Implementing Farm Plans

By On
• In Whatcom County,

With passage of the Critical Areas Ordinance a few years ago, one of the requirements for small livestock owners in Whatcom County was the development of a farm plan to help mitigate impacts on streams and other environmentally sensitive areas. We are now hitting the point where enforcement is starting and numerous issues are starting to develop. It is also becoming increasingly clear a potential dilemma exists that local politicians had not clearly articulated when the regulations were passed. On one hand, we want to promote healthy watersheds, and on the other hand, we want to promote local agriculture. Ideally, both of these can be accomplished at the same time. But if regulations are not properly implemented, you run the risk of having to trade-off between the two goals. Based on initial responses, we are heading toward a very real risk of having local livestock agriculture hurt in the effort to protect streams. In order to avoid this situation, Whatcom County Planning needs to make at least five critical changes to their current processes.

First, the letters threatening $1,000-a-day fines for non-compliance need to be put back in the drawer, permanently. Although a nice letter is sent first asking the small farmer to contact the Planning Department, if the farm owner does not respond, it quickly escalates to a letter threatening high fines. This may get the farm owner’s attention, but does nothing to help get the farm plan off to a smooth start. In an ideal world, a farmer would get a notice and immediately call the Planning Department to find out the next steps. But the reality is, most people receiving the letters will not catch on to what they are supposed to do or why. Maybe it is the farm owner’s fault, but a couple letters, a couple phone calls, and maybe a visit first, would be a far more productive escalation than going from a nice letter to threatening $1,000-a-day fines.

Second, once a farm plan is in place it needs to be stable for 10 years. Farmers are already running into issues where they complete the farm plan, install fencing or other measures, then go to the Planning Department to get a permit for a barn or other use on their farm, only to be told they now need a bigger buffer (a real life example from a local farmer). Farmers cannot redo fencing every few years at the whim of the County Planning Department. If farmers are going to go the expense and effort to fix their farms, then County Planning needs to have the respect to stabilize the rules.

Third, for those farmers who complete a farm plan and then need help at a later date from County Planning for a permit, County Planning needs to welcome them with open arms, not push them aside. If the response from County Planning is the same whether a farmer has a farm plan or not, what is the point of having one? County Planning needs to bend over backward to help farmers who have taken the appropriate steps to protect critical areas.

Fourth, there needs to be more strategy in terms of who has to do farm plans, and in what order. There are limited resources in the county to do farm plans and not everyone can do them at the same time. It appears farm plans are required in one of three instances: either the county has deemed the area of high importance, someone turns the farmer in, or the farmer needs a permit for an additional building on the property. Everyone would be better served if all the focus was on strategically important areas and not required from people building a barn in an area that is low priority, or just because someone else turned them in. The process of determining who needs to do a farm plan now versus later appears to be arbitrary, which does not provide the program much credibility.

Fifth, Whatcom County Planning needs to better understand agricultural issues. Currently there is only one planner on staff who has ever operated a farm. It may be difficult to find former farmers who now want to do land use planning, but at the very least the Planning Department needs to have all staff visiting farms and learning about their operations, issues and economics. There are already stories emerging of County Planning staff’s complete ignorance of farming. If you want to win over farmers and get them helping you, having some intelligence on the issues is a good starting point.

Based on the current implementation of the farm plans, it looks like there will be fewer sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens in Whatcom County 10 years from now. The result of this will be more meat purchased from large-scale commercial operations that do a lot more harm to the environment and are less healthy for the consumer. The goal of the farm plan program should be to increase livestock in the county so we are less reliant on commercially raised meat, while maintaining the environmental integrity of critical areas. Both can be accomplished, but not without Whatcom County Planning making some significant process changes.

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

Ken Mann

Aug 29, 2009

Craig - Nice post.  I witnessed the same scene that you did at the Haynie Grange, and I believe you summed up the issues well.  One thing you touched on that bears repeating is the need for consistency.  This means consistency in the application of the rules, ie, which type of farms, livestock, topography, critical areas, etc fall under the rules, but also consistency in the message from PDS.  There is nothing more frustrating than getting conflicting information from staff, whether for a building permit in the COB or a farm plan in the county.  I am heading out to the Schroeder farm next week to see for myself.  Ken

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Ham Hayes

Aug 30, 2009

Craig,

Your fifth point may be the most telling of all. Effective problem solving requires communication and understanding between people.  It also requires a willingness to listen and be constructive.  Since agriculture is such a large part of our county economy and culture, perhaps the County Council should entertain creating an agriculture advisory board to help keep it and the planners informed.

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Craig Mayberry

Aug 30, 2009

There is an Ag Advisory Board that does meet regularly and informs County Council and the Planning Board and generally I think they have a reasonable understanding of agriculture (some far better than others).  The issue is the people in the planning department that implement the rules and make the day-to-day decisions and they all are pretty clueless on agriculture issues and that is what really impacts the farmers and needs to be fixed.

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Carl Weimer

Aug 31, 2009

Hi all,

Craig makes some good points regarding the CAO, and like any law it needs tweaking from time to time and how smoothly it is implemented is crucial. It also seems like perhaps he has only heard from those that are angry with how the law might impact them (real or imagined), and has not heard from the other side that is equally angry that the law has been on the books for years now and little or no enforcement has ever been done. There are groups that are floating thinly veiled threats about suing the County under the Clean Water Act, and the Department of Ecology recently announced they are stepping up their enforcement here because they are unhappy with the County’s level of enforcement. Like everything there are two sides to this story.

Recently Mike Wallace, the local 4-H coordinator for the Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension wrote the brief article that follows, which I found to be a well balanced breath of fresh air. Thought I would share it here.

Thanks

Carl
________________________

Whatcom?s Critical Areas and 4-H

Driving the wooded hills of Kelly Road, of the farm flats of Hannegan Road as the moon is coming up over Mount Baker, visiting the beaches of Blaine or old forests outside Deming, I continually remind myself how very fortunate we are to live in a place as beautiful as Whatcom County. Protecting our natural resources for the health and benefit of future generations is important.

As some of you are aware the County?s Planning and Development Services department has identified many Critical Areas in Whatcom County. Critical Areas are made up of ?environmentally sensitive natural resources that have been designated for protection and management in accordance with the requirements of the Growth Management Act. Protection and management of these areas is important to the preservation of ecological functions and values of our natural environment, as well as the protection of the public health, safety and welfare of our community.? The Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A) is a law for all counties of Washington State. Whatcom County government has applied a very light hand implementing this law, providing agricultural land owners with an opportunity to participate in the development of their management plans, offering ?best practices? and accommodations for the more low impact land user.

For many county land owners, the Critical Area Ordinances are sometimes perceived as an imposition. If a rural land owner / animal hobbyist has to accommodate a part of their land for environmental protection, and they don?t have much land to begin with, will they end up with any land suitable for livestock at all? Or is it the other way around? If overpopulated and over-grazed land is destroyed by less than responsible agricultural practices, and drinking water is poisoned by microbial infestations, will there be any land left that is suitable for raising healthy people and livestock? If we were all drawing straws on living next to a polluted water supply, would you want to draw the short straw? The Whatcom County Conservation Plan for Agricultural Lands seems to be offering a measured approach to bringing some balance to the farm ecosystem. It is a measure of animals per acre, and the promotion of land and water management practices intended to protect the health and balance of animal and land resources. Many of the suggested practices have been promoted through WSU Extension for years. No one is trying to stop people from pursuing their livelihoods. We recognize agriculture as an asset to our community and youth.

Since one of the highest values we promote in 4-H is civic responsibility, we need to consider carefully how we respond to such laws when they arise. As leaders we need to think about the message we send to young people when we challenge decisions that are collectively being made for the benefit of public health. Citizens representing agriculture can sit on the public committees that develop laws and policies such as these. That would be the 4-H ideal, rather than creating resistance after the laws are passed. Please remember, being a 4-H volunteer does not allow you to serve as a spokesperson for the 4-H program. You may express your individual views as a citizen but you cannot speak on behalf of the 4-H program nor Washington State University.

Nobody appreciates government interference in what they do on their private land, but more and more frequently, our whole planet is reflecting back to us that there is a profound interdependence between living organisms and ecosystems. Or in layman’s terms, we live in a bunch of valleys where runoff carries things from one place to the next. There are hundreds of small farms in the watersheds of Whatcom County with a total population of livestock that easily adds up to an industry or two. Citizens in urban areas try to car pool and ride bikes, or only wash their cars in designated areas, follow scoop laws in parks. Everyone is doing their part. The same rain is falling on all of us.

I believe that 4-H youth understand the complexities of growing up in a world that has many more challenges than it used to. We do our best to act as responsible stewards of farms and farmlands, and we are all very aware that our choices and actions can have direct impacts on our animal?s health, our health and the health of our community. Now that laws have been passed, I can only say that there is no organization better suited than 4-H for demonstrating knowledge and responsibility about farm animals and caring for the community at large. Exploring and working though a Conservation Plan workbook with your club youth can also provide wonderful learning opportunities in math, science, citizenship and responsible agricultural and livestock practices.

Your Extension Service is available to help you educate future generations about natural resources and equitable farm management practices.
            Mike Wallace

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Craig Mayberry

Aug 31, 2009

Carl,

I have not heard one single farmer or land owner say they do not care about environmental protection or that protecting our streams is not valuable.  On the contrary, most farmers (I agree there may be a few exceptions out there, and they should be dealt with appropriately) believe streams and the environment need to be protected and most are willing to take measures on their own to do that.  As farmers, we also have to balance economic and environmental realities, something politicians or planning bureaucrats do not have to do.  The frustrations being heard are many farmers that have taken steps to protect streams, but are being asked to make economic sacrifices to take actions that will not do a single thing to protect streams.

I also resent your analysis when you say I have not heard from both sides.  I am fully aware of NSEA’s concerns for salmon protection and have heard many stories of farmers undoing what NSEA has done.  Those that do damage to streams need to pay the appropriate price for their actions. 

But the fact remains, that based on current implementation there will be less livestock in Whatcom County in 5-10 years which means we will be shipping in more meat from commercial farms in the midwest that treat animals inhumanely and do far more environmental damage. I personally think we can increase the amount of locally and humanely raised livestock and protect streams if done the right way, but only if the 5 issues that I addressed get resolved.

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John Watts

Aug 31, 2009

Since comments are invited, why ‘resent’ receiving one,
especially, since a new perspective is being presented?

Much has been said about agricultural uses of land, including dairy, berries, orchards, grains & hay, trees and truck farms & greenhouses. All of these are beneficial, but they also have drawbacks, like cattle trashing salmon streams, fertilizers & pesticides leaching into streams and groundwater, and unrestricted use of water at the expense of other uses.

Arguing to retain ag land is wishful thinking without a viable plan that can be implemented. I haven’t seen a plan like that yet, nor have I seen the will to put one in place, with funding and enforcement that has a decent chance of working.

Part of the problem is that those that own the land must want to keep it in ag uses, not subdivide it into oblivion. The temptation is strong to get rich quick by increasing land value by upzoning. Once that is done, it gets harder to preserve ag land for ag purposes.

Complaints about the CAO are expected, because that is one objective method to determine land use. But, it also helps us accomplish what we are too weak to accomplish individually; respect ecological boundaries.

Another method, likely to be effective -and therefore controversial- is getting the issue of water rights under control, as the WRIA1 process was attempting to do.
If agriculture is desirable, then why not reserve our increasingly scarce supplies for that use?
Of course that might also mean a limit on more development, too, wouldn’t it?

Be honest, Craig. You’re simply espousing the philosophy of no meaningful planning, which is essentially the status quo in these parts. Farm plans assume 2 things; farms and plans. Right now, we are losing farms, regardless of CAO, and we have no meaningful plans. This same ‘debate’ has been going on for years in different guises, and your article does little to help resolve the situation.

As they say, ‘denial is not just a river in Egypt’.

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Ham Hayes

Aug 31, 2009

Craig has presented five actionable issues with recommendations.  I suspect he has done his homework.  It would be nice to hear from all County Council members and challengers on the points he has raised.

Thanks Carl and Ken for stepping up a bit and giving some insight into your views.

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Craig Mayberry

Sep 01, 2009

John,

First, a point of clarification, I do not resent Carl’s response, I appreciate his response.  What I was responding to was his comment that I only appeared to listen to one side, which is not how I operate.  I spend a lot if time in the environmental community and I am fully aware of the issues and concerns.  I work very hard to make sure I know people and perspectives from both sides and am one of the few people in the community that actively participates and attends organizations that are right-leaning and others that are left-leaning.

Second, I am not advocating no planning, nor did I say anywhere in my post that farm plans were stupid and should not be done.  In principle they are a good idea, but so far the execution of them is going to lead to fewer livestock in Whatcom County and therefore more purchases of meat from corporate/commercial ag in the midwest.  I am simply pointing out an unintended consequence of how county policies are implemented and then offering constructive recommendations to mitigate those consequences.

Third, you bring up a separate, but related issue on overall agriculture in Whatcom County.  That is a big issue and not one that I was trying to address in my post, nor do farm plans do anything to address that issue (although the net result of the farm plans will likely mean fewer small livestock farms which is contrary to what we want).  I have been thinking about the larger issue for a few years and frankly have not come up with a whole lot from a public policy standpoint that is going to solve the declining agriculture in Whatcom County; although I am doing my personal part by starting a small livestock and vegetable farm and trying to more actively advocate for local food production.  You are welcome to come visit my farm on September 12th as part of Sustainable Connections Whatcom County Farm Tour.

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David MacLeod

Oct 23, 2009

Great post Craig, I think you make excellent points. I also appreciate Carl’s posting of the article by Mike Wallace, who makes excellent points as well.

It’s nice to visit a local website that has such intelligent discussion, and I wish I had time to visit more often!

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