Thursday, 14 Aug 2003

EVERETT, Wash.

My dad sells tomatoes for a living back East. As the summer sun drives my backyard tomatoes into such a frenzy that I’ve thought about establishing growth boundaries close to the basil, I chuckle at what my dad might think about my humble patch. Living in a fairly dense neighborhood, the challenge of growing my food has been largely passed to the local farmers who choose to grow organic and who deliver my food via the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share that I purchased this spring.

Something has me in a gracious mood as I finish nibbling my lunch and head to the heart of our county’s agricultural decision-making body — the Agricultural Advisory Board — for a meeting this afternoon. These agricultural meetings are different from many of the meetings I attend with planners, lawyers, and developers. Knowing that my generalizations can’t hold true all of the time, I find that people at these meetings are easier to read, more liable to tell you exactly how they feel, and consistently humorous. They come dressed in functional clothing and wear real smiles.

Aside from working long, hard hours and taking bold risks against economies of scale, these people grow our food. And despite all the things we’ve learned about the negative impacts of agriculture, farmers are tremendous allies in a land where growth rules. Yes, there are often pesticides. Yes, farms and functioning floodplain ecosystems engage in a delicate dance. Yes, agriculture is petroleum-dependent (both in farming activities and in distribution — the average item on your plate travels more than 1,300 miles to get there!). Farms, however — particularly when farming follows and exceeds best management practices — can provide habitat corridors, floodplain protection, and a tradition that far predates the glowing rooms of DVD players in cul-de-sacs that replace them.

I’m attending this meeting because the “Critical Area Ordinance” (CAO) is on the agenda. I tell people that this little acronym can make the difference between drinkable or toxic water. It decides between seeing healthy salmon and bird populations in your community or having to visit a zoo or watch the Discovery Channel to catch a glimpse of wildlife. It can mean quality of life and money in the bank (some economists estimate the annual value of ecosystem services on one acre of wetlands at nearly $6,000).

Essentially, the CAO is a habitat-protection ordinance that protects more sensitive areas — like wetlands, fish and wildlife areas, floodplains, and aquifer recharge areas — from the negative impacts of development. Snohomish County is currently rewriting its ordinance, while all jurisdictions in the county will do so by the end of 2004. As part of my work plan, I’m spending a large amount of time working with cities and citizens from all over the county to ensure that we make gains instead of losses when it comes to habitat protection. Strategies include measures for community education, media outreach, policy analysis, and coalition building. We currently have 23 local and regional groups working together on the county rewrite — and I wonder today what positions the agricultural community will take on this most critical of issues.

As I listen to well-seasoned knowledge of place in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northwest, I realize that there are issues of contention: How big should buffers be? What can be built on the floodplain? But there is solid common ground: Wetlands serve an important ecological function. Stormwater runoff from encroaching residential development needs better control. Fleshing out the specifics is always a challenge, but the dialogue is encouraging — and, like my humble tomato plants and the late-summer bounty of this valuable and threatened agricultural region, it promises to bear fruit.