Opinion

Environment needs farmers

My family has owned and farmed forty-plus acres for 18 years. This land has been farmed continuously for about 110 years. It is land that was ditched and drained long, long ago. A small seasonal stream used to meander through this property but has long since been ditched to the perimeter of the fields, along with roadside ditch water from Taylor Road and Silverlake Road.

The hydrology, soil type and native vegetation have been altered to the extent that this land would never grow back to a natural state without a lot of human intervention. Nature has long since adjusted to a quasi-prairie type environment that sustains 15 to 20 head of brood cows and their calves without bringing in feed from outside the farm, and still supports a diverse habitat for many species of birds (both vegetarian and raptors), small mammals, voles, shrews, cottontail rabbits, the occasional fox, coyote, and deer. Our barn hosts cliff swallows, barn swallows and barn owls, and smaller insect-eating birds like chickadees and bushtits. We have garter snakes, frogs, newts, and alligator lizards. We have set aside three acres of non-arable land as a wildlife habitat. We use few chemicals, no fertilizers, and only a little lime to replace the calcium taken up by our beef cows.

We practice nutrient management because it is to our best interest to keep the land fertile. The side benefit is that it helps maintain the fragile ecosystems in the distant wetlands in Crescent Harbor. These wetlands and the estuary of Crescent Bay are much more imperiled by the runaway expansion of the City of Oak Harbor than by a small herd of cows.

We don’t make a lot of money with our farm but benefit from the lifestyle. We believe that our farm and others like it stand as a vanguard against the urban sprawl and development of Whidbey Island. We adopt the BMPs as best we can, within the limits that our farm finances can afford or justify. We have opted to implement a farm plan with the Conservation District in an effort to apply specific science to our specific property and our specific use of that property.

We thought that the information we shared with the Conservation District would be confidential. Now that the Whidbey Environmental Action Network (WEAN) has taken upon themselves to review all farm plans and farm plan applications, I fear to hazard the expense of implementing the improvements we hoped to put in place at the risk of WEAN challenging them in court, or looking over our shoulders as “enviro-cops.” As a product of the sixties, I never thought “Big Brother” was going to come in the form of a hippie.

I believe that WEAN has done us a favor in rattling a few cages. I hope they are truthful in being supportive of small farms and farming activities in rural acreages. I hope also that they understand that the Island is no longer primordial, or virgin. Most environmentalists are guilty of having a terrarium view of the world, of having the view that mankind is separate from nature, that nature is static, and that things should be as they were before mankind expanded into the wilderness. The new environmentalist will have to accept that people are part of nature, that to an extent, nature is adaptive and everchanging.

We all need to lessen our impacts upon nature so she can keep up. We need groups and political activists like WEAN to keep the politicians at bay. Even though their cause is great, they may be wise to look at the greater picture. Alienating the public, the farmer and the rural landowner could be a great detriment to their cause.

Tread carefully among those of us who are farmers. It is hard enough to make a buck in farming today. We have more problems to face each day than most. Most of us do it for the love of the land and the need to be closer to life. We need healthy soil and drink the water that comes from beneath our feet. We have no desire to pollute that which we depend on so much. The lands that we are stewards of provide visual respite from the ongoing urban sprawl. They provide habitat for a very adaptive Mother Nature. They recharge the aquifers that we all rely upon. They also feed a very hungry humanity.

Each day farmers suck it up and turn their backs on big developers and their money. Developers gobble up the land, denude it, ruin it, and haul away its topsoil. They pave the land, and throw up houses for the masses, strip malls and golf courses. They have the money and the power that we farmers don’t, to push their agendas through local government. If WEAN continues to make our work harder or less justifiable, if you force us to take good land out of production without recompense (which is tantamount to theft), if you drive out the local horse owners and the guy who keeps a few cows that buys our extra hay, you will make farming on Whidbey Island a ridiculous proposition, and the developer will finally win and the farmer will sell.

You will lose the best friend you have in protection of the environment, and you will lose the battle that you are fighting one tract of land at a time. The farmer will leave the area, money in hand and will join the rest of the conspicuously consumptive society in town.

I truly hope that we can all go back to the table and find the tools to help all of our concerns. To help the farmer, not inhibit him, to protect the rights of the rural property owner, to stymie the ravenous appetites of the developer and protect the fragile ecosystems that are left, so that we leave this world in at least as good shape or better than when we arrived. It can’t be done if we are busy bad mouthing each other’s interest. Some serious science, and serious discussion, and some serious concessions need to be made.

John R. Cline lives near Oak Harbor.

Community Events, April 2014

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