About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Food and farm security, farmland preservation, and resilience

Reflections on agriculture and food security, farm living and livelihoods, and urban-rural encroachment -- Whatcom County agriculture’s biggest challenge
Can be found at the IGCR website (http://igcr.blogspot.com/) shortly.

The following are some excerpts from those reflections, as they relate to Whatcom County farming, resilience and vulnerability, and decision-making in times of uncertainty.

Over the past 350 years, the North American landscape has been rapidly “tamed” from wildlands to agricultural fields, with settlers claiming, often brutally, traditional homelands of American Indians. Once appropriated, settlers cleared land by cutting forests and burning woods to cultivate plants and raise livestock for human consumption (and some export). In the last 150 years, though, another force has been claiming the land base – urban-rural development. Such development seeks the same kind of land used for much of agriculture – level, well-drained soils; it is a kind of development that is the subject of study in academic planning departments as well as in state agencies. The reader is referred to the excellent work of faculty members in the Planning and Environmental Policy degree program at Huxley College of the Environment for examples of land use planning cases and planning tools and vehicles for preserving farm land and promoting wise land use. This paper, however, highlights the implications of such development pressures as well as trends in the industrialization of agriculture.

One consequence of such industrialization is increases in certain efficiencies, for example, related to land productivity – the production of more food on less land. Implications for the structure of agriculture also are considered, in light of the geography of place, and, lastly, the implications for food security, a term which we use to mean, quite simply, knowing with some certainty how much food one is likely to have and from where it is coming from. We also include a few case studies of farm diversification in Whatcom County. This paper is put forth for purposes of discussion only, and continued development and improvement.


U.S. farm policy has typically emphasized intensification of cultivation and production for export, ultimately increasing agriculture’s share of U.S. exports and favorably impacting our national balance of payments. Global trade in cheaper food products sourced elsewhere to “free” American soil for other uses besides agriculture for domestic use, has made possible the expansion of the land base for residential development. The phenomenon of residential development encroaching on or consuming farmland has been known as urban encroachment, but perhaps is better described as urban-rural encroachment, as development occurs further and further outside a metropolitan core. (see Encroachment and historically agricultural areas

It is understandable that consumers want low-priced food, but such “cheap” food may come at a high price – for example, compromised environmental health. Further, across all stakeholder groups, there is increasing concern about farmers’ resilience to extreme events. We are grouping such concerns, under the umbrella of “food security” – which includes considerations of vulnerabilities to food shortages, i.e., to extreme events, as well as environmental and personal health concerns, and economic robustness of economies. For more on this, please see the excellent 2008 work titled, “Issues in Emergency Food Distribution for Whatcom County,WA.” written by Abby Vincent, Chris Phillips, Matt Hoss, and Casey Diamond (with revisions by Rebekah Green and Jon Lowes-Ditch; Dr. Green is currently working on a 3-5 page policy brief based on the longer work, which will appear on the Institute for Global and Community Resilience (IGCR) website (http://www.wwu.edu/resilience/); she can be contacted at Rebekah.Green@wwu.edu).

A critical question here is “Can industrial farms feed us in an emergency where access to imports is denied?” and is discussed some in the Vincent et al “Issues in Emergency Food Distribution” report. This key question will be further explored in subsequent IGCR work.

In our Backyards: Whatcom County?
Clearly, Whatcom County acreage is being used for the production of a select number of products (other specialty crops include, for example, potatoes and nursery stock) geared primarily for exports. This is due to some combination of comparative advantage, economies of scale, history and markets, and production and reproduction of knowledge systems. However, what would happen in the county if, for any reason, we were cut off from our customary food supply? Would we be surprised to find ourselves with a food shortage, in such a highly productive agricultural area

Hunger amidst plenty is ironic in such an agricultural county. Whatcom County, alone, is the largest producer of powdered milk in the United States, producing enough dairy to meet as much as 75% of the demand for dairy products in Washington state (http://www.whatcomcounts.org/whatcom/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=1811). Yet, production is threatened due to looming poor market prices; in such an economic climate only the most resilient farms, able to adjust production practices and product mix may be able to survive (http://www.bellinghamherald.com/602/story/714074.html).

Through Whatcom County’s farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or subscription buying, and “Eat Local” campaigns, Whatcom County is proud of its agricultural identity

…..What is clear, however, is that land “lost to development” is very difficult to later develop for food production. It would be exceptionally difficult in Whatcom County, for example, to recapitalize a dairy farm after the real loss of “dairy infrastructure,” upon development.

An important hypothesis to consider in the discussion of land productivity and development pressures in light of food security questions, is whether or not it is in the economic interest of a particular region to prioritize agriculture by preserving its farm land and diversifying crop/livestock production. But is the diversification of crops essential to a community’s food security? If so, then policymakers need to consider boosting support for small- and medium-sized farms. According to the 2002 National Agricultural Statistics Service and other sources mentioned in this paper, of the 1,485 farms in Whatcom County, 1,061 had less than $50,000 in value of sales; the value of sales category that represented the most number of farms was ‘less than $1,000,’ with 396 farms in this category. These figures reveal that the majority of Whatcom farms are small and medium sized operations. In 2002, 923 farms -- 62% of all county farms –- were less than 50 acres in size (http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2002/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_County_Level/Washington/st53_2_001_001.pdf http://www.co.whatcom.wa.us/assessor/taxguides/openspace/openspace.jsp).

An interesting consideration here also is that such small- and medium-sized farms seem to figure prominently in conservation programs. For example, such farms accounted for 82% of the land enrolled by farmers in the Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve Programs (see http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/EIB12/EIB12_reportsummary.pdf). These farms also accounted for considerable crop diversification. It’s a trend spreading throughout Whatcom County. In the past decade, for example, roughly 100 Whatcom mid-sized raspberry growers have supplemented their revenue streams by adding blueberries and some strawberries (http://www.thebellinghambusinessjournal.com/september2007/cultivation.php) in order to mitigate unpredictable weather and the low prices offered by central distributors.

What can be concluded from this discussion? For one, scale matters. And policymakers need to consider an all-inclusive structure of agriculture that values place and locale, production that is environmentally sound and economically robust – i.e., able to withstand uncertainties in weather, production costs, and markets.

What can be done? Consumers need to be interested in food and farm systems that use sustainable connections between growers and producers. As discussed in the Vincent et al “Issues in Emergency Food Distribution” work mentioned earlier, Whatcom County is no different than the other counties in the U.S. – all are vulnerable to consumer food shortfalls due to extreme events (subduction-zone earthquake to seasonal flooding, uncertain energy prices to seed shortfalls) or endemic poverty. It is ironic that Whatcom County is rich with agricultural land, but produces little food for people to eat. The dependence on one or two crops “make it vulnerable to a disease outbreak or even climate variations” (Vincent et al, “Issues in Emergency Food Distribution”). How best, then, to decrease such vulnerability? Many approaches are possible, but one thing is certain – none are likely unless farmland can be protected.

As Whatcom County’s population grows, development pressures in farmland areas will continue to increase, especially since farmland is prime for building given its generally flat and well drained soil characteristics. Nevertheless, there are a number of tools available to protect farmland. For example, the county’s ‘preferential agricultural open space taxation’ program designates various zoning to protect agricultural lands. Further efforts to preserve farmland in Whatcom County reside with the State of Washington and its Open Space Taxation Act, enacted decades ago, which allows for differential property valuation of open space lands for the production of food, fiber, and forest crops.

Beyond state legislation to protect agricultural land from development, there are over a dozen nonprofit organizations working on behalf of Whatcom County agriculture -- Whatcom Farm Friends, Sustainable Connections, the Whatcom County Farm Bureau, Small Potatoes Gleaning Project are notable examples. The number of small farms in the county has actually increased in the past decade, indicating a growing interest from young and new farmers to establish farming businesses. Clearly, prioritizing food security, knowing with some certainty how much food one is likely to have and from where it is coming from is one way forward – and warrants further consideration by policymakers and politicians and the constituencies they represent.

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