Many of the challenges and opportunities presented in the individual sector summaries are relevant to several sectors, but most are presented in just one section of the CFA in order to reduce repetition. Given the interconnections between the sectors of the food system, it is valuable to survey the status of the food system as a whole and identify major themes that emerge. Looking across the food system sector summaries at the current major challenges to the Whatcom County food system and efforts to address them, the CFA Subcommittee identified five major themes:
Food and the Environment
In nearly every food system sector, environmental factors affecting or resulting from food production were identified as major challenges. The most pervasive factor is climate change. The impacts of climate change are increasingly felt by food producers as unpredictable weather affects growing and harvest seasons, rainfall and snowpack, air temperatures, pest insect populations, ocean water temperatures and acidity, and river instream flow levels and temperatures.
Water issues are a major environmental focus in many sectors – land, water, farming, fishing, and waste. Water access, water quality, and water quantity are all essential for farming, shellfish, and fish populations. The competing demands for this limited resource continue to be a source of tension, though there are many programs and collaborations working to address water challenges.
Food Waste Reduction and Management
Food waste reduction and management is another sector where food and environmental issues intersect. With organic waste making up more than half of our community’s waste stream, organizations are providing more education and technical assistance than ever to encourage widespread adoption of waste reduction practices and use of food composting services among food producers and consumers.
A common theme echoed by key informants throughout the food system is that the economics of food production is extremely challenging given the price consumers are able and willing to pay for local food in a global food marketplace. Operating costs for farmers, fishers, processors, distributors, and food businesses are increasing with more stringent requirements to comply with food safety and environmental regulations, and higher minimum wages for workers. At the same time, local food producers must compete with cheap food from larger companies and foreign countries that have lower production costs.
Successful efforts to educate consumers about the value of local food, and to promote businesses that produce and sell local food, have contributed to increased demand, at least among those consumers with the time and financial resources to purchase food with these considerations in mind.
Progress in developing local food aggregation and distribution systems, access to capital for scaling up production, and new opportunities for consumers to purchase local products are both generating and responding to increased demand.
The numbers of people using Whatcom County food banks and the quantities of food distributed reached an all-time high in 2015. The cost of a meal has continued to increase as well, while wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. Food deserts have also increased with recent closures of local grocery stores in areas with high rates of poverty. Proposed reductions, in 2017, to the Federal budget for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program would compound these issues, dramatically reducing food access for low-income families. Already, families with incomes too high to qualify for SNAP but too low to meet their food needs, are using food banks to fill the gap.
Relationships between groups advocating for farm owners/managers and those advocating for farm workers are chronically tense. From the commercial farming perspective, the need is for predictable, fair, just, cost-effective ways to provide enough legal laborers to farms. From the farmworker perspective, workers are still not getting their basic needs met for livable wages, medical care, training, safe working conditions, and affirmation of their value in the food system. The livelihood of both farm owners and workers depends on the economic viability of farms and will require ongoing dialog to reach agreements that meet the needs of both labor and management.
Policies & Regulations
Food System Policies
Big challenges and opportunities to affect change exist in food system regulations, codes, policies and plans. In the case of food production, balance is needed between the costs/time to deal with regulations and the benefits that may result in terms of improved food safety, environmental protection, access to enough laborers, and working conditions for those laborers.
Current immigration policies make it challenging for immigrants, particularly Latino and Latina farmworkers, to legally and justly work in the U.S. Recent efforts to change immigration policies, crack down on undocumented workers, and require Congressional review of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program, have generated fear, the potential for deportations, and increased uncertainty and unpredictability for workers in the food system.
Whatcom County’s Agricultural Strategic Plan aims to create and preserve agricultural land. One complication which must be addressed is the disconnect between the acreage needed for agriculture and the availability of water rights to accompany that land. Right now, it is difficult for many farmers to obtain an adequate, legal supply of water. Although not related to agriculture, the Washington State Supreme Court’s 2016 “Hirst decision,” which stipulates that any new private residential wells may not impair senior water rights, including instream flows, is drawing additional attention to questions of water rights. Many feel that current water usage policies and practices will need to change. The Hirst decision, the 2016 Coordinated Water System Plan, and the many groups collaborating to address water quality, quantity, access, and habitat restoration will ideally generate solutions to the water access challenges in Whatcom County.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The creation and implementation of many new projects and partnerships between organizations within and across food system sectors is an indicator of progress toward the Whatcom Food Network’s primary goal of increasing communication, coordination, and collaboration within the food system. Overall, food processing and distribution infrastructure is evolving, consumers have increased access to local products, including education about the value of local food and how to grow, prepare, and procure it. In addition, the private sector has created new cooperative enterprises and partnerships. The lists of collaborations in each sector summary of this CFA highlight these partnerships.
- Land prices and development pressure continue to increase.
- Whatcom Conservation District received a National Estuary Program Grant from the EPA and a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA to develop and refine innovative manure management tools that are the subject of a multi-state collaborative project and international adoption.
- A total of 899 acres of farmland are now protected by Whatcom County’s Purchase of Development Rights Program.
Farmland is a constrained resource – The rich agricultural land of Whatcom County is becoming more difficult to obtain and maintain as farmland for many reasons:
- Increasing population and development pressures are driving demand for land and increasing the value of available property making farmland harder to find, conserve, and afford.
- Foreign investment in agricultural land (especially from Canada and India) has driven up land prices. In many cases, the cost of the land itself now far exceeds the ability to pay it off by farming.
- Raspberry growers in Whatcom County are subject to land pressures given narrow environmental conditions suitable for growing raspberries, and the increasingly high price of lands with these growing conditions.
- Blueberries can be grown on more marginal land, or on converted dairy land. However, blueberries have been over-planted in the past few years and the market has now been saturated, leading to lower prices.
- Dairies are especially impacted by land pressures because they need land for manure management. The price to buy or rent land for manure management is too high to be economically viable, but so is the cost of trucking manure to more affordable land in Skagit County.
Legal access to land with irrigation water – Access to land with adequate water for irrigation and livestock watering is limited because of seasonal shortages of water in places where it is needed, and also because farms may not have legal water rights. Significant farm acreage currently is irrigated without legal water rights, making these farms vulnerable to losing water access.
A need for more data – There are many questions under study that require further research to determine best practices for maintaining the health of farmland and water. These include questions about nutrient application setbacks as affected by vegetative buffers, and pesticide application rates and the impacts of these chemicals.
Balancing land conservation with habitat restoration – Federal lawmakers may authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to pursue a $451.6 million project to convert hundreds of acres of privately-owned farmland near the mouth of the Nooksack River into fish habitat, which is opposed by the Farm Bureau and local farm advocacy groups.
Whatcom County Agricultural Advisory Committee (AAC) is composed of representative large and small-scale food producers, conservation organizations, educators, and others who provide the Whatcom County Council with reviews and recommendations on issues that affect agriculture.
Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Oversight Committee provides oversight and evaluation for the Whatcom County PDR program, advising the County Council in the selection of eligible lands offered for permanent protection from conversion through PDR acquisition. To date, 899 acres of working farmland have been protected.
Whatcom County Ag-Watershed Pilot Project – This grant project was funded in 2012 by a National Estuary Program Watershed Protection and Restoration Grant to Whatcom County Planning and Development Services. Project partners included the Whatcom Conservation District, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and Whatcom Farm Friends (now Whatcom Family Farmers). The goal of the project was to reward the things farmers already do to maintain, enhance, or protect large-scale watershed processes while strengthening agriculture in Whatcom County. The project was completed in Dec. 2016 and resulted in many informative documents and recommendations about how to enhance both agricultural land and watershed health (see overview and summary of results).
Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDs) are groups of farmers organized by watershed to represent the water needs of the agricultural community. There are six WIDs in Whatcom County: Bertrand, North Lynden, South Lynden, Drayton, Laurel, and Sumas.
Whatcom Land Trust, Whatcom County, and the City of Bellingham have partnered to identify and establish conservation easements to protect properties with conservation value from development. To date, over 20,000 acres have been preserved throughout Whatcom County.
Puget Sound Conservation District Caucus -The 12 Puget Sound Conservation Districts (including Whatcom) aims to bring uniformity to guidance and plans for the region in the areas of stormwater, restoration, livestock stewardship, and more. By working together as a caucus, they hope to increase the breadth and quality of available technical assistance.
Incentive Programs to encourage farmland conservation – The Ag-Watershed Pilot Project enabled implementation and study of innovative incentive programs designed to encourage conservation actions and protect farmland from development. These strategies are summarized in the Nov. 2016 report “Options for Recognizing Agricultural & Watershed Values of Voluntary Enhancement Actions” Examples include:
- Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) – A program managed by the Whatcom Conservation District which pays landowners to establish buffers of native trees and plants along fish-bearing streams and rivers.
- Purchase of Development Rights – The PDRprogram is a voluntary program that compensates property owners for the value of their unexercised residential development potential and enacts an agricultural conservation easement to preserve farmland in Whatcom County.
- Whatcom County Open Space Current Use Program – Landowners can submit an application to Whatcom County to classify their property as “Open Space: Farm and Agricultural Conservation Land.” Property taxes are reduced for land with this classification.
Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan Update 2016 – New language in the economics section of the Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2016 recommends the development of a Whatcom County Food System Plan to grow the health and vitality of the local food system. A committee of the Whatcom Food Network is working with key stakeholders to develop a Food System Framework for a Plan to be shared with City and County Councils.
Advancements in farming application and practices – The Whatcom Conservation District received a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA to develop a manure Application Risk Management System in 2015. Tools such as the Manure Spreading Advisory (MSA) and Application Risk Management system (ARM) have led to national and international collaboration and support, including being contracted with the Queen of England through the BC Ministry of Agriculture, and a collaboration with Virginia Tech and South Dakota State University to combine local MSA & ARM tools with theirs.
Land with Potential to Be Farmed – While it is difficult to find affordable agricultural acreage in Whatcom County, there are untapped land resources, especially in urban and suburban areas, that could potentially be farmed with the proper match of crop to soil type and water availability. Policies to offset the cost of water, soil quality improvements, and the cost of renting land in urban areas are potential incentives.
- The dairy sector has made improvements in reducing runoff from farms.
- The Portage Bay Partnership agreement was signed in January 2017.
- The Washington State Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board which requires that new development permit applications requiring potable water demonstrate that any new private residential wells will not impair senior water rights, including instream flows.
- Whatcom County experienced lower than average rainfall for the summers of 2015, 2016, and 2017.
- In 2014, the Portage Bay Shellfish Recovery Plan was published. The plan outlines the primary sources of bacteria and actions to improve water quality.
- The Whatcom County Coordinated Water System Plan was updated in 2016.
- Drayton Harbor opens to shellfish harvest after years of closure in 2016.
Water quantity – Ensuring sufficient water for land-based agriculture irrigation, stock drinking water, and facility wash down, as well as instream flow needs for fisheries, is an on-going challenge and source of tension between farmers and fisheries. Freshwater supply limitations include climate change projections which indicate a future of dry summers, more intense rainfall events in the winter, and decreasing snowpack, as seen in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Water quality – Ground and surface water quality problems are serious in Whatcom County due to many types of contamination from multiple sources including fecal coliform from leaking septic systems, sewer lines, urban and rural stormwater runoff, and agricultural runoff. Climate change also is impacting water quality with ocean acidification and warming water temperatures which negatively affect marine life.
Water rights – It is difficult for farmers to obtain an adequate, legal water supply in the form of a state-issued “water right” because:
- The Nooksack basin is closed to new water rights due to the Nooksack Instream Resources Protection Program (also known as the Nooksack Instream Flow Rule). The Bellingham Herald and other sources have reported that at least 50% of current agricultural operations in Whatcom County either do not have a water right or they are not operating in compliance with its provisions.
- In Oct. 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, commonly referred to as the “Hirst decision,” which requires that new residential development permit applications requiring potable water demonstrate that any new private wells will not impair senior water rights, including instream flows. There is still a lot of work to be done for the County to develop new policies and practices to come into compliance with the Court ruling and resolve conflicts over water use applications.
Portage Bay Partnership – The Partnership is focused on opening the Portage Bay shellfish beds, which have been closed part of the year since September 2014 due to higher than allowed levels of bacterial contamination. Recognizing this contamination is from multiple sources, this historic Partnership established a process whereby farmers and Lummi Nation leaders will work together to address all sources. Two Lynden dairy farms, Edaleen Dairy and Twin Brook Creamery, are the first to develop Water Quality Improvement Plans. The plans will identify specific ways individual participating farms can improve environmental performance and reduce bacterial contamination. It is anticipated that the remaining five farmers that are part of the Partnership agreement will develop their plans and other farmers in the county will join in.
Whatcom Watersheds Information Network – A network of organizations and individuals interested in marine and freshwater ecosystems education and outreach. They host an annual outreach event called Whatcom Water Weeks that has been held every September since 2012.
Marine Resource Committee – Hosts their annual Speaker Series and symposiums which brings research to the community on key topics such as challenges surrounding water supply, climate change, and food supply for both marine and land-based systems. The focus is on adaptation to these challenges.
WRIA Management Team and Water Supply Group (Initiating Governments: the Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Tribe, the City of Bellingham, Public Utility District No. 1 of Whatcom County, and Whatcom County) are working on tracking the linkage between groundwater and surface water, how wells impact surface water, and how to understand and reduce these impacts.
Shellfish Protection Districts – In 2014, the Portage Bay Shellfish Recovery Plan was published. The plan outlines the primary sources of bacteria and actions to improve water quality.
Puget Sound Recovery Program and Puget Sound Partnership – The Partnership is working with watershed groups, which contribute creativity, knowledge, and motivation to implementing lasting solutions to the complex challenges facing salmon and Puget Sound.
WSU and Washington Sea Grant – Washington Sea Grant (WSG) has served the Pacific Northwest and the nation by funding marine research and working with communities, managers, businesses and the public to strengthen understanding and sustainable use of ocean and coastal resources. Based at the University of Washington, WSG is part of a national network of 33 Sea Grant colleges and institutions located in U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states and territories.
City of Bellingham and WSU offer instruction and technical support for rainwater catchment for sustainable landscaping. Water storage cisterns are being installed as a model project for the City of Bellingham with the goal to have rainwater collection for urban agriculture and landscape management become a more legitimate and normalized practice.
Lake Whatcom Management Program – In 1998 the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Water District 10, now the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District, by Interlocal Agreement established the elements of the Lake Whatcom Management Program. The entities have funded and implemented projects annually to improve and protect the water quality of Lake Whatcom which is the drinking water reservoir for the City and the District. Project partners have included WSU Extension, the Sudden Valley Community Association, and property owners.
Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management District (BBWARM) has a Citizen Advisory Committee with five members appointed by the Whatcom County Flood Control Zone District Board of Supervisors (County Council).
Abbotsford/Sumas International Task Force – A coordinated effort between British Columbia and Washington to ensure groundwater protection in the aquifer region across the common border between Canada and the United States based on the 1992 Environmental Cooperation Agreement.
Ag Water Board – All six Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDs) cooperate through an Interlocal Agreement to work together with coordination of the Ag Water Board. They focus on countywide issues that transcend the boundaries of the individual WIDs involving water supply, drainage, and water quality protection.
Model Restoration Effort – The Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm was a pioneering, multi-dimensional effort started in 2001to restore clean water and shellfish harvesting in Drayton Harbor. The waters of the harbor prohibited all shellfish harvest due to chronic bacterial contamination. In order to harvest oysters from this historic and productive shellfish growing area, the community tackled pollution sources and achieved measurable water quality improvements. In 2014, the Drayton Harbor Community Oyster Farm transitioned into a commercial venture called Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. LLC. In 2016, Drayton Harbor opens for shellfish harvest after years of closure.
WA State Water Right Law – All significant surface and groundwater use had required a water right with an exemption for wells that draw 5,000 gallons or less per day for new residential development not served by a public water system. The Hirst decision acknowledged that exempt residential wells could impair senior water users’ ability to access water, which violates Washington State’s central tenant of water law of “first in time, first in right.” In response to the decision, Whatcom County decided to allow new rural residential development not served by public water systems only if land owners could prove their exempt wells would not negatively impact senior water users. The Department of Ecology and Whatcom County are tracking the implications of this decision on development rights and thus land value. The purchasing of land through the Development Right Program may be affected and the impact on agriculture in uncertain. Ideally, this ruling will have a positive impact on instream flows and salmon populations.
Stormwater Facilities – Whatcom County updated stormwater regulations in 2016 to comply with the County’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II permit. The updated code provides parameters for low, medium, and high-intensity developments to determine whether the developments will require stormwater site plans.
All scales of agricultural production are included in this sector.
- Land prices continue to increase.
- The Food Safety Management Act (FSMA) continues to phase in with increased compliance every year, impacting farm businesses and the standards of buyers and sellers.
- The Department of Ecology updated the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit.
- Whatcom Farm Friends dissolves and Whatcom Family Farmers was established.
- New low-interest loan and matching loan programs give farmers who sell to local markets improved access to capital and a way to build credit.
- In August 2017, the Whatcom Business Alliance and Western Washington University published “The Whatcom County Agribusiness Sector Analysis.”
- Whatcom Conservation district launches the 1st Discovery Farm on West Coast
System-wide challenges – Success in the farming sector is dependent upon many other sectors of the food system:
- Access to land for both large and small acreage farms is a long-term issue. As the population of Whatcom County continues to increase, ongoing development reduces total acreage available for farming, increases constraints on water access, and inflates land prices.
- Water access and water quality are major issues currently affecting local food production.
- Competition from Other Countries – Local food producers and processors are competing with products entering the U.S. market from other countries such as Mexico, Serbia, and Chile. In the U.S., the cost of production is much higher than in other countries because of the higher costs for labor and land, stricter environmental rules, and a much stricter policy on food security. As other countries don’t have these costs, they can charge less for their products and out-compete local growers in the bidding process to sell to grocery chains. Foreign imports are especially impacting berry growers.
- Access to Labor – It can be challenging for farms to find enough workers who are skilled, reliable, and available when needed (often on a seasonal basis). Another challenge is being able to afford to pay laborers a living wage and ensure them affordable housing.
- Sufficient infrastructure for processing and distribution and access to viable markets are other essential ingredients for sustaining local and regional agricultural systems.
- Artificially Low Price of Food – People have become accustomed to food prices that are artificially low (because of factors such as crop subsidies and imports from other countries) and do not reflect the actual cost of food production. Given the real production costs for local farmers, most do not have the financial solvency to absorb increased costs for their businesses such as increased wages for labor, food safety, and environmental regulations. They cannot pass all these costs on to consumers and still compete in the market.
- Farm Size and Economic Viability – As demand for local and organic produce has increased, so has pressure to increase production, increase efficiencies, and lower prices.
- Large farms produce consistently high volumes, but because they tend to focus on a single crop, they are more vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations.
- Small farms are typically more diversified in their crop mix, but they need to increase production efficiency and product consistency to effectively expand market opportunities beyond farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.
- It is very challenging for small farms to compete in terms of price with large farms and food imported from other states/countries.
- A big part of the financial challenge for farms is paying labor costs. With the planned increase in minimum wage, farms are increasingly challenged to pay workers and still make ends meet. While all agree that farmworkers should make a living wage, many farmers are struggling to make a living as well.
Food Safety and Environmental Regulation – New regulations increase challenges in management and operations for local farms:
- The economic viability of a farm affects the extent to which it can meet increasingly stringent regulatory requirements for how food is grown, handled, and marketed.
- Regulations for food handling vary between countries creating additional challenges for farms selling outside the U.S.
- For smaller farms, it may be cumbersome and expensive to meet the requirements for Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certification, and though it is voluntary, more buyers are requiring it.
- Food Safety Modernization Act requirements are unfolding over time with compliance increasing for processors and producers every year.
- Local dairy producers are currently grappling with the new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit required by the Department of Ecology.
- Climate Change – While there may be some benefits of climate change for local agriculture, there are many challenges as a result of global warming including increasingly hot summers, low snowpack combined with more winter rain, increased pest pressures, and reduced seasonal availability of water resources.
- Exotic Pests – Whatcom County’s location between major shipping terminals in Seattle and British Columbia, as well as its proximity to agricultural operations in Idaho, Oregon, and California, exposes local farms to exotic pests (e.g., soil-born, migratory insects, diseases) such as spotted wing drosophila and the marmorated stink bug. Whatcom’s berry industry is especially vulnerable to these new pests. With concerted attention over the past few years, pest management and soil health are improving.
- People are largely disconnected from how food is produced.
- Larger farms and dairies are perceived as willfully and negatively impacting the environment, while the reality is that Washington State has some of the country’s toughest environmental rules to mitigate negative environmental impacts.
Cultivating New Leaders – The average age of Whatcom County farmers is 57, and there are not enough young farmers stepping into leadership positions (e.g., representation in Washington DC or on Commissions) to help address the future of local agriculture. It should be noted that there are young people who are choosing to farm as a career path and they would benefit from community support in acquiring land and agricultural financing.
Trade Regulations – U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have large impacts, yet unknown. The uncertainty of international trade agreements creates another instability in the system.
Cooperative Enterprises – Over the past few years, regional food producers, with support from Northwest Agriculture Business Center, have formed two cooperative enterprises which are helping small farms expand their markets. The Puget Sound Food Hub is now a farmer-owned cooperative marketing, aggregating, and distributing locally produced food to institutions, restaurants, and retailers. The farmer-owned and managed North Cascade Meat Producers Cooperative offers USDA processing and a mobile slaughter unit, as well as a North Cascade Meat grass-fed brand marketing program.
Businesses Aggregating Local Food – Farms offering CSA shares frequently pool their crops to increase the efficiency of their farms while offering shareholders a greater variety of items. Several businesses aggregate products from many farms and deliver to customers’ homes (e.g., Acme Farms + Kitchen, Dandelion Organic, and Sound Harvest Delivery).
Watershed Improvement Districts – Whatcom County now has six Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDs) representing a significant number of agricultural producers and acreage. These WIDs collaborate through the Ag Water Board to provide a unified and organized voice for food producers in the County.
Agricultural Advisory Committee (AAC) provides review and recommendations to the Whatcom County Council on issues that affect agriculture. The AAC also provides a forum for farmers and others interested in enhancing and promoting the long-term viability of Whatcom County agriculture.
Whatcom Family Farmers is an outreach and advocacy group that focuses on advocating for farmers on a variety of issues and engages in educating the community on key topics such as water quality, water quantity, labor, and trade.
Portage Bay Partnership – Whatcom Family Farmers and the Lummi Nation signed a promising agreement in January 2017 to address the multiple sources of water pollution in the lower Nooksack Basin which are affecting Portage Bay shellfish beds. This includes a cooperative approach to developing facility-specific plans for containing sources of water pollution from dairies.
Access to Capital – The Community Food Co-op Farm Fund, the Sustainable Whatcom Fund of the Whatcom Community Foundation, and Industrial Credit Union (ICU) partner to provide grant funding and low-interest loans to help local sustainable farms scale up production to serve wholesale markets.
Coordinated response to changing food safety regulations – Collaborations between non-profit organizations, WSU Extension, and Washington State Department of Agriculture are in place to educate farmers about responding to new and evolving food safety regulations.
WSU Collaborations – Stakeholders from British Columbia and WSU have helped berry growers adopt soil health improvement practices. WSU, grower commissions, private entities, trade entities, and public officials have worked together to gain international market access for frozen berries. WSU has helped coordinate collaboration among many players to reduce reliance on fumigation and tackle disease management.
Discovery Farm – Whatcom Conservation District manages the West Coast’s first Discovery Farm, a promising model in which a group of farmers identifies a challenge that can be addressed through science, such as manure application setbacks. This model generates buy-in among farmers for adopting beneficial farming practices.
Washington Red Raspberry Commission – Though this is a regional organization, many raspberry farmers from Whatcom County serve in this group, providing technical assistance, research, and marketing support for raspberry farmers.
Increasing Education and Outreach – Sustainable Connections (SC), Cloud Mountain Farm Center (CMFC), WSU Extension, Northwest Agriculture Business Center, Whatcom Conservation District and other organizations are increasing education and networking opportunities for growers. These include: SC’s Food to Bank On and the Whatcom County Farm Tour, annual meetings such as the Washington Small Fruit Conference; CMFC’s farmer internship and farm incubator programs; WSU’s Cultivating Success program; on-farm workshops and technical assistance; and education for future farmers (e.g., FFA, 4-H, Whatcom County Youth Fair, Northwest Washington Fair).
Mitigating Environmental Impacts – Farmers have undertaken efforts to minimize negative environmental impacts of farming with new initiatives including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), Discovery Farms, and the Portage Bay Partnership.
Internet Marketing – Younger farmers are especially savvy in using internet marketing to expand their reach to a wider array of customers. There are many classes available to help farmers of all ages utilize digital marketing techniques.
Food Hubs – For smaller acreage growers, using food hubs to aggregate and distribute produce is more efficient and can greatly expand their markets, allowing access to institutional buyers and increasing economic viability.
Increased Food Storage and Processing Capacity, which was identified as a need in the previous Community Food Assessments, is expected to come online within the next five years.
Urban and Suburban Agriculture – There is undeveloped land suitable for growing food in Whatcom County’s urban and suburban areas. For example, some parts of Bellingham and Ferndale have zoning and lot sizes large enough to support urban farm businesses. Urban agriculture also offers opportunities to engage at-risk populations in growing food to benefit both the community and themselves (e.g., Growing Veterans and Northwest Youth Services’ We Grow Garden).
A better understanding of economic impacts – Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) recently completed a Whatcom County Agribusiness Sector Analysis. This report describes the local agribusiness sector, including not only those jobs and wages directly relating to food production, but also those supported by spending by people in farming related jobs. This data has the potential to help with planning and development efforts.
- Local fisheries are experiencing sporadic harvests and declining fishing opportunities – Fraser River sockeye and pink salmon failures in recent years were due in part to warmer ocean temperatures.
- Drayton Harbor is open to oyster harvest after years of closure.
- Crab fisheries are steady.
- First annual Bellingham SeaFeast event happened in 2016 and repeated in 2017, drawing 12,000 people.
- Puget Sound Food Hub begins accepting and selling seafood.
- Portage Bay Partnership created.
- Atlantic Salmon farming operation’s net pen breaks, releasing 305,000 non-native fish into Puget Sound in August 2017.
- The Working Waterfront Coalition was established in 2014.
- Several studies were published about the economic importance and impact of local maritime industries.
Anthropogenic Environmental Impacts on Fish/Shellfish Populations
- Climate change is causing warmer water temperatures in fresh and saltwater leading to shifts in salmon migration patterns. Sockeye, the highest value salmon, are now migrating further north through Canadian waters rather than state waters resulting in negative impacts on local fishermen. Climate change also is leading to lower summer flows and more frequent and larger floods, further limiting imperiled Nooksack salmon populations.
- Ocean acidification and water pollution (e.g., runoff from agriculture, development, and other sources; microplastics) are causing habitat degradation and loss of species. Riverine and nearshore water quality issues impact the ability to harvest shellfish as beds are periodically closed because of contamination from a variety of sources.
Declining local fishing opportunities
- Productive runs of salmon are declining – Pink salmon runs, which occur every odd-numbered year, have become less predictable, and Fraser River sockeye runs are now productive only one in every four years.
- Responsible management of fisheries has limited or eliminated harvest of some species – Stocks of some species are critically low and fishing is limited or eliminated for their protection, such as Nooksack spring Chinook, which are listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA listing also constrains harvest of multiple other populations to protect the listed fish which might be inadvertently harvested along with the target stock.
- In general, overfishing is not a problem for West Coast and Alaska fisheries, as most federal and state fisheries are well-managed. There are other parts of the country where it can be a problem, and certainly, on a global scale, there are many fisheries that are overfished. In concert with this, in the U.S., many fisheries experience intense competition for allowable catch between commercial and recreational fishermen.
Lack of coordination and collaboration – Within the fishing industry, coordination and collaboration on a statewide basis is lacking, which makes it difficult for fishermen to advocate for their common interests. However, local Whatcom County fishermen are ably served by the Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association and the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County.
Limited local seafood direct marketing distribution channels – It takes time away from the water for commercial fishermen to drive product from coastal locations where it is caught to population centers to distribute. It is more convenient, though less lucrative, for fishermen to sell to processors.
Financial pressures – Traditional sources of financing such as banks are reluctant to provide capital to invest in fishing gear because fisheries lack significant equity to serve as collateral, and because of the nature of vessel titles and liens. In addition, local seafood markets are highly variable, meaning that fishermen’s income fluctuates a lot.
Lack of technical support and subsidies – Fisheries lack the types of technical support and subsidies available to land-based agriculture (e.g., University Extension services, loans, crop insurance), though Sustainable Connections does offer marketing and market growth assistance to seafood businesses.
Atlantic Salmon Spill – In August 2017, a fishnet near Cypress Island broke, resulting in more than 305,000 farmed Atlantic salmon released unintentionally in Samish Bay. The impact of this spill is unknown, but area tribes and environmental groups are concerned the salmon, which are not native to the region, may impact Pacific salmon populations which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Investigators and scientists are working to gauge the threat they pose to native species. It will take months, or years, to measure the impact of the spill.
Portage Bay Partnership is an agreement signed in January 2017 between Lummi Nation and Whatcom Family Farmers to work together to reduce water contamination from dairy farms and other sources and restore and protect shellfish beds.
Water Resource Inventory Area 1 (WRIA 1) Watershed Management Program covers watershed planning issues including water quality, water quantity, instream flow, and fish habitat. Together, the WRIA 1 Watershed Management and Salmon Recovery Programs promote salmon recovery through voluntary habitat restoration, responsible harvest, and regulatory protection. These programs fall under a unified decision-making structure governed by the WRIA 1 Salmon Recovery Board and Watershed Joint Board.
Producer Cooperatives – Whatcom County is home to North America’s oldest fishermen’s cooperative – Seafood Producers Cooperative. In addition, Lummi Island Wild Co-op LLC is rated on the top ten most sustainable fisheries in the world with solar-powered reef net gear located off Lummi Island. Lummi Island Wild currently is helping Lummi Nation locate reef net gear at Cherry Point as well.
Shellfish Protection Districts – Three shellfish protection districts have been established in Whatcom County. Natural Resource staff provide technical assistance and collaborate with advisory groups, tribes, state and federal agencies, and citizen groups to recover water quality and shellfish growing areas.
Whatcom County Marine Resources Committee (MRC) is a citizen-based committee focused on resource conservation and habitat protection within the Northwest Straits.
Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County promotes the vitality and economic benefits of our working waterfronts. Members are Whatcom County-based companies and non-profits whose main focus is maritime activities.
Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association supports and encourages commercial fishing businesses.
Events highlighting local fisheries – The Port of Bellingham and community groups host annual events, including the Wild Seafood Exchange and Bellingham Seafeast, to help fishermen expand direct marketing opportunities and sales, and showcase the industry.
WSU Extension and Washington Sea Grant have a long-standing partnership providing water resource education in Whatcom County.
Marine Rental Policy – In 2017, the Working Waterfront Coalition joined Port staff on a committee to draft a new marine rental policy that offers advantageous rates to attract and hold qualifying maritime companies.
Whatcom County is an active and productive hub for fishing – Many fisheries are anchored in this region and benefit from local investment in infrastructure to support the fishing industry, including the deep-water port, fish processing, and cold storage facilities. Whatcom County fisheries include:
- In county – Salmon, Dungeness crab, and shellfish mariculture
- State inside water fisheries – Boats based in Whatcom fish in state waters for salmon, crab, and spot prawns, much of which is landed locally
- State coastal fisheries – Salmon, tuna, Dungeness crab, spot prawns, pink shrimp, groundfish, and sardines
- Out of state fisheries – Many local boats participate in fisheries in other states (e.g., Alaska), which provide millions of dollars and pounds of fish to the local economy
- Offshore fisheries – Some local boats venture as far as the South Pacific trolling albacore tuna. Much of that fish is landed locally and supports a significant processing sector.
- Seafood exports generate substantial income for Whatcom businesses.
Increase fish production and consumption – Consumers are motivated to purchase and eat more seafood for the perceived health benefits. Currently, 60-70% of seafood is eaten in restaurants. As seafood consumption increases, it is critical to ensure sustainable practices are maintained to avoid depleting fish stocks. The market can be expanded by including different types of fish and educating consumers about how to select sustainably raised and harvested fish/shellfish, and how to prepare it in the home kitchen.
- Some see aquaculture as an opportunity to increase fish and shellfish availability, and to increase local food security. With regard to farming salmon, however, Whatcom County and Lummi Nation have taken a position against farming salmon in net pens because of potential harm to native salmon runs from disease, parasites, and water pollution associated with these operations.
Waterfront re-development – Plans are in place and work is underway to create a mixed-use site that preserves the working waterfront and offers opportunities for direct sales (e.g., a public access pier for boats selling locally caught fish).
More economic data – Recent studies have been published that shed light on the economic importance and impact of maritime industries including: Whatcom County Marine Trade Impacts report, The Economic Impacts of Commercial Fishing Fleet at the Port of Bellingham, and the WA State Economic Impact of the Maritime Industry Study. This research can help guide effective development.
Labor is designated as a distinct sector of the food system to underscore the significance of workers as the engine that makes the whole system go. While called out as a distinct sector, labor intersects nearly all the other food system sectors – farming, fishing, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste – as it includes people working in such diverse jobs as farmworkers, seafood packers, retail and restaurant staff. “Workers” or “laborers” are distinguished from business “owners” who control the business, and sometimes also manage the business.
This summary of the labor sector attempts to present the perspectives of both workers and owners; perspectives which are often very different and frequently at odds.
More research is needed to understand the full scope of the labor sector within Whatcom County’s food system.
- Washington State passed Initiative 1433 which increased the minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2017, and it will increase to $13.15 by 2020. Employers also are required to provide workers with paid sick leave starting in 2018.
- Changing U.S. immigration policies raise concerns about meeting the needs of food businesses for dependable, skilled workers.
- Conflicts between farm owners and workers have increased tensions and also resulted in the formation of the third independent farmworkers union formed in WA State.
- An H2A guest worker died on Sarbanand Farm in August 2017.
Wages and Benefits – Washington State passed Initiative 1433 which increased the minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2017, and it will increase to $13.15 by 2020. Employers also are required to provide workers with paid sick leave starting in 2018. Increased wages and benefits are clearly positive for workers, but also pose a significant financial challenge for food businesses with very tight profit margins.
Tension between farmworkers, advocacy groups, and farm owners/managers – Tension between business owners and workers (and the unions that advocate for them) is a chronic issue, but over the past two years, relations have been particularly contentious in the local farming sector. Two high-profile conflicts stand out involving Sakuma Brothers Farms in Mt. Vernon and Sarbanand Farms in Sumas. The Sakuma Brothers conflict, which included a boycott of Driscoll’s (the major California berry company Sakuma sells to), resulted in a contract agreement with the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), in June 2016. The Sarbanand Farm conflict erupted with protests following the death of an H2A guest worker in August 2017. At this time, advocacy groups for farm owners/managers and farmworker advocates disagree about the basic facts of the case (beyond the death of the worker), and their perspectives appear diametrically opposed.
Changing U.S. Immigration Policies – The food system has relied on immigrant labor for a long time. With changing immigration rules, undocumented workers who have lived and worked in the area for many years, raising families here, are now facing increased threats of deportation.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is a policy which offers temporary relief from deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16. This policy is now being reviewed and may be rescinded. Nearly 18,000 DACA recipients live in Washington State, many of whom work in the food system, or have a close relative who does. While there has been no official change in enforcement policies yet, there is enhanced scrutiny and screening of undocumented workers which elevates the fear of deportation among DACA recipients and their family members, as well as among the employers who rely on them. As these policies sunset or are changed, it raises the question of how to be flexible and adapt to a new labor environment.
Labor shortages – There are concerns that changing immigration rules could create labor shortages, and some local farms report they are currently experiencing difficulties finding enough skilled, reliable workers. One way food businesses are addressing concerns about labor shortages is by automating various parts of production to reduce the need for human labor (e.g., milking machines, berry picking, and processing equipment).
The H-2A “Guest Worker Program” is a controversial option to address labor issues by contracting with foreign workers on a temporary, seasonal basis. However, both local food workers and business owners see problems with this option. From the worker perspective, both the H-2A program and automation are threats to the livelihood of domestic laborers. In addition, foreign workers who contract through the H-2A program have little recourse and are vulnerable to deportation if they have conflict with their employer. Advocacy groups also note that, as the H-2A program has grown, there has not been a corresponding increase in government oversight to monitor working conditions. From the business owner perspective, the H-2A program requires time-consuming paperwork and is very costly because employers are required to pay wages, housing, transportation, medical care, and provide access to food for guest workers. Locally, only Sarbanand Farms, which is owned by a large California company, has used significant numbers of guest workers.
Seasonal Work – The seasonal nature of many jobs in the food system creates a challenge for both employers and workers. Farming and fishing require lots of workers for parts of the year to grow, harvest, and process the food. It is challenging to find workers interested in doing short-term, intensive work without any promise of employment the other months of the year.
Labor unions connecting with community organizations
- United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21 has been connecting with faith communities, racial/economic justice communities, immigration rights groups, LGBTQ organizations, and youth-focused organizations who share values in order to help each other meet their respective goals.
- Community to Community Development (C2C) supported, trained, and worked with FUJ to negotiate for their first contract.
Worker-owned cooperatives – C2C and FUJ continue working together to provide training to help farmworkers develop worker-owned cooperatives.
Year-round Employment for Farmworkers – To address the challenges that seasonal work schedules create for both farm owners and workers, Ralph’s Greenhouse and other Skagit Valley farms are coordinating their crop harvest schedules so that workers can stay in the area and have year-round employment, rather than moving around for temporary jobs.
Find common ground – There is a symbiotic relationship between food business owners and workers as each needs the other and both will lose if the business fails. Recognizing their mutual dependence presents an opportunity to address the differences in perspective that are so divisive, and to seek common ground to ensure that both economic goals and human needs are addressed.
Immigration reform – The temporary and changing nature of immigration policies creates instability in the labor sector. Immigration reform is needed at the national level to ensure enough skilled workers to sustain our local food economy. In addition, it could relieve some stress in the system locally to encourage and provide support for workers and their family members to obtain legal status to live and work in the U.S.
Increased consumer awareness – There is an ongoing need to educate consumers about the significant labor involved in food production, and increase their knowledge and appreciation of local food and willingness to ask and pay for it. As consumers become increasingly aware of the need to support local food businesses, through marketing campaigns such as Eat Local First, they make more thoughtful, values-based food purchasing decisions.
Domestic Fair Trade certification – C2C, the Agricultural Justice Project, and other partners have established a Domestic Fair Trade labeling protocol for local farms and other food system businesses to alert buyers to fair treatment of workers, fair pricing for farmers, and fair business practices. There is an opportunity to build momentum around the use of this label by local food businesses.
The positive impact of cooperatives – Co-ops have been driving positive changes in the food industry. Consumer co-ops, distribution co-ops, and producer co-ops are businesses that are owned jointly by the members, who share the profits or benefits. There are many food-related cooperatives in Whatcom County, and this business model is gaining momentum as a way to strengthen the local economy and advance fair labor practices.
Processing & Distribution
- A study was undertaken to determine the feasibility of building a “food campus” with food processing capacity in Whatcom County.
- North Cascades Meat Producer’s Co-op creates and launches mobile slaughter services.
- In 2016, Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC) and farmers from Whatcom and Skagit County transitioned the Puget Sound Food Hub from NABC management to a farmer-owned cooperative, with over one million in sales.
- In 2014, Osprey Hill Farm opened Osprey Hill Butchery in Acme.
- Burk Ridge Farms and their USDA processing facility and mobile slaughter unit close.
- In November 2013, voters approved a bond that includes building a central kitchen for Bellingham Public Schools to enable more scratch cooking with fresh and local foods. The project is underway and the expected completion date is 2019.
Scale and Economic Viability – For both processing and distribution, a big key to economic viability, and a major challenge, is properly scaling the size of operations, or having access to affordable co-packing services. Hand-crafted, value-added products may be feasible for small-scale growers to produce, but only reach a slim percentage of the public. For processed products to reach a wide market and be priced at a level that people are willing and able to afford, requires a proportional match between available raw product, labor costs, and the capacity of food processing infrastructure, which is difficult for local growers and processors to attain. The berry and dairy industries continue to be the most successful in producing and processing at an economically-viable scale because they have the necessary volume of raw product and access to processing facilities.
Competition with Large-Scale Domestic and Foreign Processors – There are large-scale food processors outside Whatcom County (e.g., NORPAC and Stahlbush Island Farms in Oregon) that have established economies of scale for producing frozen and canned foods. In addition, food processing has increasingly moved offshore to countries that have much lower labor costs and fewer regulations than U.S. processors. Whatcom County producers cannot currently compete with the prices of large-scale processors.
Competition with Large-Scale Food Distributors – As with food processing, the major distribution companies, such as Food Services of America, have created a level of infrastructure for distributing food that local distribution companies cannot yet offer cost-effectively on a smaller scale.
Customer Base – Market analysis is needed to determine whether there is an adequate number of people and institutions with the purchasing power in Whatcom County to support high-volume (i.e., cost-effective) processing and distribution facilities. If not, producers must be able to access markets along the I-5 corridor to generate adequate income.
Food Campus – The Whatcom Community Foundation and Bellingham Public Schools, along with several community organizations (e.g., Sustainable Connections, Bellingham Food Bank), are engaged in discussion and study to determine the feasibility of building a “food campus” with food processing capacity. The hypothetical food campus could also serve as a food business incubator, job training site, food hub, etc. designed to increase access to locally produced foods.
Puget Sound Food Hub Cooperative– In 2016, Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC) and farmers from Whatcom and Skagit County transitioned the Puget Sound Food Hub from NABC management to a farmer-owned cooperative (more below). NABC also works with producers to facilitate farmers’ value-added product development and increase processing and distribution infrastructure in Whatcom County.
Creating Innovative Value-added Products – Creating new products to reach identified market niches is a way for small-scale processors to build potentially viable businesses. Examples: In 2014, Osprey Hill Farm opened Osprey Hill Butchery in Acme, a licensed facility for butchering chickens and turkeys; more recently, several local dairies have built cheese production facilities and shops for retail sales; and Cloud Mountain Farm Center has purchased equipment to significantly increase its production of salad greens while lowering production and processing costs.
Sharing Processing Facilities – The berry industry has well-developed processing facilities that may sit idle during months when berries are not in season. There is a possibility of adapting these facilities for vegetable processing for part of the year. Similarly, commercial kitchen spaces and processing equipment can be shared by multiple food businesses. Examples: The Dahlquist Kitchen is a fully-equipped commissary kitchen in Bellingham available for food businesses to rent; Bellingham Pasta Company and Evolve Chocolate share a production facility, and Cloud Mountain Farm Center is leasing farmland to graduates of its Farmer Internship Program as well as offering affordable rental of its facility for processing leafy greens.
Scaling-up Local Food Production – There is potential for local food producers to sell through major food distribution companies. This requires growers to increase production, attain food safety certifications, and produce consistent volumes of quality product.
Developing Cooperatives – The Puget Sound Food Hub Farmers’ Cooperative provides 50+ member producers with marketing, sales, aggregation and distribution services. The PSFH has food storage, refrigerator and freezer space, several trucks, and an online ordering/payment system so that producers can spend more time growing food and less time with direct marketing. Island Grown Farmers Co-op provides USDA-inspected mobile animal slaughter services, and the North Cascades Meat Producers Co-op provides USDA-inspected mobile livestock slaughter and processing services, as well as a branded marketing and sales program.
Businesses Aggregating & Distributing Local Foods – Several businesses aggregate products from many farms and deliver to customers’ homes (e.g., Acme Farms + Kitchen, Dandelion Organic, and Sound Harvest Delivery). There are new businesses popping up, like Fresh Plate, to meet the consumer demand for healthy, fresh, and convenient meals.
Using Volunteer Labor – County food banks already rely on volunteers for gleaning farm produce and food distribution. Given use of commercial kitchens, volunteers could process produce to increase access to fresh local foods through food banks and meal programs.
This broad sector includes issues of food access and food supply for individuals, stores, restaurants, and institutions.
- Visits to the Bellingham Food Bank have grown steadily while visits to the Whatcom County Food Banks have dropped slightly.
- Foothills Community Food Partnership developed a Foothills Food Access Plan.
- The East Whatcom Regional Resource Center in Maple Falls has begun building a new food bank to better serve the Foothills community.
- There has been a significant drop in participation in the Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC).
- The Fresh Bucks Program was launched in 2015.
- Significant changes for Whatcom County grocery stores: Haggen is bought by Albertsons, Birchwood Albertsons closes, Bromley’s Market in Sumas closes, IGA at Nugent’s Corner closes, Whole Foods opens in Bellingham, and the Community Food Co-op launches its “Basics Program.”
- Birchwood Food Security Working Group (aka “Birchwood Food Desert Fighters”) formed to address the food desert created by the closure of Albertsons.
- WWU adopts Real Food Goal.
- The Northwest WA Chefs Collective was launched in 2014.
- The Harvest of the Month program, a Whatcom Farm to School initiative, was launched community-wide with the help of Sustainable Connections.
- Organic and local products have a well-established market that continues to grow.
For Organizations –
- The federal budget negotiations happening at the time of this writing in 2017 threaten massive cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the domestic hunger safety net on which nearly one in seven Washingtonians depend. School meals and many social services also are threatened with significant budget cuts, and proposals to use a state block grant structure, restrict eligibility, and reduce benefits.
- While the quantity of healthy, fresh, and local food available to food banks has increased over the past few years, availability of local produce is variable and seasonal. Some food banks lack the funding, infrastructure, and human resources to procure, store, and distribute much fresh food.
For Food Businesses –
- Seasonal fluctuations in the availability of locally-grown produce require cooks and consumers to be flexible and adapt their expectations to the growing cycle. This is still a challenge for many chefs/restaurant owners.
- It requires additional work and expense for wholesale buyers (schools, grocery stores, restaurants) to purchase the locally-produced foods that they would like to provide to customers.
For the Public –
- There is not equitable access to healthy food for our whole community.
- Low-income families may not have money to pay for the food they need, or cooking facilities, skills, or time to prepare healthy meals.
- While more and more people see the value of local agriculture, there is still a large segment of the population that does not understand the value of local food, or is not willing or able to pay higher prices for local food.
- There is no universal definition for the term local. It has been used in inconsistent and sometimes misleading ways. In addition, there is disagreement over how it should be defined both by the public and in many sectors.
Whatcom Farm-to-School – All eight Whatcom school districts and many community organizations are working to increase the amount of fresh and local food served in schools, and to educate students and families about the value of healthy eating. School districts and several community organizations collaborate to produce and distribute education and outreach materials and facilitate activities for the Harvest of the Month program, highlighting a fruit/vegetable which grows locally each month. In 2017, Whatcom Farm to School became one of four organizations serving as a “Supporting Partner” to the Washington State Dept. of Agriculture, the National Farm to School (F2S) Network lead agency for Washington State. As a Supporting Partner, Whatcom Farm to School is helping to guide the formation of a statewide F2S network in order to increase coordination, communication, and collaboration among F2S programs across the state.
Foothills Community Food Partnership – The East Whatcom Regional Resource Center, Foothills Food Bank, Whatcom County Health Dept., Mt. Baker School District, and other partner organizations have developed a Foothills Food Access Plan and are implementing an array of strategies to increase access to fresh and local food for low-income residents in the Foothills region.
Twin Sisters Farmers Market is a collaborative of several small farms which formed in 2015 to serve the Foothills area. This mobile market operates in two locations in Whatcom County June-October.
Fresh Bucks – This program, funded by a USDA-FINI grant, is a partnership between the Opportunity Council; the Bellingham, Ferndale and Twin Sisters Farmers Markets; the Community Food Co-op; Sustainable Whatcom Fund of the Whatcom Community Foundation; Sustainable Connections; and the Whatcom County Health Department. Low-income participants’ SNAP/EBT (food stamps) funds are matched dollar for dollar up to $10 for produce purchases at farmers markets and the Community Food Co-op. Sustainable Connections provides community cooking classes (including Demo Days at the Market, educational cooking demonstrations featuring local produce items) in different locations from May-October.
Northwest WA Chef’s Collective – This group of Whatcom County chefs was convened in 2014 by Sustainable Connections and meets regularly to share ideas for how to promote local farmers, fishers, and food producers. The Chef’s Collective works on projects to educate the public about seasonal eating including Chef in the Market – monthly demonstrations at the Bellingham Farmers Market showing how to prepare simple delicious dishes showcasing local ingredients.
Food Bank Projects Increase Access to Fresh Produce – Food banks partner with local retailers and farmers to gather and distribute edible food that would otherwise go to waste. Bellingham Food Bank projects that increase low-income families’ access to fresh produce include Small Potatoes Gleaning, in which volunteers gather surplus food from local farms; contracts with local growers to supply in-season produce; victory gardens; and the Garden Project, which builds home gardens and teaches families to grow their own food.
Food Bank – School District Food Pantry Partnership – Bellingham Food Bank is collaborating with Bellingham Public Schools to provide a school-based food pantry at Alderwood Elementary, and another for the Cordata community at Christ the King Church. Foothills Food Bank and Mt. Baker Schools are providing a winter and spring pantry in order to serve food-insecure residents in the Foothills area.
Eat Local First Collaborative Marketing Campaign – Sustainable Connections’ Eat Local First (ELF) Campaign has expanded significantly over recent years, including dozens of local businesses who commit to increasing the amount of local food they source and participating in a collective marketing campaign that reaches thousands of people each year. ELF seeks to raise consumers’ awareness of the positive impacts of local food purchasing on the economy, environment, and food security of our region and includes activities such as Eat Local Month and the Whatcom Farm Tour.
Birchwood Food Security Working Group – When Albertsons closed its store in the Birchwood neighborhood in May 2016, Jobs with Justice surveyed 300 households in Birchwood (in English and Spanish) about where they shop, how they access current grocery stores, and what the impact on the community has been with the loss of Albertsons. Community to Community and the Racial Justice Coalition are working with The Birchwood Food Desert Fighters, a group that includes senior citizens, low-income and disabled residents of the Birchwood Neighborhood, to address the food insecurity created by the exit of the Albertsons store.
Good and Cheap Cooking Classes – The United Way of Whatcom County, Whatcom Community College, and the Community Food Co-op have developed a class series based on the Good and Cheap cookbook for people experiencing food insecurity, as well as those who are not.
Farm Fresh Workplaces – Sustainable Connections facilitates arrangements between farms and local businesses in which employees can purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, and have boxes of fresh produce delivered from the farm directly to their workplace each week during the harvest season. Some businesses subsidize the cost of CSA shares as part of their employee wellness program. Recently they have begun focusing on helping large local organizations, like St. Joseph Hospital, sign up for workplace CSA’s.
Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan – New language in the Economics section of the “Comp Plan” recommends development of a Whatcom County Food System Plan to grow the health and vitality of the local food system. A Whatcom Food Network committee is taking the first steps, working with key stakeholders to develop a Food System Framework for a plan to be shared with City and County Councils.
Education and Outreach to Encourage Healthy Eating – Many local organizations are expanding their education and outreach activities to encourage healthy eating. These include: SNAP-Ed; Common Threads’ school gardening and cooking lessons; the Community Food Co-op, which produced the Real Food Show that travels to schools and events; and Sustainable Connections, which offers local food cooking demos and food education in the Bellingham Farmers Market.
Bellingham School District Central Kitchen – A Bellingham School District Bond passed in 2013 is funding development of a central kitchen with increased capacity for cooking with fresh local foods. The kitchen, which is scheduled for completion in 2019, will serve the district and potentially other institutional buyers.
School Meals and Snacks – There are many sources of federal funding for institutional meal programs (though cuts to this funding are a real possibility with the next federal budget). Locally, school districts have been expanding their use of federal funding to offer additional meals and snacks in schools with the highest percentages of low-income students. For example, Lummi Nation School provides free breakfast and lunch for all students, and the Bellingham district has added free breakfast in the classroom to all students in Bellingham’s six Title I schools, as well as a dinner program at Shuksan Middle School.
Focus on healthy eating environments and social justice – There is a growing understanding, and education and outreach around how changes to the social environment can have long-term impacts on eating behavior and community health, with the Whatcom County Health Department undertaking an intentional shift in this direction.
New Food Bank Infrastructure – East Whatcom Regional Resource Center in Maple Falls is building a new food bank to better serve the Foothills community.
Expand County Farmers Markets – There is an opportunity and need to grow county farmers markets to serve more low-income and underserved communities. Mobile farmers markets, such as Twin Sisters Market, are another way to bring fresh produce to people living in the county’s food deserts.
WWU adopts Real Food Goal – In 2016, administrators and student food activists at Western Washington University agreed to the goal of having the university spend at least 25% of its dining hall food budget on locally-sourced, sustainable farm products by 2020. The commitment is part of a nationwide Real Food Challenge to shift $1 billion of university food budgets by 2020 to local farms that raise food in environmentally sound ways, treat workers fairly, and are humane to animals.
Increased affordability – The Community Food Co-op has launched the Basics Program, increasing the number of lower-priced items for sale, as part of a collective endeavor with National Cooperative Grocers to offer a wider range of affordably-priced products.
Connecting local growers and local food buyers – Local groups are working to connect food buyers with local food producers, including Sustainable Connections which offers one on one marketing consultation for food businesses, organized the annual Farm to Table Trade Meeting, the largest food and farm business conference north of Seattle, the Chefs Collective which hosts farmer/chef connection events, and Whatcom Farm to School.
- In January 2015, the City of Bellingham renewed its contract with Sanitary Service Company (SSC) for the collection and hauling of residential waste.
- There has been slow but steady growth of SSC’s FoodPlus! Program.
- Sustainable Connections received a USDA grant and will launch the Toward Zero Waste Food Redistribution Initiative.
- Sustainable Connections’ Toward Zero Waste Campaign surpassed the 500 business mark, helping hundreds of businesses decrease waste across Whatcom County.
- In 2016, Whatcom County updated the Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Plan.
- Nooksack Valley Recycling stops accepting commercial recycling in certain areas of Whatcom County
- The Whatcom Conservation District obtained a Resource Conservation Partnership Program grant to fund emerging waste treatment processes on farms resulting in a pilot of the Janicki Corp. Omni Processor which has potential to process cow manure into energy, fertilizer, and clean water.
Increase in Wasted Food/Organic Waste – The EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our waste stream. Organic waste makes up more than half of the content in our community’s waste stream. The “all you can eat” mentality in our country is resulting in a lot of waste of prepared foods through buffets, grocery store outlets, delis, etc. There are many challenges to reducing and composting this waste.
- Regulations – Some regulations in place to protect food safety and promote good nutrition also lead to food waste. Examples: Health Department (food safety) rules restrict recovery of prepared food beyond the 1.5 hour hold time, after which it must be discarded; USDA School Food Guidelines require specific portions and categories of foods be served to children who get school meals, even if the students do not want to consume those items (e.g., milk, fruits, vegetables).
- Food service businesses are reluctant to implement waste-reduction measures and/or use food composting services due to the following concerns:
- Labor costs for training employees in businesses with high turnover
- Hesitancy to reduce meal portion sizes out of fear of jeopardizing customer satisfaction
- A small return on investment – Savings from trash reduction are fairly small since food waste is dense and does not account for much volume in dumpsters.
Shifts in residential waste disposal have reduced incentives for renters to use recycling/food composting.
- In the past, triple net lease agreements required renters to pay a proportional amount of utilities which created an incentive for tenants to save money by recycling and composting. Flat rate fees are now more common, reducing the incentive for tenants to engage in these programs.
- Updated building codes require “approved garbage enclosures” and older buildings may not have enough space to accommodate several cans for separating organics and other waste.
Contamination – A major challenge in composting food waste is that it frequently is contaminated with non-compostable items (e.g., plastic packaging or utensils mixed in with food). Adding to the contamination problem are items labeled as compostable that cannot actually be composted in local facilities.
Challenges with Collection Services – Curbside collection of organic waste is not available in some of the rural areas of eastern Whatcom County for residents, and collection of recycling is not available in some areas of the County as well.
Tax breaks for food donations don’t benefit small-scale farmers – Current tax code provides a tax break for large-scale farms/food producers for donations of food to charitable organizations. The same benefit does not apply to small-scale farmers so there is less incentive to donate.
Agricultural Plastics – Some farmers rely on a large variety and amount of plastic products on the farm including seed trays, drip tape, mulch film, water pipes, and hoop house covers. There is currently no way to recycle these products and it must go to the landfill.
Commercial Waste Reduction Education and Technical Assistance – Whatcom County has provided funding for a collaborative group of organizations to support waste reduction through technical assistance and education for three audiences: Sustainable Connections and Sanitary Service Company (SSC) provide technical assistance, audits, and education for commercial businesses; WSU’s Master Composter/Recycler program provides adult composting and recycling education, and RE Sources’ Sustainable Schools program provides youth education and technical assistance for schools.
Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC) – The committee consists of a minimum of nine members representing a balance of interests including, but not limited to citizens, public interest groups, business, the waste management industry, and local elected public officials.
Education and outreach – The first step in the Food Recovery Hierarchy is reducing waste that is generated. Large and long-term educational campaigns are emerging to change the culture around food waste. However, continued efforts to raise awareness are needed to reduce organic material/food waste from the waste stream.
- Food waste audits – Conducting waste audits for businesses, schools, and restaurants will help them understand what and how much food goes into the waste stream. Encouraging employee retraining, menu planning adjustments, and policy changes will prevent up-stream waste in the foodservice
- Reducing use of packaged food – There is an opportunity to educate consumers about choosing food items that have minimal packaging (e.g., avoiding single-serving items, buying in bulk, choosing recyclable packaging).
- Toward Zero Waste Campaign – This campaign, run by Sustainable Connections, has been well-established for many years. It offers free technical assistance to Whatcom County businesses, events, and organizations, including Whatcom County Public In 2017, the campaign surpassed 500 businesses served and also began a Toward Zero Waste campaign in schools.
Toward Zero Waste Food Redistribution Initiative – Feeding hungry people is the second tier in the food recovery hierarchy. The Food Redistribution Initiative (FRI) is a new educational campaign and food waste diversion program that will be launched by Sustainable connections in 2018 and is funded by the Department of Ecology. The goal of FRI is to divert more than 40,000 pounds of prepared food that restaurants and event services currently send to the landfill each year and redistribute it to organizations serving hot meals.
Creating energy and other products from waste – In the region, Farm Power Northwest has established a working anaerobic manure digester (biodigester) that turns cow manure into electricity and fertilizer free of pathogens and odor. The Lynden plant generates 750 kilowatts/hour – enough electricity to power 500 homes as well as heat a 3.5 acres greenhouse. The Janicki Omni Processor is a machine designed to process fecal waste in an environmentally-sound way. There is potential to use this technology to process cow manure into energy, fertilizer, and clean water. Pilot testing is underway.
Small-scale anaerobic digesters. There is potential to adapt digester technology for use by restaurants, cafeterias, breweries, distilleries, wineries, livestock, and crop farms to help manage organic waste onsite while generating renewable energy, organic fertilizer, and soil enhancing inputs. This would allow recycled organic matter to be returned to the soil as sequestered carbon close to home. Currently, technological challenges, rules, and regulations present barriers to realizing this potential (e.g., WAC section 173-350-250 rules that post-consumer organic waste is not allowed in anaerobic digesters).
Residential. Property managers could be approached about changing the language in rental leases to facilitate waste reduction and proper waste disposal.
Ugly Food Campaign – Vast quantities of edible but “less than perfect” fruit and vegetables get culled before market. Campaigns to use cosmetically-imperfect produce are emerging to increase awareness and desirability for “ugly produce.”