Whatcom Family Farmers, Whatcom County Farm Bureau issue joint statement voicing local farming community’s concerns with Whatcom County’s recently-proposed Food System Plan.
April 20, 2023
Food Systems Report Comments
County Council members and Food System Committee:
Whatcom Family Farmers is a non-profit organization representing many farmers and farm-related businesses in Whatcom County. We represent the people that grow food commercially in Whatcom County, as well as the support businesses for our farms.
We only recently learned about the proposed Food System Plan for Whatcom County and after reviewing, would like to express some concerns about the proposed plan.
It should be noted that Whatcom County should be commended for working on a plan for our local food system. As farmers, we continue to see the disconnect in society between those who consume food, and those who grow it. This often leads to misunderstandings and unintended consequences. That being said, our concern is that there are multiple places throughout this plan that magnify the incorrect ways in which our food system is often viewed.
Let’s be clear about what this plan is, and what it isn’t. It is a well-meaning program created by a group that desires to see a more sustainable food system in Whatcom County. This is certainly a noble goal, and as such there are a number of things in this report that all of us can and should support.
But let’s also be clear about what this plan is not. It is not an accurate assessment of agriculture in Whatcom County. It was written by a consulting group (NVA LLC) that focuses solely on a strict definition of sustainable agriculture that does not reflect the realities of agriculture in Whatcom County, or even in the United States. The bias clearly shows, and as a result, key components of what makes our local agriculture unique are missing or worse – denigrated unfairly.
So, while we applaud the effort, it falls short in a number of areas. We offer the following critiques:
- The plan ignores the challenges of our economic system. Farmers often sit at the bottom of the economic food chain. The vast majority of our food is marketed through multiple segments in the “food chain”. Since farmers are the last in this chain they are often what we refer to as “price takers, not price makers”. While this plan implies a better system is needed, the reality facing our local farmers is that their products often face intense competition from least cost producers in other states, and increasingly other countries. While this plan promotes local food admirably, the reality is that often our local food cannot compete against many products. Ignoring the realities of our system leaves many of the proposals hollow, or worse yet, counterproductive to agriculture here in Whatcom County.
- The plan doesn’t recognize the limited land resources in Whatcom County. The plan rightly calls for protection of farmland, but also calls for increases in riparian zones, wildlife habitat, and wetlands in multiple places. Land in Whatcom county is already a limited resource, and for agriculture, the challenge and lure of sky high development prices makes it even more so. While the plan is justified in calling for valuing other resources, it ignores the reality of a shrinking pie. Ag land has decreased by about 35% in the past 30 years, and more is to be expected. Generally speaking, 100,000 acres are needed to maintain a viable ag land base, and as the report notes, we are at 102,000 now. Efforts in the state’s 2022 legislative session calling for massive mandatory buffers would have further reduced our land base by at least 30 percent, putting viability in jeopardy. Any food systems plan cannot ignore the reality of our shrinking land base if we are to make reasonable policy decisions.
- The plan promotes a supposed change in farming, by promoting organic, sustainable, and regenerative farms and practices. The use of these words implies that current farming practices often do not meet standards, which is far from true. Our farmland is a finite resource, and our farmers have recognized this for a long time. Their farmland is their life, and abusing it will only lead to terrible consequences. Many of our farms have chosen to produce food in the realm of our conventional, non-organic farming. This choice does not in any way indicate that they care less for their land or animals, or produce a lower quality product. Often these decisions are due to economics. A huge majority of our community shops for lower cost food from the “conventional” aisle. Whether consumers make this choice due to cost or preference, that is the reality of our food system.
- The plan calls for diversification of crops. While this is also a laudable goal, it also ignores the realities of our economic system. Agriculture has lost much of its diversity from 50 years ago, when many different vegetable crops were grown. Now most of those crops are grown in other states or other countries, where lower environmental and labor standards equate to lower prices. Again, the economic realities we face have led to this, and simply calling for diversification is a simplistic answer. Because of these economics, all of the commercial packers of these products have closed down or moved out of state. Even if a farm wanted to grow certain crops commercially it would be impossible.
- The plan calls for both irrigation efficiency and quantification of water rights. These two goals lie in competition with one another. The plan does spell out well the challenges we face on water (too much in the winter, too little in the summer). However, it ignores the reality of our legal system and the upcoming adjudication of water rights that will likely be filed this fall. This process creates a value around water rights that will be highly sought after. History shows us there’s simply no way agriculture will be able to compete with cities and developers for these rights. Even if we were able to keep these rights in agriculture, the law of relinquishment requires a farm to give up its water rights if it uses less than its water right allows. This creates a perverse disincentive for efficiency, and drives us increasingly toward a system of “have’s and have nots” in the water realm. Hardly a place for a goal of maintaining our farmland!
- The plan promotes a couple of potentially dangerous solutions in the name of conservation. The promotion of the use of greywater could lead to some very dangerous situations. While some greywater is toxin free, many people use dangerous cleaning chemicals that can really cause serious problems for growing plants. We have seen accidental contamination from chemicals cause complete crop failures. Additionally, the use of restaurant food waste for animals can be equally dangerous. Any meat products need to be heat treated before feeding back to animals, as dangerous diseases such as Mad Cow spread this way. Only plant-based waste can be fed directly. This is often difficult for restaurants to separate.
- The plan promotes the goal of sequestering carbon. While this is a laudable goal, do the report’s authors realize farms are already sequestering carbon? Just by growing the crops we do, carbon gets sequestered, and the better the crop yield, the better the sequestration. We should be promoting supporting farms for the environmental work they are already doing, and in doing so, help the viability of these farms.
- The plan promotes a “fair scheduling” proposal for farmworkers. Once again this shows both the report’s admirable efforts and its disconnect from farming realities. Farming very much follows the old adage “make hay while the sun shines”. Crops need to be planted or pruned within specific windows, or the crop will be very limited. Likewise, harvest occurs in a very short window, and can’t just be extended because the harvesters have run out of hours in a day or week. Doing so leaves crops in the field rotting. Our farmers are already hindered by our economic system, and limiting the ability to harvest crops only further upsets that delicate balance.
- The plan leaves out a critical section on the massive costs of regulatory burdens that should be analyzed for its paralysis of the farming community. Perhaps the biggest challenge to our farms comes from massive regulations. These burdens bring a huge cost to our farms that many other states, and especially other countries, do not have. These often confusing and sometimes contradictory rules become especially burdensome when compared to regulations from other states and countries. In labor, for example, Washington is considered one of the safest states, has the highest minimum wage in the country, and the strictest overtime policy. And yet, farmers faced more burdensome rules this year on ergonomics, increases in minimum wage, and increased requirements for overtime pay. Compared to places like Mexico, who have virtually no labor standards, a per day minimum wage that is lower than Washington state’s minimum wage per hour, and no overtime pay requirements, is it any wonder our farmers cannot compete against foreign food?
Just recently one of three remaining local seed potato farms announced it was shutting down for good. This despite a young family member ready to take the business over. The reason given? They just couldn’t see a way forward given the increasingly hostile business climate in our state and county. While some of the farm’s land will be swallowed by other farms, that farm, like many others, has land that could go into housing. Sadly, we can expect that to occur. Many others face the same choice, and given the realities of our economic system, as well as the uncertainties surrounding water, labor, and environmental regulations, we can expect others to take this path too. Whatcom County needs a plan to protect its food supply. This plan falls short.
Whatcom Family Farmers
Whatcom County Farm Bureau