Snohomish County Agriculture Resilience Plan
Photo: Paul Joseph Brown/Lighthawk

On a damp December evening, we watched the sunset and the mist rise from the fields surrounding Carlton Farms, on the outskirts of Everett, as we walked the path to the main barn, where the Snohomish Conservation District (SCD) was holding a celebration of the release of their new Agriculture Resilience Plan for Snohomish County.

Inside, the barn was lit with string lights and prepped for a celebratory gathering with local food and beer. This was a milestone to be celebrated and, more importantly, the work that had been completed gave a sense of legitimacy to all the farmers working in Snohomish County–farmers who painstakingly grow healthy food for all of us to enjoy.

Stepping back to 2016, the Sustainable Lands Strategy (SLS) was working to improve floodplain management in a way that provides ecological and agricultural benefits in addition to mitigating flood risk. SLS provides a forum where people from different backgrounds –including tribes, farmers, restorationists, and government–can discuss their needs and priorities that support both healthy river systems and healthy communities.

On one side of the table at SLS, the ecological and salmon recovery organizations had a plan with measurable goals and outcomes, which garnered support from the restoration community. On the other side of the table were a few farmers and the SCD trying to voice agricultural needs but lacking an organized approach. The collaboration wasn’t gaining traction, so the group took a pause. During this hiatus, they became aware of both a power and an organizational differential between the ecological side and the agricultural side, and it was causing frustration. The farmers and the SCD realized if they developed an agricultural strategy that prioritizes their needs, they could bring agricultural needs to the table on equal grounds with fish and flood issues, and collaboration could move forward without a power differential impeding the process.

“As farmers, we are all always preparing for the future and balancing the uncertainties that arise in the present. The climate is becoming more unpredictable, it’s almost impossible to work outside everyday and not experience it. The Ag Plan is a way to help farmers and agriculture weather those coming changes.”

-Libby Reed, Snohomish Farmer

Photo: Courtney Baxter/TNC

The seed for the Agriculture Resilience Plan was born.

The vision for the plan was to help build a more resilient agricultural landscape –one that can withstand pressures and changes associated with development, population growth, flooding, shifts in weather and a changing climate.

In 2017 a critical grant from NOAA 2.0 passed funding through The Nature Conservancy to kick off the work.“It isn’t every day that an ecosystem focused funding source will fund an agriculture plan, but NOAA saw that without understanding agriculture needs in the floodplain, salmon actions couldn’t move forward. We needed to work together.” Paul Cereghino, NOAA Restoration Center.

Cindy Dittbrenner, Program Director at SCD, initiated the process by establishing a steering committee that consisted entirely of farmers. “This was a critical first step, it lent validity to the whole process” Cindy told us. Next, the SCD set out to discover what farmers need to know about agricultural uncertainties in the face of future changes so that priorities could be identified –what questions did they have? What information was lacking to answer those questions? The SCD and The Nature Conservancy gave cameras to farmers to document their daily lives through a project called Photovoice for Agricultural Resilience. Farmers captured stunning images of the challenges and opportunities they face, surfacing issues such as growth and development, agricultural land preservation, climate change, and the value of local and sustainable food and farm culture. Through follow up discussions, the SCD discovered the biggest knowledge gaps for farmers were around climate change impacts. The SCD secured funding to work with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington to perform technical studies on flooding and future flood risks, groundwater levels, saltwater intrusion, land subsidence and aggradation, and crop impacts. These studies, along with projections of growth, development, and other changes in the county, provided the SCD with the information needed to help farmers identify priorities for the future.

Cindy and her colleagues at the SCD worked closely with scientists, the steering committee, and the broader community of farmers to develop reach-scale summaries based on the science, identify priorities, and create a broader plan for the county to address those priorities.

Photo: Courtney Baxter/TNC
Photo: Courtney Baxter/TNC
Photo: Julie Allen/2017 Photovoice

“You have to meet the farmers where they are, whether it’s going to their meetings instead of your own, or literally knocking on their doors.”

-Cindy Dittbrenner, Snohomish Conservation District

For the first time, farmers had strategies and actions that could be put side by side with the salmon recovery actions. “Having this plan really allowed us to advocate for the agriculture needs alongside the salmon needs and we could all see the tradeoffs together”, said Cindy. Grant funding sources like Floodplains by Design incentivizes collaborative efforts, like SLS, that can find agreement on projects that can support the floodplain system as well as the communities that depend on the river for their livelihoods.

Getting to this point has been a long journey with huge payoffs for the County but the next step will be even more challenging and bring even bigger payoffs for everyone –implementing the plan. “Talk is cheap” –this was the subject line of the first email Cindy received from a farmer giving her feedback on the plan, she recalled with a smile at the celebration. But it’s a reminder to us all that plans are only effective if they’re put to work.

One of the most obvious but most critical factors for moving the plan to action is funding. They need funding that is flexible to accommodate agricultural projects, and these types of funding sources are few. “We are super appreciative of Floodplains by Design because that’s one of the only funding sources we’ve been able to find that will help us actually start scoping and designing these projects”, Cindy said. Another big piece is farmland protection. The plan identifies high priority land and land that is most at risk, but there’s not enough funding to protect all the land –not by a long shot. We need innovative, creative solutions to protect farmland, like expanding receiving areas for TDRs –transfer of development rights –which remove the development rights from the receiving land in exchange for higher development in urban centers like Seattle and compensate the receiving landowners in exchange. This flexible approach allows the receiving land to stay in agricultural production, or it could eventually become a restoration project; the land use is flexible so long as it’s not developed.

The Agriculture Resilience Plan has set the table for the challenges ahead. There is still work to be done together to better understand the tradeoffs between the fish and farm needs but despite these challenges, the celebration instilled a sense of hope and excitement in all of us. Other conservation districts are looking to replicate this process in their counties. We should all be thinking about where our food came from next time we sit down to dinner, and that by supporting healthy rivers and healthy communities, we all thrive.

View the Agriculture Resilience Plan video here.