stop-shopping kind of experience.
There seem to be a growing number of public policies that you have to deal with in King County that affect agriculture and natural resource management directly or indirectly.
How do you view the higher education partnership WSU has with King County through Cooperative Extension in helping to deal with these policy issues?
Well, I think if we dont have the technical expertise of WSU Extension that we are going to have a very hard time providing people with information that they may need to transition the way they are operating or maybe to move into a new product line or a new way of raising their animals and utilizing their animals. I know how much that the wheat farmers and others in eastern Washington rely on them
I mean, if they dont have the research of Extension, they are in trouble almost immediately because they have to keep modifying the crop and the seed, etc., and there is more to learn all the time about irrigation and water conservation and how do you farm fish friendly? Even in eastern Washington they have to do that. If they dont have the expertise that is involved in a major research university like WSU and Extension, they will have a very difficult time just being able to respond to the change in the policies that are there and the challenges that we have in keeping the farmers there.
But, I believe that it is very important and other local county governments now are taking a longer and harder look at Do we need to do things locally, too, like supporting Extension, so they can provide the technical service and the education and research that our farmers need
We have to take the value of this land (into account) so that we can keep it in farming, and that is a huge commitment for the taxpayers to make.
I think King County could show a real successful example in one of the most urban and one of the largest counties in the United States actually. We can demonstrate that we still have agricultural activity and its still viable and I think it will be more viable in the future. But if we dont have that piece of it, we cant provide that. Were a very big government, but we just dont have the expertise, and the university and Extension do have it and also, I think there is a certain element of trust, too. Its more like somebody who really knows agriculture talking to the farmer. But, its pretty hard in a county as large as ours to be able to provide them with all of that expertise that WSU and Extension can provide. And, it is critical
if we dont have it, I dont think well be able to continue to maintain viable agriculture and bring new people into the business and create what can be an ever-growing important part of this urban region
one that I think will be accepted by the community at large
by the 3.2 million, at least, in just this three-county region.