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.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Simone Goes to the Market: A Children's Book of Colors Connecting Face and Food

It’s difficult to imagine a more colorful book, celebrating locally-grown and –marketed foods, than David Westerlund’s Simone Goes to the Market: A Children’s Book of Colors Connecting Face and Food. This book is aimed at families and the foods they eat. Who doesn’t want to know where their food is coming from – the terroir, the kind of microclimate it’s produced in, as well as who’s selling it? Gretchen sells her pole beans (purple), Maria her Serrano peppers (green), Dana and Matt sell their freshly-roasted coffee (black), Katie her carrots (orange), a blue poem from Matthew, brown potatoes from Roslyn, yellow patty pan squash from Jed, red tomatoes (soft and ripe) from Diana, and golden honey from Bill (and his bees). This is a book perfect for children of any age who want to connect to and with the food systems that sustain community. Order from faceandfood@gmail.com.

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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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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

America's "death map" - heat is the big problem

I have been remiss about blogging these days, but this just out on Reuters. It comes from Susan Cutter's work on mapping disaster vulnerability. The work is a first take on creating an American death map. As such, it focuses on threats to human life, showing that heat and severe winter weather are major concerns, even as these culprits often go unnoticed on the national and global scale. A map of American "disaster-caused economic damage" showing what disasters caused the most dollar losses would likely prove to be much different. Together, the two would show what many already know - in the US, changes in codes and emergency response have lowered the loss of life from earthquakes, fires, and to a lesser extent, hurricanes. This has made it possible to put more of our stuff, houses and people, in harms way. Thus, we've lowered the death tolls, but raised the costs of earthquakes, hurricanes, fire and floods. What is left is the silent kills of extreme heat and cold where the lack of economic loss has meant little resources aimed at reducing loss of life.

I'm sure more nuanced work will likely follow this initial death map.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Heat is more likely to kill an American than an earthquake, and thunderstorms kill more than hurricanes do, according to a "death map" published on Tuesday.
Researchers who compiled the county-by-county look at what natural disasters kill Americans said they hope their study will help emergency preparedness officials plan better.
Heat and drought caused 19.6 percent of total deaths from natural hazards, with summer thunderstorms causing 18.8 percent and winter weather causing 18.1 percent, the team at the University of South Carolina found.
Earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes combined were responsible for fewer than 5 percent of all hazard deaths.
Writing in BioMed Central's International Journal of Health Geographics, they said they hoped to dispel some myths about what the biggest threats to life and limb are.
"According to our results, the answer is heat," Susan Cutter and Kevin Borden of the University of South Carolina wrote in their report, which gathered data from 1970 to 2004.
"I think what most people would think, if you say what is the major cause of death and destruction, they would say hurricanes and earthquakes and flooding," Cutter said in a telephone interview. "They wouldn't say heat."
"What is noteworthy here is that over time, highly destructive, highly publicized, often-catastrophic singular events such as hurricanes and earthquakes are responsible for relatively few deaths when compared to the more frequent, less catastrophic such as heat waves and severe weather," they wrote.
The most dangerous places to live are much of the South, because of the heat risk, the hurricane coasts and the Great Plains states with their severe weather, Cutter said.
The south central United States is also a dangerous area, with floods and tornadoes.
California is relatively safe, they found.
"It illustrates the impact of better building codes in seismically prone areas because the fatalities in earthquakes have gone down from 1900 because things don't collapse on people any more," Cutter said.
"It shows that simple improvements in building codes in high-wind environments like hurricane coasts, and the effectiveness of evacuation in advance of hurricanes, has reduced the mortality from hurricanes and tropical storms," she added.
"So there are some things we are pretty good at in getting people out of harm's way and reducing fatalities."
Cutter said there is no national database on such deaths and this was a first try at getting one together.
(Editing by Will Dunham)

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