Matthew McDermott and Katie Pencke, the force behind Alluvial Farm, stand on their newly purchased Everson property on Monday, May 8. The space will be used to raise pastured pork and organic feed beginning this month. (Ashley Hiruko/Lynden Tribune)

Multiple agencies help couple bring pastured-pork Alluvial Farm goals to reality

EVERSON — Many organizational players came together to turn aspirations into reality for Alluvial Farm owners Katie Pencke and Matthew McDermott.

On Feb. 15 they purchased 48 well-drained acres on Goodwin Road southeast of Everson, bordered on the north by the thread of Dale Creek.

But it was an unusual journey for Alluvial Farms to find the needed land funding.

For over two years the couple from Seattle and Michigan had been searching and bidding on land to raise pastured pork and grow organic peas and barley to feed the hogs — a goal they had held since developing an interest in raising pigs outdoors.

“It’s such a big question: If your family doesn’t have 100 acres, how do you get onto land?” Pencke said.

It turned out to be the nonprofit Whatcom Land Trust, Whatcom County government, the USDA Farm Service Agency and Whatcom Conservation District that helped the pair actually become family farmers.

After being turned away by banks, and proving it to be true with documentation, Pencke and McDermott won USDA Farm Service Agency loan approval acting as a bank of “last resort.”

The Whatcom Conservation District agreed to plant 12 acres of trees on the farm property after a year of ownership due to the probability of salmon spawning in the nearby stream. Dale Creek is a salmon-bearing stream — primarily of Coho salmon — making the area eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

CREP targets “high-priority conservation concerns identified by a state, and federal funds are supplemented with non-federal funds to address those concerns,” the USDA website states. Farm owners are paid an annual rental rate, along with state and federal incentives, in exchange for removing environmentally sensitive land from production and establishing a permanent resource-conserving plant species. The contract period lasts around 10 to 15 years.

The Whatcom Land Trust provided Alluvial Farms with a three-year conservation loan to buy the land, with options to either pay back the loan in three years with a 3 percent interest payment or “record a conservation easement on the 10-acre riparian habitat area along Dale Creek on the northern border of the property,” said land trust conservation director Gabe Epperson.

Alluvial Farms was given the equivalent of a bridge loan because of a $1.3 million grant of the Whatcom County Working Lands Conserving Watersheds Project recently won for the county. This program is aimed at preserving a long-term, viable agriculture industry by providing landowners financial incentives to keep their farms in production and protecting the watershed.

“This is part of our Farming for Food & Wildlife program that seeks to balance farmland protection and habitat protection, which we believe are compatible and not mutually exclusive,” Epperson said.

And McDermott and Pencke believe that maintaining natural spaces is a worthy cause as well.

“When you look across the whole landscape of the county and broader, preservation adds up and will ensure the next generation and thereafter have natural spaces that hold wildlife diversity,” McDermott said.

“I hope this ends up being a model for other people,” McDermott said.

“You’ve got to be creative about (purchasing land), no doubt. Land prices are high up and down the west side of the Cascades. Hopefully this will be one of many avenues that people can say, ‘Ah, I can maybe make my own opportunity out of a similar idea they did.’”

Farming goals

The couple’s farming dreams arose from different perspectives.

McDermott, who works as food production manager at Cloud Mountain Farm Center, spent time on his uncle’s large beef farm in Missouri as a child and enjoyed it.

“That was kind of where the seed was planted,” he said. “For myself growing up around that, and then having found the small-farm community later on in college spoke to me. And I’ve been pursuing that for the last 15 years.”

Pencke, who was raised in a city environment, approached farming with a more ecological viewpoint. It was through her work at the Seattle Tilth association (now known as the Tilth Alliance) and the Conservation District that she was turned on to farming.

“It just really spoke to me,” Pencke said. “So through my work life I kind of came to it. It was the perfect marriage of studying ecology and food systems.”

And the pair agreed that the values derived from an agricultural lifestyle were something they wanted to instill in their son Ramone.

“Hopefully he picks up on it and it serves as a foundation for when he grows up,” McDermott said. “There’s a lot to be said for growing up around it and it being a launch point for wherever he may go.”

Pastured pork

Now having the place to raise their hogs, the family will rear 40 to 60 animals this year, with the first to arrive on May 19.

The pork from animals raised outdoors, as opposed to inside barns and buildings, is beneficial for both animal and consumer, they say.

“Confinement animals spend their life in barns,” McDermott said. “It’s not the best way to raise animals. In an outdoor area the quality of life is much higher. They get to be pigs, get to run around and explore. These fundamentals are very different from large-scale confinement operations.”

The flavor of meat is said to be different as well. In a partnership with Twin Brook Creamery of Lynden, the pigs are able to drink a lot of milk making the pork “buttery and tender.”

For those interested in placing a deposit for whole or half of a pork share, visit the Alluvial Farm’s website