Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wetland nightmare

Husband and wife want to do some residential construction on 7 acres.  .03 (that's 3 one-hundreths) of an are of wetlands is on the site.  In order to impact that 1300 square feet this couple is required to: 

Create 21,700 feet of wetland on this property. 
Set aside another 15,000 square feet of their property as wetland
Pay for the construction of another 45,600 square feet of wetland in another location. 

So let's review:  In trade for 1300 square feet of impact, they're required to create or set aside 82,300 square feet.  That's 63 times the area.  That's outrageous. 

Hard to believe?  Here's the order

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Local farmer identified as bank robber suspect

Most small famers have an off-the-farm income.  This fellow took that to the next level. 

"Fenter and his wife operate the Compass Rose Farm, which grows organic produce and was featured in an August article in the The Leader newspaper of Port Townsend. The paper says Fenter - a father of three - was laid off from his job as a yacht builder earlier this year. The string of robberies started soon after. "

You'll find the story here

Friday, October 16, 2009

When food is too cheap: Milk prices

I write here about the regulatory burden that farms work under.    That's the front of the problem.  The back of the problem is that most farms just aren't very profitable.  It's a cyclical business, and right now, dairy farms are suffering bigtime.   If farms were more profitable the regulations wouldn't be as much of a problem -- you'd hire someone to deal with it and move on.  But when the entire operation isn't profitable, and every penny is precious, there's no way you can do that. 

Current milk prices are so bad that the producer cooperatives are offering to buy out the herds of local dairy farms to try to reduce production to bring it more in line with the current market.   This program is dairy farmers buying out the herds of other dairy farmers, and sending those herds to the slaughterhouse.   What other business can you think of where businesses buy out the competition for the sole reason of putting them out of business?   Here's a list of families that are no longer in the dairy business.

Right now milk is very cheap; $1.99/gallon is probably under the cost to produce it, and quite a few dairies are losing thousands of dollars a month (or tens of thousands.) 

I've said that I consider dairy farming the hardest, must relentless form of farming that there is.  You work 7 days a week, 10-12 hours a day, and you're on call for the other 12 hours.   To do that sort of work it's a labor of love and commitment.  Dairy farms used to be a major component of Snohomish county.  There are fewer and fewer each year, and what replaces them is often houses.

Here's the story of the Van Dam family, selling their dairy herd.   At least 7 employees out of work, taxes no longer generated, local food no longer produced.  This is a fellow who ran a top-grade dairy and had managed to stay on top of the regulatory burden, but when I sat down next to him at the Snohomish County Farm Bureau dinner, even he admitted that the regulations were one of his biggest headaches.  "That's one thing I won't miss." says Nick Van Dam.   Mr. Van Dam used to keep 400 acres busy and productive in agriculture; without the business, that land will seek other uses; and given difficulty of making a profit farming, I'm going to guess that the new uses won't be agricultural.

Regulations have a cost.  Here's part of it. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who regulates farmland in Washington State - Army Corps of Engineers

You are most likely to meet the Army Corps if your land lies within the 100 year floodplain of any river, or is downstream from a dam that they maintain. 

Their regulatory powers come from the rivers and harbors act of 1899 and from the Clean Water act of 1976, and my involvement with that has centered around the dikes surrounding the island where my farm is located. 

The Army corps, of all of the regulatory agencies, the most farm-friendly in my opinion.  This isn't because they're less rigorous -- they can put you through the ringer, too, but the laws that they are charged with enforcing recognize and have exemptions for most common farming activities.  Stuff like tilling and plowing and mulching and so on.  They don't want you to "create upland conditions" -- raise your land above the flood plain by filling, for instance -- but most of your farm activities won't run afoul of their laws. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who regulates farmland in Washington State - Surface Water Management

This is one of the departments that I didn't even know existed in Snohomish county.  They have a staff of over 100 people who are busily regulating all sorts of things. 

Most recently (10-6-2009) they did a presentation for the Agriculture Advisory Board (AG board) of the Snohomish County Planning and Development service. 

In this presentation they outlined their plan to inspect every commercial animal holding facility in the county for compliance with their rules.  They're going to have 5 full-time inspectors doing this work. 
 I have no idea what the other 100 people do in that department.  That's a big department!

What's a commercial animal holding facility?  I quote:  "If there's a guy with a sign up front that offers to board a horse, if they've got a business license, or if they have more than 5 cows, we're going to inspect them, cite them and get them to comply". 

Do we really need yet-another regulatory agency that is empowered to levy fines out there on agricultural land?  Really? 

Surface Water Managements website

Monday, October 12, 2009

People helping farmers: Snohomish Ag advisory board

I've spent some time writing about regulations and situations where life is made harder on farmers by various regulations, but let's take a minute and talk about the unsung heroes out there.  One of those are the volunteers on the Snohomish Agriculture Advisory board

The members of this board are volunteers.  They aren't paid anything, and they devote their time and effort to helping the county make decisions that take into consideration the needs and requirements of agriculture. 

As anyone involved in agriculture knows, there's always something to do with your time.  For this group of people to take the time out of their week to spend most of a day dealing with farm issues is really a nice community service.

So here's to you folks on that board, doing very important work: 

Nick VanDam, Mike Harnden,  Gerald Labish, Brian Bookey, Mark Craven, 
Dave Remlinger,  Elizabeth Christianson, Jackie Macomber, John Postema, Jesse Allen, Dan Douglas. 

I sincerely believe that without this boards input the already-difficult position that ag is put in right now would be much worse.  Thank you all.

Who regulates farmland in Washington state - Department of Ecology

The Washington state Department of Ecology regulates a wide variety of issues that come up on farmland.  The one that I've had the most experience with is their regulation of "the waters of the state". 

This regulation comes from the clean water act of 1976, a federal act.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delegated the enforcement of the clean water act to the state department, and the state has been busily expanding their regulation ever since. 

This regulation includes both the consumption of water, for irrigation or livestock, and the production or treatment of stormwater.  If you drill a well, for instance, you'll need to get a permit from Ecology.  Water rights are also administrated through ecology.    Local farmers find they cannot use land because of lack of water rights. 

One way to see what an agency is doing, and what they regulate, is to look at enforcement efforts.  When an enforcement effort is appealed, it goes for a hearing in front of the Environmental Hearing Office (EHO).  You can see a summary (and search keywords) for cases that the EHO has decided. 

I've read through 40 or so of the cases listed, and the Department of Ecology is very concerned with water quality -- and has taken many dairy farms to court on various issues, farmland and a variety of other topics.  Most of the decided cases are about animal-related operations, but there's a smattering of other farmers in there.  Shellfish farmers, cranberry farmers, row crop farmers.   The majority of cases that the EHO hears are lost by the people bringing them.  That makes sense -- Ecology has the good sense to drop or settle cases where they're going to lose. 

If any part of your property is in the flood plain, might contain wetlands (which are considered waters of the state) or any of your practices might have some impact on water (ditches, ponds, even buried water) you'll probably get to know these guys. 

The National Resource Conservation Service is a USDA program that is set up to help you implement programs to keep the Department of Ecology away from your operation, and if you're considering farming, you should contact your local NRCS office and have a chat with them about your basic situation with an eye towards setting up a farm plan.  This appears to be the cheapest way to deal with these guys. 

When you look at the Department of Ecology's priorities, you'll notice that it doesn't say a word about farming.  Ecology does not care about farming, and is one of the primary ways that farmland is being converted to other uses. 

This conversation happens one of two ways:

1) Ecology has been one of the biggest propopents of flooding estuary farmland for salmon habitat restoration.  This is usually accomplished by purchasing the land and then breaching the dikes.  Since they're purchasing the land in most cases, this isn't as odious as the other primary way that they convert farmland. 

2) Ecology has developed the opinion that, after some time, if your property has certain types of vegetation on it that you can no longer farm that land.  It happens most often in flood plains of rivers, and basically means that if you allow anything to grow unchecked you run the very-real risk that your land will be "wetland" or "riparian habitat" or any of a variety of other designations.  Anything, in short, but farmland. 

To get your land back often involves paying off ecology by designating "natural growth protection areas" (NGPA), which are effectively a permanently lost percentage of your property. 

Since farming has been marginally profitable in the last few decades, there are tens of thousands of acres of good land lying fallow.  Each year that this land is not tilled increases the risk that you will not be able to till it in the future. 

You'll find EHO cases here. 
You'll find Ecologys priorities here
Here's a list of the folks that Ecology has fined recently