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A golden harvest near Oakesdale.
Photo by Teresa Hodges





Different sides, same struggles

Tour gets legislators out of Olympia and onto the farm

November 2017
By Trista Crossley

There aren’t many places in Eastern Washington that can compare to the climate (30” to 35” of rain) and the range of crops (80 different ones) that are grown in the Skagit Valley, but the struggles farmers face are the same on both sides of the state.

In September, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) participated in a legislative ag tour that brought elected officials and aides out of their offices and onto the farm to help them understand the real-world impacts of legislation. A team of WAWG officers and staff participated in the tour along with representatives from the potato, shellfish, dairy and wine industries; Washington Friends of Farms and Forests (WFFF); and the Western Washington Agricultural Association, among others. Despite a long day that began with a 5 a.m. flight, the WAWG representatives returned home having found solid common ground with western Washington farmers.

“When I look around the state, we grow different crops and our farming practices are different, but the frustrations and issues we face are similar,” said WAWG Vice President Marci Green.

Michelle Hennings, WAWG’s executive director, said that even though the group wasn’t able to visit a wheat field, getting legislators out of their offices in Olympia is a big step forward.

“Farmers on both sides of the state face so many of the same obstacles, such as crumbling infrastructure or overly restrictive regulations, that being able to see the lengths farmers go to be good environmental stewards and to ask questions directly to the farmers makes a huge impact,” she said. “There’s a world of difference between a rule being made in Olympia to seeing and understanding how that rule would actually affect the people on the ground.”

The tour began with an agricultural overview at Roozengaarde Tulips, a family-owned operation since 1947. The Skagit Valley is within 50 miles of more than 5 million people and has almost 100,000 acres of farmland under production. To preserve their open space, the county has enacted strict zoning laws that permit only one house per 40 acres. As one speaker said, in order to keep the country country, not everybody can live there.

The tour participants were then bused to another family-owned farm, Mesman Dairy, to learn how nutrient management is done with a herd of 115 to 125 cows and to see a completely automated milking operation. A computer system communicates with a chip embedded in the cows’ ears to allow them access to the milking stations. If too little time has passed since a cow was last milked, the computer opens an alternative series of gates that lead the cow out to pasture. The system also monitors the cows’ activity levels and sends notices to the humans if a possible problem has been detected.

Another stop on the tour was the Washington State University Northwest Research and Extension Center in Mt. Vernon. Tour participants learned about the research taking place on the campus and heard a presentation on pesticide drift from Dr. Steve Savage, a plant pathologist and independent consultant who analyzed pesticide use in Washington state for WFFF. In his research, Savage found that every year, there are approximately 472,000 spray events on approximately 4.2 million acres of Washington farmland. Using the number of spray incidents reported to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, he put the statistics into perspective.

“In a year with 22 reported drift events, that would mean that 99.995 percent of spray events did not lead to reported events,” he said.

Water conservation and nutrient management were addressed next with a stop at an irrigation pumping station on the Skagit River. Local farmers expressed frustration with current water laws and how irrigation water is regulated. Kelly McLain, a Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) senior natural resources scientist, met the group at a tide gate to discuss how WSDA has been working with landowners to install water monitoring stations throughout the valley. She called the process “collaborative” and said that many of the problems they’ve seen can be traced back to residential causes, such as washing cars, rather than agriculture.

The tour finished with a dinner at Roozengaarde. Hennings touched on the importance of the Pacific Northwest’s export system and thanked the legislators for attending. Sen. Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake) summed it up.

“This is what it is all about. You couldn’t teach a legislator about this in a hearing,” she said.

The agriculture community is already planning for next summer’s legislative tour, which is expected to take place in the Tri-Cities area.