Opinion

Local farming sustains a community

Torrens Talk

Like many people, this year our vacation was not far afield. Our “staycation” was in Birch Bay, a nice waterfront town just north of Bellingham.

It had been awhile since we had been there so it was not surprising to see some changes. Certainly, there has been growth: more people, more homes, more traffic. Farmland converted to housing, for sale or rezoned. While not surprising, it was sad to see.

Given the tax structure in this state requires property to be assessed at its highest and best use, it is not uncommon that such resource land gets converted to developed property. Despite the efforts of the Growth Management Act to protect the acreage from “higher” uses, many do just that with their land. Between the hard work of farming and the relatively little monetary compensation, it is probably more surprising that there is any farmland left in the hands of small farmers as opposed to agribusiness.

So, it was very gratifying to see a concerted effort by the folks in Whatcom County to keep their local farmers and ranchers growing food and raising livestock for local consumption. A local organization, Sustainable Connections Food and Farming Program out of Bellingham, has a multi-pronged approach to getting people to “Think Local. Buy Fresh. Be Local.”

The group provides resources. They put together a beautifully done Whatcom County Farm Map & Guide. This handy booklet, the dimensions of a three-fold brochure, contains farm listings by product, local events, local farmers’ markets, resources and a map showing every farm listed in their brochure — 69 in the 2008 edition.

The farm listings contain basic information on what is featured at each farm and contact details. They are sorted by product offered as well as numbered for easy location on the enfolded map. It was a resource we used many times during our two-week stay.

The local events include the one that we participated in: the Tour de Farm. It is one of two that are conducted during the year. This is a single day where some of those in the guide open their farms to the public to try samples, meet the owners, pick crops, buy goods and learn more about the life of those who provide the bounty that comes to our tables.

Thanks to that experience, we tasted bison for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. The rancher gave a mini-lecture about bison and their benefits as a food source. He was most patient with all the questions and gave us an up-close, but safe, look at his herd. It was fascinating to find out that caring for bison was far easier and cheaper than cattle. In 15 years, the owner had only spent about $300 in veterinary bills. Given the heart-friendly content of the meat, it is surprising that more bison aren’t raised for consumer consumption.

We came at the tail end of Eat Local Week so we missed out on dining on local food in the area’s restaurants. Numerous eating establishments had all-local menus plus there were food tastings, recipes, classes and demonstrations.

The work that Sustainable Connections has done in getting local people to buy from their friends and neighbors is working. Between the farmers’ markets, the farm stands and the local products in the stores, one would have had to purposely seek out other sources for food, there was so much to choose from. They have grown “20 new farms since 2003 and (provided) $50,000 worth of fresh food to the hungry.” The people of Whatcom County are clearly walking their talk.

I shared the brochure with our local farmers’ market director. I hope that something similar may arise here in the future. Nothing beats the taste of vegetables fresh from the garden or the tenderness of locally raised livestock.

I, personally, have been fortunate that I have been able to partake of this bounty locally. I hope to see it continue and grow. It saddens me to hear of at least one farmer who sees no one coming behind to take over when that person has grown too old to continue the work. Farming is a noble and good profession. It needs as much nurturing as those who do it give to their products. It is what sustains us — without we cannot survive.

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