SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. -- Skagit farmers are working together to protect the soil.
Jason VanderKooy with Harmony Dairy says animal waste, particularly from dairy cows, plays a big role in soil health.
“Cow manure is the complete package for nutrients for our fields,” he said. “It has all the nutrients needed to grow grass, grow corn, build the soil -- healthy soil. It’s important to have good feed for your cows.”
Chad Kruger, Washington State University’s director of NWREC, says the diversity of the region’s agriculture defines the soil system.
“We grow a lot of crops and have a lot of different livestock systems,” he said. “And, the diversity is something that defines our system. And underlying all of it is soil and how we take care of our soil both from kind of a traditional conservation perspective as well as the potential that soils could be a reservoir of a lot of really positive things that we have really yet to fully grasp and understand, much less be able to take advantage of.”
VanderKooy says dairy and crop farmers are working together when it comes to soil conservation.
“Farmers are seeing the benefits of animal waste on their fields,” he says. “So we have a pretty good system here now, and that's thanks to dairy farmers and crop farmers working together.”
John Roozen, a bulb farmer in Skagit County, works with VanderKooy to get manure on his fields.
“We farm about 2,200 acres and we rotate with other farmers that can grow any number of crops,” he said. “The importance of that rotation is paramount. Stewardship is about listening to the soil and listening to the crop and trying to interpret what it's telling you.”
Kruger says the ecosystem is fragile.
“Our producers in our region have realized that when we do something there is an effect and that we've got to be really careful about that in this fragile system that we have here,” he said. “So we're looking for that optimum where we can get the advantages of the manure application for soil health, get the environmental protection, but also keep the dairies viable and in business.”
He explains that scientists learn from producers.
“And so when we as scientists are working with producers there's this kind of old school mindset that the scientists will figure it out and then transfer it to the producers,” Kruger says. “And I think that's really actually backwards here. I think if you talk with most of the scientists that I work with, the best ideas come from producers.”
He says then it is the scientists job to measure the effectiveness of what the farmers have done.
“You only get one experiment, right? And so to be able to provide them tools and understanding that helps them do a better job is really rewarding.”
FERNDALE, Wash. -- A Ferndale farm has gone above and beyond to assist the Bellingham Food Bank for years. Boxx Berry Farms donates acres of their property to the food bank’s gleaning project, allowing the food bank access to fresh produce.
“Bellingham Food Bank's agricultural programs really got started about 10 years ago when we inherited a gleaning project,” said Max Morage, special projects coordinator with the Bellingham Food Bank. “What we do with the gleaning project is we harvest food that would otherwise go to waste. So we want those apples. We want those carrots. We want anything that would serve families in Whatcom County.”
“Today, we were here to harvest some potatoes that we had that were excess to us,” Mike Boxx, owner of Boxx Berry Farm said. “We have the ability to grow quite a bit of produce.”
Boxx approached the food bank years ago with an excess amount of corn. Morage gathered a crew to go harvest the acre of corn.
“Mike felt great,” Morage said. “He donated five bins of corn that would get shared all throughout Whatcom County and we were thrilled because we developed a relationship directly with a local farm.”
Boxx says farmers are working hard to create a high-quality product, so anytime there is an excess, the food bank is getting that high-quality product.
Eliza Andrews, the small potato gleaning coordinator at the Bellingham Food Bank, says that it’s important for the food bank to have access to fresh produce.
“The Bellingham Food Bank is providing a service to people who use the food bank and we as the gleaning are providing a service to the farmer when we come to the farm to glean this product,” Andrews said. “If you could think of it in that way as a service, we're here pulling food from your field that you're not going to use and that it can be used somewhere else and that is pretty great. Those are the kind of services that we can provide so we both benefit. I get to go back to the food bank with all this delicious fresh product that was picked hours ago. I mean fresh is one thing, and then hours fresh is pretty cool.”
Morage says the Bellingham Food Bank’s relationships with farmers is important to the food bank.
“Working directly with farms to me feels a lot like we're connecting pieces of the food system together in a way that otherwise wouldn't happen,” he said.
He says farmers don’t want to see their food go to waste.
“Farmers who have spent an entire year planting, tending, watering, harvesting, looking for a market -- they don't wanna see food go to waste,” Morage said. “They got into farming because they like food and they like feeding people. Bellingham Food Bank depends on donations that organizations, like farms in our community, make and having a really strong group of those organizations that know each other and know what each other is doing is vital to the work that we do.”
SUNNYSIDE, Wash. -- J&K Dairy in Sunnyside, Wash. is using worms to help clean and recycle their waste on their farm.
They have brought in the Biofiltro system to their farm to help with cleaning their waste and creating clean water.
“The Biofiltro beta system takes anaerobic water cleans it up with aerobic treatment and eliminates a bunch of the potential liability associated with it,” said Russ Davis with Organix. “For example, odor, methane, and loose nitrogen. And, it converts all of those things into things the plants can use and reduces those potential contaminants by about 90%.”
The system uses worms to naturally filter the water.
“So the worms are capable of doing what worms were built to do, which is to clean the ground or in this case, clean the water up,” Davis said. “So that we can produce as much clean water as a farm can use.”
“The idea behind the Biofiltro is to clean the water up for the dairy farmer so they are able to utilize their water in a better fashion.” Davis said. “And hopefully create some sort of revenue benefit as well.”
Matias Sjogren with Biofiltro says that within 4 hours of the water entering the system, it leaves clean.
“So basically, we are transforming a liquid waste, to a high quality water for irrigation,” Sjorgren said. “With this system we are taking out the environmental, greenhouse gases impact that they have right now.”
Jason Sheehan with J&K Dairy says it’s common for farmers to try new things for sustainability.
“I think the biggest thing is that we want to show that dairyman are innovators and are always trying new things, trying to get better at what they do,” Sheehan said.
“Dairymen, by nature, are environmentalists,” Davis said. “Probably the best recycling machine out there. We like the story that cows can take food that people can’t eat, for example alfalfa and corn stalks -- what we consider waste, and they turn that into something that can be utilized for humans.”
WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. -- Constant moisture is important to the health and growth of potatoes. Ebe Farms in Whatcom County has tested out several types of irrigation systems to find the most efficient way to keep their potatoes hydrated while conserving water.
Greg Ebe, the manager at Ebe Farms, says his family got started in the potato industry in the 1920s. His grandfather was a German immigrant and started the seed potato program in Whatcom County.
“We’re blessed with some of the most primed soils in the country, in Whatcom County, for potato production and also a great climate,” Ebe said. “But, we still have to supplement with irrigation, and that’s just critical to us.”
Initially, the potatoes were irrigated with handlines, which, Ebe says, requires a lot of labor. And, they are only about 75-80% efficient.They switched to big guns hose reels and unfortunately those are also not very efficient. Big guns reduced labor, but were only about 66% efficient.
“We were not making good use of our water,” Ebe said. “Soil and water is everything to us.”
They have started to convert a lot of their fields to a drip irrigation system, which is 95% efficient. Mark Goodman with Ebe Farms says that the new systems help replenish the soil.
“We are able to maintain a moisture balance throughout the day, a 24 hour period, which is an ideal irrigation technique for a potato crop, which is extremely moisture sensitive,” Goodman says.
The new irrigation system is placed right in the root zone, so there is less evaporation. Ebe says the technology is still evolving, but it is continuing to improve.
Ebe Farms currently uses satellite feeds to see how their crops are doing. They can see how hydrated the crops are or if they are stressed in any way.
Ebe says the technology allows them to monitor how effective the irrigation systems in place are. They can compare the fields day-to-day to see how weather is also impacting the potatoes.
“Water is critical to our operation. There’s a lot of competing uses for water. We need to manage it as a finite, precious resource. Drip irrigation makes the most efficient use of the water, rather than waste the water, it leaves it for other uses, such as the salmon habitat. Farming, in general, is the most compatible land use to creating a healthy habitat for salmon recovery.”
DEMING, Wash. -- New technology is allowing for the waste created on dairy farms to be turned into clean water.
Coldstream Farms sits in the south fork valley in Deming, Wash. The valley is narrow and the Nooksack River winds back and forth through the valley. Galen Smith, owner and operator of Coldstream, says it is important that his operation is conscious of the impact his farm has on the environment.
“We do have a lot of sensitive areas, that we want to make sure we are protecting water quality, all of those things that are important to farms,” he said. “We want to make sure we are doing a good job.”
Two and a half years ago, Smith was contacted by Regenis, a Ferndale company working to help farms with manure management. Eric Powell with Regenis, says the company searched the world for a technology the company believed in.
The system separates the manure into three products -- a solid of concentrated nutrients used for fertilizer, concentrated nutrients in the form of a liquid, and clean water that is the result of a reverse-osmosis filtration system.
Coldstream received $930,305 in grant money from the Washington State Conservation Commission for the manure management project. They were one of five recipients to get grant money for the use of innovative technology to reduce potential environmental impacts and costs associated with manure management.
Coldstream's commitment to sustainability is also evident in their land use strategy, where they work with the Whatcom Land Trust to ensure that the land that they farm along the banks of the South Fork is sustainable and thriving, including 54 acres that they lease from Land Trust. In 2018, Whatcom Land Trust awarded Coldstream the The Bob Keller Memorial Business Conservation Leadership Award.
Coldstream is the first clean system installation in Washington of this kind and its use creates 4.3 million gallons of clean water that can go back into the river each year. The Nooksack River is a main route for several types of salmon. The Whatcom Land Trust and the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association have spent many hours working on the property to better the area for optimal salmon health.
“We were green before being green was cool,” Smith. “We are the ultimate recyclers. We take every drop we get from our cows, and now, we return it to water to a fish bearing stream.”
Smith also said their farm needs to operate in a sustainable way that is viable to a dairy operation.
“We have to protect not just our farm, but the farming community as we move into the future,” he said.
Through all that growth, sustainability remained one of their core values. That’s why, in 2012, Mitch Moorlag, the Brandsma’s son-in-law and general manager of the dairy, made the decision to install an anaerobic digester on the farm. It was a large investment for the farm, but one that they see as worthwhile.
“Being willing to take that risk allows us to be sustainable dairy farmers from one generation to the next,” says Mitch. But how does this technology work, and what are the benefits?
The manure produced by the cows flows into a large, sealed tank. In that tank, microbes that thrive in areas without oxygen (“anaerobic”) break down the manure, and in the process release biogas, a combination of methane and other gases. That gas is then used to run a generator producing about 544 kilowatts of energy, or enough power for 250 residential homes. The farm also receives carbon credits for this, since the methane that is combusted before it makes it into the atmosphere, where it would otherwise act as a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The remaining manure is then separated into solid and liquid components. The solids are filtered and used as a soft, fibrous bedding for the cows. The liquids, which have a high concentration of nutrients, are used as an organic fertilizer for the crops that feed the cows.
The result is a system that captures and recycles carbon, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, produces carbon-neutral electricity, and allows the farm to more easily manage nutrient levels on their croplands.
Puget Sound Energy customers who are interested in using green power like what Edaleen Dairy produces can find more information about the program here.
For decades, old-style floodgates have kept floodwaters back from thousands of acres of land along the Nooksack by only allowing water from streams to drain into the river, and not back up onto fields when the river runs high, said Frank Corey, Whatcom Conservation District Resource Coordinator. But while those old floodgates helped with high water, the rest of the time they blocked fish from moving upstream into those small tributaries, essentially cutting off important habitat area that the fish need to grow and spawn, Corey explained.
New-style “self-regulating” floodgates, including the one installed at Appel Family Dairy, allow fish through, giving them new access to miles of streams where young salmon and other species can thrive and grow large before continuing their journey. They also do a better job of protecting nearby farmland from flooding, creating a win-win for fish and farming, said Corey.
He said another benefit of the new floodgates is that it protects small, young fish during floods. When the Nooksack River runs high, the fast water is dangerous for juvenile salmon, and if the river begins to rise, they move to side streams to wait out a possible flood. According to Corey, the self-regulating floodgates allow them to escape the main river before a flood happens, protecting countless smolts from being killed or prematurely swept out to sea.
These improvements to habitat do come with a cost. Grants from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), as well as funding from Whatcom County and other agencies and groups helped pay for the new fish-friendly floodgate at Appel Family Dairy. The Appels also allowed access to the area, and contributed a few acres of farmland that the project managers needed to use when the heavy equipment used to build the new floodgate was brought in.
But to farmers, the costs and the disruption to their normal operation is worth it. Appel Family Dairy co-owner Rich Appel said it’s incredibly important to them to protect the environment around their farm and in the larger Whatcom County community. “We have been farming here on the banks of the Nooksack River for three generations, and hope to continue for many more,” said Appel. “Taking care of the land, the streams, and the life that lives in them is crucial to our family’s future.”
In 2012 they founded Triple Wren Farms and began selling cut flowers to local retailers.
Their farming success was the result of a combination of lots of hard work and a desire to understand the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. After some experiments, they settled on their ideal primary crop: dahlias. The brightly-colored blooms range from two inches in diameter up to a foot, and though they originally come from the mountains of central Mexico, Steve believes their ideal habitat is right here in Whatcom County.
“Dahlias like to have really hot days followed by really cold nights, and we have that along with a really long growing season. No other part of the country can grow dahlias as well as we can,” Steve explained.
A visit to the farm proves him right: row upon row of dahlias–over 8500 of them–as well as blueberries, pumpkins, and a number of other perennials. Of course, great flowers require great soil conditions, and Steve and Sarah use holistic management practices that promote healthy plants. They use landscape fabric to control weeds and water with ultra-high efficiency drip irrigation. But it’s their pasture rotation that really makes the entire system work so well.
At the end of each growing season the family removes the dahlia tubers from the ground, then moves their pigs onto the field. Over the next season the hogs will turn over the soil and eat weeds and any leftover tubers that may carry disease or blight. After pigs come chickens, which eat up insects and other pests. The manure from the pigs and chickens will put important nutrients back into the ground so that when the dahlia rotation comes back around to that field, it will be ready with clean, healthy, and fertile soil.
The Pabodys don’t stop at direct land management practices: they now host a number of bee hives. Steve manages and collects honey from the hives which include several mason bee blocks around the property. They’ve even left a number of unmanaged areas throughout their acreage to encourage the growth of native bees and other beneficial pollinators.
In addition to the benefits of better growing conditions, their management practices have earned them a “Salmon Safe” farm certification. They now sell wholesale and retail cut flowers, open up their farm for seasonal blueberry and pumpkin sales, and distribute their dahlia bulbs across the country. The quality of their product speaks for itself, and is yet another testimony to the hard work and excellent management practices of family farms here in Whatcom County.
For generations, Whatcom County's family farmers have taken stewardship of the land seriously.
In recent years, local family farmers have led hundreds of projects to restore streams, conserve water, protect salmon and so much more.
Here are some of the highlights:
And these are just the highlights! There are many more stories that haven't been told, and many family farmers who are doing things big and small each day to protect the environment around them. If you know of more stories we should be sharing with the community, please email Dillon Honcoop at email@example.com.
The Bertrand is a relatively small stream that originates in Canada. For many years farmers near the stream had legal rights to withdraw irrigation water directly from the stream. Irrigation was needed at the driest times of the summer at the same time that the natural flows were lowest. The result was a decline in flow to the point of harming fish.
In 2004, farmers recognized the problem and formed the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District. This was the first of six farmer-led government entities formed to address water issues. Many farmers were already working hard at conserving water. Marty Maberry, co-owner of Maberry Packing, said the micro-irrigation now used by almost all berry farmers reduced the withdrawals for irrigation by half per acre. But this alone did not solve the problem of low flows.
From 2010 to 2016 a number of the farmers were approved to pull their irrigation water from nearby wells instead of the stream. This made a massive difference in stream flows, but at the same time, farmers were working on an innovative idea to increase flow even more: augmentation. This involved pumping water from a well into the creek at the time of lowest flow.
They applied for the groundwater permit from the Washington Department of Ecology, and after over two years of delays, were finally granted approval. As the water flowed into the stream, a newly-designed structure aerated the water, refreshing it with a higher oxygen content and new life. Measurements confirmed that the flow had increased all the way to the river.
“Farmers understand this is something we need to do,” said Maberry. “Habitat is only one factor affecting fish, but it is one that as farmers we can address. This shows we understand the need for stream flow, for habitat and we respect and support tribal treaty rights.”
According to Maberry, the Bertrand augmentation project is just a start. “We see many opportunities to improve habitat with this kind of farmer-led approach,” he said. “But we also look for more support from our government leaders including tribal leaders for help in securing the long delayed water rights that will allow us to continue to farm.”
The farming community is eager to keep the Bertrand stream a healthy place for local salmon and trout to thrive, something that may not have been possible had they not taken action.