Puget Sound Restoration Gets a Boost from USDA

Local farms, shellfish, salmon and clean water will benefit.

Source: The Nature Conservancy

SEATTLE–Farms, shellfish, salmon and water quality in the Puget Sound Region will get a $9 million boost from a new federal conservation program included in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Awards come through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), a new program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“This is a big win for local people who are working together to maintain local sources of food, clean water and our quality of life,” said Mark Clark, Director of the Washington State Conservation Commission, which will manage funding for the Puget Sound project.

Governor Inslee included $4 million in his proposed budget for the non-federal matching funds required by the grant. It’s up to state lawmakers to approve the matching funds as part of the 2015-2017 biennial budget, which is under consideration during the 2015 Legislative session underway now.

Early-action projects in the Puget Sound region are:

  • Farmers in Thomas Creek, a sub basin of the Samish River, will be eligible for voluntary incentives to reduce runoff that impacts shellfish beds. There is also $500K for a farmland protection project along the Samish River (Skagit Conservation District).
  • Farmers in the Snohomish and Skykomish river valleys will receive assistance to manage nutrients and restore riverfront land, as part of Snohomish County’s Sustainable Lands Strategy. (Snohomish Conservation District)
  • Dairy, livestock and crop farmers along Newaukum Creek, in King County’s largest agricultural production district,  will be eligible for voluntary incentives to  plant vegetation and install fencing to keep livestock out of the creek. (American Farmland Trust)

“This new program furthers the broad-based work that we need to engage in for Puget Sound recovery,” said Martha Kongsgaard, chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council. “Thanks to our congressional delegation, particularly Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Suzan DelBene, for their leadership in securing this new funding source for Puget Sound. We also greatly appreciate the opportunity to work with NRCS as they bring these new resources that will strengthen the collaborative restoration and protection efforts around Puget Sound.”

“The Tulalip Tribes, as part of the Sustainable Lands Strategy, was delighted to hear that we have been included in the RCPP funding,” said Terry Williams, Tulalip Tribes Treaty Office. “Building partnerships between farms, fish, and environment has proven to be a game changer here in Snohomish County.  Working together to understand the problems we are all facing has helped us find mutual solutions.”

“We all have a stake in a healthy Puget Sound, clean water, and thriving local farms and other food producers,” said Heidi Eisenhour, Pacific Northwest Regional Director of American Farmland Trust

“This is significant recognition and support for locally-led conservation efforts, and a testimony to the power of the diverse coalition of farm, shellfish, tribal and conservation interests that has come together to support this effort,” said George Boggs, of the Puget Sound Natural Resources Alliance. “Thanks to The Nature Conservancy for its leadership in bringing this coalition together to advocate for this program.”

The Puget Sound Natural Resources Alliance will serve as the advisory committee for this project. The Alliance is a collaboration of agriculture, aquaculture, business, conservation groups and tribes working together to protect the lands and waters of Puget Sound and strengthen the long term viability of our natural resource industries and tribal treaty rights. The Nature Conservancy is a member of the Alliance and will also serve on the steering committee.

“In Washington state, we know how critical it is to protect our natural resources, not only for the environment, but also for our economy,” said Senator Murray, D-WA.  “This funding from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program will support local farmers and build on the great work being done to restore the Puget Sound region, grow the economy, and create jobs.”

“I’m thrilled that this proposal was awarded. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program was made possible through the Farm Bill, and I am pleased to work with such a great coalition of partners to support this proposal,” Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA-01) said. “The project will help improve water quality and habitat for many species, as well as the overall ecosystem, while preserving the beautiful nature of the Pacific Northwest.”

RCPP is a public-private partnership designed to focus conservation efforts on the most critical watersheds and landscapes. Under the program, local partners propose conservation projects specific to their region to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat and other natural resources on private lands.

See the USDA announcement of award recipients here.

Small farms fight back: Food and community self governance

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Toward Freedom

Heather Retberg stood on the steps of the Blue Hill, Maine town hall surrounded by 200 people. “We are farmers,” she told the crowd, “who are supported by our friends and our neighbors who know us and trust us, and want to ensure that they maintain access to their chosen food supply.”

Blue Hill is one of a handful of small Maine towns that have been taking bold steps to protect their local food system. In 2011, they passed an ordinance exempting their local farmers and food producers from federal and state licensure requirements when these farmers sell directly to customers.

The federal government has stiffened national food-safety regulations in order to address the health risks associated with industrial-scale farming. Recent widespread recalls of contaminated ground turkey, cantaloupe, eggs, and a host of other foods illustrate the serious problems at hand. These outbreaks have been linked to industrial farms with overcrowded animals and unbalanced ecosystems. The significant distance between industrial farms and consumers creates a lack of accountability and difficulty tracing problems when they arise.

Small-scale farming, however, doesn’t spark the same safety risks. Small farmers who sell their food locally will tell you that the nature of their business, based on face-to face relationships with the people who eat their food, creates a built-in safety protection. They don’t need inspectors to make sure they are following good practices. Keeping their neighbors, families, and long-time customers in good health is an even better incentive. Customers are also more able to witness the farming practices firsthand.

Still, small farmers are being pushed out of business because they are saddled with the financial and bureaucratic burdens of the same regulations as large industrial farms. Heather and her family’s Quill’s End Farm raise grass-fed cows, lambs, pastured pigs, chickens for eggs and meat, turkeys, dairy cows, and goats. The diverse mix is better both for the land and the economic viability of the farm.

Given the scale of their business, building their own chicken processing unit was financially out of the question, so instead they were butchering at a neighboring farm’s USDA-approved unit. When state inspectors told them that USDA regulations didn’t allow them to share this neighbor’s facility, Quill’s End Farm was forced to stop raising and selling chickens altogether.

“I just remember the feeling that if that was happening to us, the same message was being given to all sorts of farmers of our scale and people were just going to give up and stop farming,” said Heather. “My sense, more than anything, was a really daunting realization that, ‘Oh, this is how farms get disappeared.’ And people are so supportive, but then when we disappear, everybody might just kind of shake their heads like, ‘Oh, it must just be really tough to make it farming.’”

So Heather, together with a small group of other farmers and farm patrons in Maine, began crafting the Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance, the first of its kind in the country. The ordinance exempts direct sales between farmers and customers – at farms, farmstands, and markets, for example – from state and federal licensing and inspections. It allows Heather to sell chicken at her farmstore, and Bob St. Peter, a fellow farmer and organizer, to sell his homemade cookies at the farmers’ market.

In March 2011, the ordinance passed unanimously in the town of Sedgwick, Maine. Three days later it was presented at Heather’s town meeting in Penobscot. “We spent a good while talking about whether to give $3,000 to our local library,” says Heather, “and I was sitting there thinking ‘Whoa, this is a tough crowd.’ But then when the ordinance came up, it was another unanimous vote. It was tremendous.” Other towns in Maine immediately followed suit.

Since then, says Heather, “We’ve heard from people in Tennessee, Texas, California, Virginia… someone in New Zealand. Last year, Vermont passed a food sovereignty resolution with similar language. Over in California they’re working in the direction of an ordinance in Mendocino County. In Arizona they’re beginning to circulate petitions. And this fall we heard that a town in Utah had passed the ordinance.” Over the two years following Sedgwick’s success, more than eight towns in Maine itself have adopted such ordinances.

As of this writing, Maine’s State Department of Agriculture is challenging one of the local ordinances by suing a dairy farmer.  Community members are reaching out to friends in surrounding counties and national food justice coalitions, asking them to call in and urge the state to drop the suit. The case has drawn national attention. Meanwhile, organizers from far and wide are watching closely, hoping to launch similar initiatives in their own communities.

In addition to efforts at the local level, farmers and activists are attempting to tackle the government’s one-size-fits-all approach to food safety at the federal level. When US legislators voted to increase Food and Drug Administration inspections and reporting requirements for farms in 2010, more than 150 food groups succeeded in winning an amendment that provides some exemptions for small farmers.

“Foodborne illnesses don’t come from family agriculture,” says Senator Jon Tester from Montana, who co-sponsored the amendment.

County beekeepers adjust to causes of colony collapse

County’s beekeepers continue to see threat to agriculture

Nick Adams / The HeraldQuentin Williams checks over his bees in the back yard of his Snohomish home on May 5. Williams, the manager of Beez Neez, has six hives with two breeds of bees. A federal report suggests that parasites, malnutrition and pesticide exposure are behind the decline in bee colonies nationwide.

Nick Adams / The Herald
Quentin Williams checks over his bees in the back yard of his Snohomish home on May 5. Williams, the manager of Beez Neez, has six hives with two breeds of bees. A federal report suggests that parasites, malnutrition and pesticide exposure are behind the decline in bee colonies nationwide.

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

Last fall, hobbyist beekeeper Jeff Thompson had nine hives of honeybees. “I only had two hives make it through the winter,” said Thompson, who keeps bees at his home in Edmonds and also in Mill Creek.

Dave Pehling, who keeps hives at his home near Granite Falls, lost all his honeybees over the winter.

Neither was surprised to hear about a report regarding one of the more mysterious recent environmental problems: the sharp decline of honeybees.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency report issued a week ago cites a complex mix of problems contributing to honeybee colony declines, which have accelerated in the past six to seven years.

Factors include parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and farming practices, according to the report.

“It’s just a combination of stresses,” said Pehling, an assistant with the Washington State University cooperative extension in Snohomish County. He has a zoology degree and has been keeping bees since the 1970s, he said.

The recent report warns that even with intensive research to understand the cause of honeybee colony declines in the United States, losses continue to be high and could pose a serious threat to meeting the pollination demands for some commercial crops. Growers in California have had trouble pollinating almond trees in the winter, for example, and blueberry farmers in Maine face similar pressures.

Many bee experts have focused on pesticides recently, Pehling said. While he agrees that’s a factor, he doesn’t think it’s the biggest one.

The varroa mite, native to Southeast Asia, was introduced to North America in the 1980s.

In about 1987, it reached Snohomish County, Pehling said.

“That’s when I started losing bees,” he said.

The mite lays eggs on young honeybees and the larvae feed off the living bees’ blood, weakening them and making them more susceptible to illness from other factors, Pehling said.

In Asia, the mites feed off the bees as well but those bees are smaller, providing less space and food for the mites and keeping the relationship in balance, he said.

Pesticides can temporarily control the mites but the chemicals collect in the wax in the hives and erode the bees’ health.

“It’s not an acute effect, but it can affect the immune system and shorten life of an adult bee,” Pehling said.

Now, beekeepers are experimenting with “softer” chemicals such as Thymol and essential oils, he said.

“I think there’s a multitude of issues why the bees are declining,” said Thompson, vice president of the Northwest District Beekeepers Association, based in Snohomish.

He said that whether pesticides are the major cause of bees’ problems or not, they worry many beekeepers.

Neonicotinoids are synthesized, concentrated forms of nicotine made into pesticides.

“These are very long-acting products” that get absorbed into plants and in turn by bees, Thompson said.

“That’s the beekeepers’ big concern right now, they don’t like it,” he said.

Honeybees are not native to North America but have been here since the 17th century, Pehling said. They have managed to mostly live in balance with other species, he said.

Dozens of bees are native to Washington state, including some variety of bumblebees, he said. Pehling keeps bumblebee hives as well as honeybees, he said.

One species, the western bumblebee, has experienced some decline in recent years but “most of (the native species) are doing OK,” he said.

Because of honeybees’ role as prolific pollinators, their decline could spell serious trouble for American agriculture, experts say.

The USDA estimates that a third of all food and beverages are made possible by pollination, mainly by honeybees. Pollination contributes to an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion in U.S. agricultural production each year.

A consortium will study the problem this year with the hopes of putting in place measures to help reduce bee deaths next growing season, said Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership, which is overseeing the project.

Farmers, beekeepers, pesticide manufacturers, corn growers, government researchers and academics will study this summer ways to address the corn dust problem by changing the lubricant used in the machinery, as well as trying to improve foraging conditions for bees at the same time the pesticides are applied.

“It’s not in anybody’s interest to kill bees,” she said. “It just isn’t.”

Erika Bolstad of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.