Soundoff: Farms plans set straight

The Whidbey Island Conservation District board members cited below submitted this statement on farm plans.

Whidbey Island Conservation District (WICD) would like to take this opportunity to help the public understand the nature of farm plans as complex documents and management systems that meet or exceed Island County critical area regulations.

There have been some inadvertent misrepresentations of data and statistics derived from public disclosure we wish to address for all concerned parties to avoid confusion.

Farm plans are written by local conservation districts and are complex documents that require training in order to develop, implement, and analyze them accurately. WICD farm planners are extensively trained and certified by the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

There are presently 79 resource concerns, including several that relate to critical areas, that a conservation farm planner evaluates for each plan created according to NRCS standards. For these 79 resource concerns, there are 153 specific best management practices that can be implemented on a farm to resolve a particular resource concern.

Many resource concerns, including critical area protection, have multiple means of resolution through a system of practices implemented by the landowner working with a farm planner and guided by the farm plan document. It is important to also understand that an individual best management practice can work comprehensively to resolve several resource concerns at once. A custom farm plan does not necessarily implement a black and white critical area buffer width formula but rather takes into account all specific site considerations including soil, precipitation, topography, etc. to design a system of practices that offer full natural resource protection.

Of course, any Island County buffer regulations in effect at the time of writing a farm plan would be met and often exceeded when utilized with other prescribed practices.

Recently cited statistics regarding farm plan recommendations and reporting of buffers demonstrate a lack of understanding of farm plans as management systems. To analyze farm plans solely on the basis of a buffer practice is a misunderstanding of the actual protection of the natural resources. This misunderstanding causes confusion.

The following data corrects and accurately reports the critical area concerns that have been cited in opinion pieces printed in the local press.

• Of the disclosed farm plans, all but two that have no livestock require Use Exclusion from pastures.

• 57 percent of the plans have identifiable critical areas set forth in the plans.

• Of those with identifiable critical areas, 84.6 percent have recommended buffers. All farm plans prepared by the WICD contain best management practices that in combination with existing practices adequately protect the natural resources.

Farm plans in Island County are presently prepared on a voluntary basis. WICD works regularly with farmers who meticulously adhere to the practices in their farm plan regardless of whether the document is signed or not. Future county ordinance requirements may change this voluntary approach to farm planning for certain properties. In any scenario, WICD will continue to serve the public and offer no-cost farm planning services in its capacity as a non-regulatory agency without enforcement authority.

Since the request to WICD and subsequent disclosure of farm plans, our ability to provide service to the agricultural community has been substantially impacted. While requests for farm planning was on the rise to record levels prior to farm plan disclosure, service requests and inquiries are now silenced. Indeed, applications to our cost-assisted incentive program for implementing best management practices have dramatically decreased. WICD was not able to secure applications for even 10 percent of available program funds for Whidbey Islanders for the incentive-based program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This program provides direct cost assistance to help landowners implement practices in farm plans such as fencing, planting, manure storage and composting structures, watering systems for livestock, water harvest catchment systems, etc. Potential applicants indicated that they would not participate because of the third party scrutiny they feel will come from farm plan disclosure.

WICD will continue to uphold and promote confidentiality for our cooperators as far as is possible through state law and is committed to re-building a collaborative partnership and bond with our local agricultural community. We encourage public inquiry and accountability of our organization through practical and established channels but not via direct oversight of our cooperators and what they consider to be their private management plans.

Whidbey Island Conservation District Board: David Smith III, Frank Mueller, Karen Krug, Len Engle, Les Boon.

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