I was comparing notes with a fellow farmer, Matt of Plumtree piggery, and he was a bit amazed I wasn't underwater during this last flood season. Actually, I was a bit underwater; check out my blog entries here, here and here, but I realized that I've never really talked about farming in the flood plain. Nature isn't the hazard that I fear the most.
River bottoms and farming
The soil at the bottom of river valleys has traditionally been the best, and easiest, choice for farming. In my case it's basically rock-free, which makes tilling very easy, rich, peaty soil. To grow vegetables I do have to add lime, which reduces the natural acidity of the soil, but I don't have to fertilize or add organic material. More than 30% of the soil is organic material already.
It seems like a natural choice to locate your farm on the river bottom. But in western Washington, we've got a pretty large group of people that view any river bottom land as "wetland", or "salmon habitat" "salmon crossing" or "shoreline" or any of a variety of other labels. But all the labels mean the same thing: restrictions on use.
Restrictions -- details
These restrictions can range from setbacks -- required areas where you are not allowed to till or use the land in any way -- to restrictions on where and what type of buildings you can place (in King County, you must not locate buildings that contain pigs less than 90' from any property line, which means if you want to keep pigs legally, you've got to own more than an acre of land) and there's a pretty constant stream of people who want to tell you what to do with your land, and how to do it, and if you don't do it their way, why, they'll work their best to make whatever it is that they'd like you to do the law.
Fines of $10,000 a day
Even if you've done nothing wrong, defending yourself from wrongful claims takes time, energy and money. In 2008 I was accused of "Building in a protected wetland" "Clearing protected wetland" "Filling protected wetland" and was threatened with fines ranging from $100 to $10,000 a day. Thanks, Washington State Department of Ecology and Snohomish County Planning and Development services, for making my 2008 more interesting.
It IS your land, but we'd rather you...
The agencies that directly threaten you are pretty easy to deal with. You know who they are, they have some sort of process to dispute their "findings" and you have the ability to go to court if you need to. The basic problem is that everyone and his brother wants to tell you how to best use your land. Sometimes it's fairly low key, like the county offering classes or seminars on better farming practices. That's cool; there's plenty of good stuff to be learned there, and there's no harm in being open to new ideas or better practices. But more often it's well-meaning citizens that want you to do things their way, but aren't interested or willing to hear your point of view.
Save the Salmon
I love salmon. I truly do. I like watching them spawn, I love seeing the migrations, I fish for them (and mostly release) I like eating them, I appreciate their being there. But all of the mitigation that farmers have been forced to endure to "save the salmon" haven't resulted in the decline of the runs being slowed, or stopped. I don't know of a single run of salmon (or any fresh water spawning fish, like smelt) in Washington state that has not declined in the last 20 years.
Farm impact on the salmon
As near as I can tell the land my farm is on was first tilled around 1900. And since then it's been in continuous use. in 1920, 1930, 1940 and so on, my farms impact, whatever it was, was there. So my activities on my farm in 2008 I don't view as significantly affecting the state, quality or quantity of salmon, any more than it did in 1920. What has changed since 1900 is that the population and urban areas of Washington state have grown. In 1900 there were 518,000 people here. In 2007 there were 6 million. There are more now.
National trend for farms
In the 1930s, there was an estimated 7 million farms. In 2009 there are less than 2 million. In 1982 there were 36,000 farms in Washington state. Today there's less than 29,000, a decrease of 20%, and the trend to fewer farms and fewer farmers continues.
What's funny about the grief that the local government gives me is that they claim to want to preserve farmland. In fact, they even study the loss of farmland and try to teach each other about how to save it. In that Washington state funded study they say that:
"Increasing competition for water, related to the protection of endangered salmon, demand related to new development for limited water rights, and increasing costs associated with environmental regulations such as the Shoreline Management Act, Endangered Species Act, and others. "
So even the Washington state government recognizes that farms are adversely affected by their own activities. Crocodile tears. My taxes are being used to both make my farming harder, and then studies to say that yes, indeed, regulations are making my farming harder. How very enlightened of them.
Profits Save farmland
Over time, the only thing that will save farmland is the ability to make a living off of the land. If the land is profitable, it's a much more stable and durable use. If it's not profitable it's just a matter of time before someone comes up with a scheme to make a profit on it. For agricultural lands in the last few decades its been development. With the current economic difficulties that particular use has slowed recently, but it will return. In the meantime, agricultural lands are viewed as a low cost location for businesses, dumping, storage or other activities which degrade from their use for agriculture. The local planning departments of various counties attempt to control this by enforcing zoning, but this idea that they are "complaint-driven" is a joke.
In my case in 2008, it was a PDS (Snohomish County Planning and Development Service) employee who initiated the complaint against me. So while they publicly say that the process is "citizen complaint driven" in my case the actual person doing the complaining was a PDS employee. Yes, true, they are citizens... but what it amounted to was an inspection and enforcement action initiated by PDS. This ended up costing me $4500 to defend against, most of that being survey fees paid to a surveyor to prove that my building was not in any protected area, and to establish elevations for the four corners of the tiny building, and the original complaint was dismissed.
Haphazard, unequal enforcement
If the regulations are there, "complaint driven" means that they are haphazardly enforced, and in some areas, are NEVER enforced. If you're going to be someone who dumps toxic sludge, and you have good relations with your neighbors, well, apparently that's just fine with PDS. Either environmental laws are a good idea, and should be enforced equally for the good of the state and its waters, or they are a very bad idea, and they're making life miserable for the minority of people who live in rural areas... and incidentally, are a pretty darned good way of harassing and fining someone if you choose to, even if they're not doing whatever it is that you complain about, at no cost to you.
Farming on the flood plain summary
When I purchased this land I knew that there was a flood risk, and planned for it. For the last two flood events I was prepared and had all of my animals on trailers and ready to go. What I wasn't prepared for, and what worries me the most, is the county governments insistence on "helping" me by a flood of regulations and zoning and permits that make the small profit I make disappear. It doesn't help you if you appeal the permit, either. The defense cost is often higher than the original proposed permit. And the time hurts the most. I've got things to do, but the local goverment is forcing me to spend weeks every year dealing with some issue they've devised and threatening me with financial ruin unless I dance to their tune.