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

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A new circular irrigation system! oh. wait.

Local farmer is really proud of his new, shiny $100,000 circular irrigation system.  It'll be great, he thinks.  Just the think to make my crops grow during the dry season! 

All I need is a power pole to the center pivot, and I can turn it on! 

Except that the permit for a single power pole (installed at the farmers expense, by the way) takes more than 10 months to issue.   It's not a power-company issue.  It's a planning and development service issue. 

Meanwhile, he's buying a $20k diesel pump that he can use while he waits and waits and waits for his electrical permit. 

I have the name and phone number of this fellow. If you're looking to verify this actually happened, feel free to contact me so that you can fact check what I've written here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Put siding on a barn? PDS says you gotta tear down your greenhouse!

Fellow I talked to today bought an old dairy farm.   He repairs metal siding on the barn so that the stuff in his barn was a bit more secure.  As a result, he gets a notice of violation from PDS saying that he needs to tear down 2 of his 3 greenhouses. 

Teach him to maintain his buildings!

I have the name and phone number of this fellow.  If you're looking to verify this actually happened, feel free to contact me so that you can fact check what I've written here. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who regulates farmland in washington state? - County government

One thing that I've been learning as I work through the farm regulations is that there are several different agencies that may regulate your land.  I'm going to talk specifically about snohomish county, but the federal and state agencies are state-wide. 

This entry is about Snohomish County Planning and Development services.

The first regulator that you'll likely run into is your local county planning department.  They can be nice, or hostile, to farmers.  It varies quite a bit county-to-county.  King County has the reputation of being the worst county planning deparment for farmers, particularly if you're in the 100 year flood plain of any body of water, or on the shoreline of any body of water.  Snohomish county says that they're for farming, but if you're in the 100 year flood plain, my direct experience is that they are not helpful. 

  In snohomish county, they have a person with the job title Agricultural Planner.  That position is currently held by Roxanne Pilkenton.  Here's an excerpt from a mailing that the county made to area residents.

"...the County has designated a trained PDS code enforcement officer to specialize in agricultural complaints and help inform the public about what qualifies as “agriculture” under County code. Ag Planner Roxanne Pilkenton also helps resolve complaints. "

Sounds good so far.  Lets look a little further into this position.  In that same mailing, Roxannes role is further defined: 

"To help growers navigate regulatory processes that are often confusing, PDS created a dedicated agriculture planner position now held by Roxanne Pilkenton. Roxanne assists farmers with all types of permits and brings in experts such as engineers, biologists or critical areas specialists whenever needed to make sure her customers have “full use” of all benefits and exemptions available to their particular farm business activity."

Wow.  That sounds great.  In fact, having someone you can talk to about your permit issues in the planning department might save the typical farmer time and resources.  Maybe smooth things over, help figure out ways to permit normal activities.  Yep, sounds. good. 

But my direct experience is that Roxanne, as friendly and personable as she is, hasn't helped me a bit.  In fact, when an issue came up on my farm, she was the one signing the complaint. 

If you are a new farmer or contemplating some sort of agricultural enterprise in Snohomish county, Roxanne is the LAST PERSON ON EARTH you should talk to.  Yes, she might be able to help you, but lets be clear here.  She's the enforcement officer, and if you have some sort of permit issue you're talking to her about, you're confessing to the enforcement officer. 

This is one of the worst things about the snohomish county PDS.  First, there's no amount of discussion you can have with them that gives you any real certainty that your permit might be issued.  And second, even if they issue a permit, there's no gaurantee that they won't pull it for reasons that aren't clear.  For an example of that, check out this entry in this blog.   Having a permit in hand does not mean you are safe.

What I'd suggest for solutions to this are twofold:  First, that consultations regarding permitting issues with the agriculture planner be considered confidential, and that the agriculture planner be enjoined in some way from reporting those conversations for prosecution or enforcement.  Until that is done there is no good reason for you to talk to Roxanne or whomever holds this position about anything. 

Second suggestion:  Planning and development services must be forced to either issue or deny a permit in a fixed amount of time.  30, 60, 90 days -- whatever the timeframe, it needs to be enforceable.  PDS has been delaying the issuance of submission-complete permits for months or years, which is particularly deadly when it comes to agriculture.  You want a permit so that you can run an irrigation pump and water your crops?  Not this growing season.  Maybe next year sometime.  Meanwhile your crops are dying.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

PDS issues permits for a farm project, and then withdraws the permits.

So here's a pretty cool idea that fits right into the local food / growing your own food idea

So there's this guy, and he has an idea.  Take some land, split it into one acre parcels, sell them to people who want to do ag.  Each parcel is an acre, has a small barn, with electricity and water, and there's a farm stand as part of the property where you can sell your produce.  The picture above is the sign that's in front of the project.

Being a careful guy, he checks with the Snohomish county Planning and Development services about this idea.  They're not sure, so they do what they're supposed to do, and refer this question to the Snohomish Agriculture advisory board.  The snoco ag advisory board starts talking about this project in June of 2008
and then talks about it more in July of 2008, and then again in August of 2008.   In September, the Ag advisory board asked for more time to consider the proposal, and Tom Rowe said they could take as much time as necessary.  In October, the farm advisory board appeared to agree that the basic concept was agriculture related, and from the comments, were generally positive about the project.   In December, there's discussion of the vinyl fences consituting a blockage in the flood plain.

With all this discussion in front of the farm board and with PDS staff, you can't say that any of this is a surprise.  What's a surprise is that Snohomish county PULLS THE ISSUED PERMITS FOR THIS PROJECT.  

What in the world did this guy do wrong?   There's at least 6 months of discussion, the ag board likes it, they issue the permits, and then PDS screws this guy.  They're forcing him to remove the barns, fencing and improvements.  Complete loss.  They won't even return the $25k in permit fees for permits that they issued and then withdrew.   He did all this work and planning with the permits in hand, and then got screwed. 

This isn't someone who built a bunch of stuff with checking or without permits.  HE HAD PERMITS IN HAND and he discussed this with PDS for at least 6 months.

When is a manure lagoon a wetland?

Ok, well, there's a dirty secret.  Cows produce manure.  And when you run a dairy farm, most of the manure ends up pretty close to your barn.  So a common way to deal with this problem, both solid and liquid, was to put it into a manure pond. 

This is pretty much what you'd expect it to be.  A hole filled with manure.  I have to confess, that I don't know much about manure ponds, or what the current state-of-the-art manure pond science. 

I was in the audience to speak to the Snohomish County Ag Advisory board (more on that in another post) and sat next to a woman, who told me this story: 

"My neighbor was doing a wetland project, and sent a complaint in about this manure pond I have on my property.  The department of Ecology came out, and inspected my manure pond.  The manure pond was built in 1963, and it's been a manure pond every since.  Paul anderson determined that my manure pond was a wetland. " 

First, it's a little hard to believe that a manure pond is a wetland.  Maybe it's located in a wetland, but you're kidding, right?  the manure pond itself is a wetland?  "Yes,  the area inside the walls of the manure pond he decided was a wetland".  How did he know?  "Well, he did core samples around the wetland, and he claims to have found wetland plants 15' down in the soil.  "

Take home lessons:
1)  Grandfathering doesn't matter to the department of ecology.  No matter how old your agricultural practice is, it's never too late to make it illegal and fine you.
2)  Generally speaking, allowing ecology on your land is usually a bad idea.  Just say HELL NO.
3)  Vegetation that is under soil and water can last for centuries.  If they dig deep enough, they can find something you did wrong.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Purpose of this blog

After three years of operating a small farm in western Washington state, I've found that one day a week is being consumed in regulatory stuff, for simple tasks that you wouldn't think would be a problem on a farm. Like mulching, or building a storage shed, or putting up a hoophouse so you could grow tomatoes.

In fact, the farther i get into it, the more insane the regulations seem to become. So I maintain my regular blog, at, where I talk about the farm and its activities, and I'm going to maintain this one to document the crap that farmers and other landowners have to deal with.
I am doing this in the hope that other farmers will find this information useful, and that this shared information will make their own regulatory journey easier.