Berry farm growers

From left, berry grower Brad Rader speaks while dairyman Galen Smith and Farm Bureau president Ben Elenbaas wait their turns. Also on the panel were small-scale farmer Matt Aamot and mom and youth educator Amanda Stidham. (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)

Bridge issues, or U.S. food will come from overseas, they say

LAUREL ­— Farming representatives spoke of challenges they face but also pleaded for bridging a “disconnect” between farmers and the consumers they feed, or else American food will become foreign grown.

A panel of five addressed the topic “Is There a Future for Farming?” at Meridian High School Wednesday, March 6, with their comments moderated by Dillon Honcoop of Whatcom Family Farmers and broadcast live on radio station KGMI.

“Work with us, that’s all we’re asking,” said berry grower Brad Rader, who is also president of Whatcom Family Farmers, toward the end of the two-hour forum. “We’re going to find out we don’t have a future, if we don’t stay working together,” said Amanda Stidhan, who works with youth in agriculture-related education.

Over-regulation, impractical policy, labor difficulties and just plain ignorance of farming are obstacles that farmers in Whatcom County and elsewhere increasingly deal with — as their average age goes ever higher, panelists said.

It’s necessary to draw and keep young people in farming with a hope that it can be profitable while instilling worthwhile values, they said.

Agriculture broadly is as high as a $1 billion economic generator in Whatcom County, with around 300 farms relied upon for full income and hundreds more smaller-scale or “hobby,” according to an introduction.

Honcoop said organizers wondered if the forum’s title “a future?” would be a little too strong. “Sadly, it’s not,” they decided.

The event was put together to educate on “what’s really going on in the barn, in the field,” Honcoop said.

Farmers want to close the gap of a “major disconnect” between themselves as food producers and all people as food consumers, he said. 

Brad Rader, whose family moved their berry operation from the Puyallup area in the 1980s, said there is “a lot of family wisdom” in Whatcom County about berry growing. Between blueberries and raspberries, about 130 million pounds of fruit are raised annually here.

Ironically, Whatcom once had thousands of acres of strawberries, but that industry disappeared primarily because of its high need for hand labor, he said.

“The playing field is not level at all,” Rader said, in regard to American versus overseas berry growing, “and that’s why a lot of us are concerned about planting berries. Things are out of control.”

Farms create many direct and spinoff jobs, yet the Washington minimum wage is rising each year, he noted. “Do folks really want us to be here?”

Everyone needs to eat — that is common to all — but do consumers care about inputs such as labor and water supply or food supply standards set for American agriculture, but not necessarily applicable elsewhere in the world?

“Do we really want all our food coming from off-shore, especially in that produce section? That’s a question we all should think about,” Rader said.

Galen Smith is a partner with his father-in-law, Jeff Rainey, in Coldstream Farms dairy in the South Fork Valley, which is extra heavy in rainfall. But the large operation has invested in new technology that separates out the components of manure to the point that water can be returned clean to the Nooksack River South Fork.

It is “very challenging” in Whatcom County dairying right now, Smith said.

The biggest issue day to day is “basic economics” and “making enough money to see another day,” he said, as farmgate milk producer prices stay low.

This area has good dairying climate and farmer expertise, but the number of dairy farms has dropped from more than 600 in the 1970s to fewer than 90 today, Smith said.

A farmer’s milk price is about the same as 20 years ago, while costs of production have definitely gone up, creating a profitability squeeze, he said. 

Lacking enough local hands “willing to get dirty,” farmers do rely more and more on a migrant workforce, Smith said, yet they need to be sure of verifying records that government might check on.

Other issues facing a dairy are: land availability and rising value, state regulations such as the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit, and legal uncertainty about water. Then there is “the emotional burden” not often shared by farmers as they try to stay committed to a chosen way of life, Smith said.

Ben Elenbaas has been a diversified livestock farmer and direct-market producer and he is now president of the Whatcom County Farm Bureau. 

In his turn to speak, Elenbaas argued that perhaps the county’s way of trying to enhance major agriculture hasn’t worked as hoped, and more opportunity for smaller operations in rural zones might be more effective. 

The “mini farm pattern” has largely  been rejected by Whatcom planners, Elenbaas said. He believes bigger is not necessarily better, and farming is not incompatible with rural living.

He cited a case of buffers from streams and definitions of wetlands carving a 100-acre farm down to 13 usable acres. The application of “best available science” can vary from one region of the country to another, Elenbaas said.

He also questioned why Whatcom, with plenty of livestock growing going on, cannot get a meat processing operation located except in an industrial zone.

There is sometimes a disconnect between the goals for strong agriculture in the county and the means of actually accomplishing it, Elenbaas said.

Matt Aamot spoke for “hobby” or part-time farming operations and direct-market food raising. It can be a lifestyle that teaches values in a family as well as raising food.

But even small-scale farming faces challenges as well, of water availability, stream buffers, access to markets, labor, regulations and land use restrictions. It all adds up to calculating “what’s coming down the pike,” he said. And “a lot of that is death by a million cuts.”

More and more kids, and adults, lack an understanding of the connection between farming and food, not thinking beyond the grocery store. Yet young people are needed to “carry the torch” of agriculture forward.

“The most important thing about farmers is, you need to make a profit,” Aamot also said.

Amanda Stidham has been involved in various aspects of agriculture education and promotion, is a farming wife and mom on 10 acres, and recently took over heading up the Whatcom County Youth Fair.

The also emphasized the values, skills and lessons that can be learned from agriculture.

The said the disconnect can be media-driven, with sides that are not that far apart and can come together if they choose to. 

Animals and the farm lifestyle can be made appealing and attractive, if experiences and projects are shared and talked about.