Larry Stap is a fourth generation dairy farmer and co-owner of the popular glass bottled dairy product brand, TwinBrook Creamery, with his son-in-law and daughter. Their farm lies adjacent to the stream along with the Fishtrap creek, hence “twin brook.” When Stap saw the dying fish, he and co-owner Mark Tolsma made an immediate decision: divert their much needed irrigation water into the struggling stream. Well water was pumped into the stream and helped provide the time needed to rescue as many of the remaining fish as possible.
It wasn’t the first time Whatcom’s family farmers sacrificed to divert water into streams during the low flow times of late summer. For several years, farmers in the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District worked with state officials to allow them to use well water to pump cold, oxygenated water into the Bertrand creek to support fish habitat. Legal decisions and bureaucratic processes delayed the effort for a couple of years. This action followed the earlier voluntary diversion of water rights. Farmers for years have had the legal right to draw irrigation water directly from the stream, but now understand that during the heat of summer more water is needed in the creek so have been allowed to convert those surface water rights to groundwater rights allowing them to use wells for irrigation. More rights could be converted but unfortunate legal decisions have hindered that process.
These are just two of literally hundreds of examples of what Whatcom Family Farmers are calling REAL: Real Environmental Action and Leadership. The public doesn’t automatically think of farmers as environmental activists, and indeed they aren’t in the sense of protesting, suing and lobbying. But they might instead be called “environmental actionists” because of the proactive and positive actions taken to help protect the environment.
A few more examples:
The strict farming regulations combined with literally hundreds of proactive measures taken by farmers to protect the environment are working. Recent monitoring by the Department of Ecology shows that groundwater quality nearest our dairy farms is actually improving. Nitrate levels are restricted by EPA regulations and nitrate above the EPA limit is very common in most areas where farming has long existed. This is because until about the 1970s no one was aware that the heavy use of fertilizer, either organic as in cow manure or commercial fertilizer, meant that excess nitrogen was leaching into groundwater. We now know that it takes 3o to 50 years of improved farm practices to affect nitrate levels in groundwater and the fact that in Whatcom County we are seeing improvement means that what farmers are doing is positively working.
Farming has always had an impact on the environment and problems continue as we hear more and more about environmental impacts of farming across the nation and world. Whatcom farmers clearly understand that not all problems have been solved and the potential for contamination remains. That’s one reason why farmers have come together in groups such as the six Watershed Improvement Districts and Whatcom Family Farmers. Together farmers can encourage each other, support positive policy actions and improve public understanding of the REAL environmental leadership farmers provide.
Fishtrap Creek comes to us from our northern neighbors in Canada, crossing the border to wind through both farm fields and the city of Lynden. The stream eventually feeds into the Nooksack River, providing habitat to Chinook, coho, and chum salmon, as well as many other species.
For decades farmers have worked with conservation groups, government agencies, volunteers and students to rebuild healthy fish habitat in Fishtrap Creek. They’ve cleaned up invasive plants and planted native trees to provide stable stream banks that filter water coming to the creek, and even more importantly, provided shade to help cool the water to protect the juvenile salmon growing there.
This past year that work continued on a section of the creek that runs through farmland just north of the Lynden city limits. Rader Farms, which grows red raspberries in the field along that section of stream, stepped up to allow conservation workers and volunteers to access the area and contributed the additional land needed to expand the riparian area. The farm also did the hard work of cleaning up the non-native plants that had been choking the stream banks.
The team from NSEA guided the project and provided native trees in pots, bark mulch and workers to lead the student volunteers planting trees. Armed with gloves and rubber boots, students from Lynden Christian High School science classes planted hundreds of the new trees. They used bark mulch and plastic tubes to protect the seedlings as they grow up to shade and protect the creek.