Earthquake Recovery Advances Local Agriculture

Ten years to the date, the Seattle Fault earthquake is still shaking things up across King County, Washington.Of the many successful reconstruction projects that have been conducted throughout the County, few have competed with the efforts put into the local agriculture industry. Initially sparked by consumer demand, much of King County’s food supply has now been deriving from within the county.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

Contributing to the organic and grass-fed food preferences popular prior to the quake, the locality of ones food has become just as important of an attribute to many of the 2 million King County residents. Spawning from this increase in demand for locally sourced food, local food processing operations, hundreds of farmers markets, urban food forests, re-zoning of unincorporated land, community and collegiate-based educational opportunities and numerous ingenious agricultural projects have appeared over the past ten years.

Despite the significant growth that King County’s local agriculture industry has experienced, political and social indifferences regarding the economics and environment behind the agriculture projects arose. However, the willingness and motivation of the farming communities, political and governing entities, consumers and environmental stewards demonstrated unprecedented actions by developing a prominent, local and resilient agricultural network.

The devastating seismic event that rocked the region 10 years ago exposed the vulnerability of the County’s food supply. Prior to the event, 90 percent of the agriculture products consumed within the county were purchased from big box grocery stores, 8 percent from smaller meat and produce markets and the remaining 2 percent were produced and sold within the county lines.

The imbalanced distribution of food-products prior to quake exemplified the heavy reliance the county’s population had on statewide transportation and international shipping infrastructure. As noted in other publications regarding this seismic event, vital portions of railway and road networks were damaged and out of commission. The port experienced immense damage from liquefaction and large portions of the grocery and food processing building stock were decimated. Within the first year after the quake, 45% of all the grocery and produce markets were functional, 35% remained closed and were not likely to reopen for at least another year and the remaining 20% were nearing their re-opening.

Without having these and many other critical infrastructures in safe and functional condition, some of the county’s food supplies experienced noticeable shortages. As a result, food prices increased, in some cases up to 200% above average.

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Transportation Infrastructure damage from 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake.

The Seattle Fault earthquake was similar to  the magnitude, proximity to urban center, depth,  and destruction as the 1995 Kobe earthquake in  Japan. The earthquake in Kobe caused major damage to    transportation networks such as  bridges, railways, the port and highways. This led  to significant economic disruption in Kobe and  the surrounding area for many years. Unlike King County, Kobe’s economy has not recovered 15 years after the earthquake.

The extensive destruction of the Seattle Fault earthquake to the regions food networks prompted many of the urban and rural communities to question the source and security of their food supply. This premise strengthened King County’s local agriculture network, which has been shaking up the status quo of grocery markets for nearly a decade. Today, 30% of all produce and other agricultural products consumed are grown and processed within the region.

Initially, the local food buzz was oriented around urban and rural farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSA), restaurateurs, and the farming communities themselves. Much of the produce and agricultural products sold at the farmers markets have various regional organic certifications and are produced by small farms scattered across King and other neighboring counties. Although many King County residents were strapped for cash from property and other costly damages the quake generated, the farmers markets around the county experienced an influx of interested customers.

In an interview, Karyn Noones, the marketing director of a local farmers market stated that, “Within the first three years after the quake, I can’t tell you the number of residents that mentioned to me and our vendors that they would like to see us expand. Ideas of building permanent markets that were open five days a week and provided a more diverse selection of local goods and with lower prices of course, seemed to be daily occurrences.”

She went on to explain how prior to the earthquake, many local farmers could not compete with the prices found at big-box grocers. But today, the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets have three permanent locations and twice as many weekend markets from ten years ago. Although the permanent markets carry products produced throughout the state, 75 percent of the products come from inside King County.

With a smile on her face, Karyn said, “…business has never been better! Our locations not only provide quality and local food to the public, but have become community hubs for people of all ages.”

The Seattle Neighborhood Farmer’s Markets are just one example of this local food movement. They have spear headed educational workshops for customers who want to start growing produce themselves, provide investment opportunities to support the growing cooperative agricultural businesses and provide feasible access for local farmers to get their products to the market.

After the 2010 Christchurch, New Zealand earthquakes, residents undertook many  sustainable and resilient farming projects. In  addition to urban farming on vacant lots, the  Christchurch Farmers’ Markets helped connect  local growers directly with consumers. The  markets also provided a gathering space for locals  to enjoy music, fresh low priced products, and have access to meet and hold discussions with the local farmers and growers.

George Vanderhyke, a third generation cattle farmer of Carnation stated, “Those first few years after the quake were something else. In my many years of farming, I have never seen such a drastic push and support for local agriculture. My family, and fellow famers in the region are sure happy to see people and politicians realizing the importance of a rural economy and for this momentum to continue for much longer.”

George and his family attempted to bring their beef products into local butcher and beef markets in the past. But past economic constraints limited their access to those markets. Today, their USDA Grade-AA organic cuts can be found at all three of the permanent Seattle Neighborhoods Farmers Markets. On behalf of his family farm, George sincerely expressed their appreciation for the efforts put forth by the many local food movement supporters.

George currently is also the chair of the King County Agricultural Commission. The KCAC has facilitated agricultural consultation to farmers who have been interested in incorporating more sustainable farming methods into their operations. The commission has also been heavily involved in representing hundreds of King County farms during city and state council meetings.

As, George explained, the Commission’s board-of-directors have been tirelessly working to gather the ideas and opinions of local farmers on altering rural zoning regulations, rural infrastructure projects, migrant worker housing issues, statewide local agriculture tax reforms and much more. Over the past ten years, George, his colleagues, the King County farming community and regional legislators have developed arguably the most progressive local agriculture economy in the nation.

To shed light on a few of the larger projects that have aided this growth over the past decade, the long-time spokesman of King County’s Local Food Initiative, Daryl Bartone – PhD. Environmental Economics and Agronomic Sciences, willingly led me on a tour around the county to the various urban food forest parks, cooperatively owned dairy processing plant and a current research site of Washington State University’s small farm agricultural extension.

On the drive to the first stop on our tour ­­– the world’s largest urban food forest – Bartone began by explaining that none of these projects would be possible without communal support. He said, “What you see today, was sparked from that quake. King County came together, identified themselves with local food, sustainable development and a strong, resilient community that was willing to literally fight for good, healthy and local food.”

Stepping into the Beacon Hill Food Forest Park on a spring day was breathtaking; I couldn’t help but notice how well maintained, abundant and diverse the flora and fauna encompassing the grounds were. The urban food forest has been systematically planted with seasonal production and intensive agriculture in mind. There are soil building and permaculture workshops put on by different farmers markets and elementary education programs. The Beacon Hill Food Forest is an aesthetical asset to the surrounding urban landscape.

Bartone voiced that the food forest has had experienced some challenges regarding management, food safety legalities and political support though. Many folks did not want to designate developable land into what some think is a ‘hippy’ park, where the homeless could congregate. According to Bartone, these indifferences and challenges were worked out. As far as I could tell, they worked out well.

The next stop was within the repurposed un-incorporated land near Duvall. This newly formed agricultural district not only has five new 25-acre farms and eight new 10-acre farms producing hundreds of produce varieties, but two 20,000 square foot food-processing plants. Each plant is cooperatively owned and operated by King County farmers and was designed for a multi-use purpose. One of the plants is a vegetable cleaning, packaging and distribution center; with plans to expand into a juice and herbal extract facility. The other plant is a creamery, which not only had the capabilities to pasteurize and bottle milk, but also to make butter, ice cream and powdered milk.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture awarded these processing plants with numerous sustainable farming grants that have been put to good use.

Bartone seemed proud of the new agriculture district and its multi-use capacity, but was somewhat skeptical of the processing plants’ ability to remain environmentally sound. There is no easy way to support hundreds of thousands of people with food in a sustainable and low carbon approach, even if the agricultural production derives from small organic farms.

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Jenkin’s Blueberry Farm: Enumclaw, King County Washingotn

The last stop on our tour was an eight-year-old 27-acre Jenkin’s Blueberry Farm north of Enumclaw, WA. Bartone described the agronomic efforts put forth by Washington State University’s small farm extension throughout the county and specifically, for this farm. In the past, the soil conditions of this farm were not the most suitable for growing blueberries and were heavily compacted over decades of tractor use and livestock grazing. With the work put forth by the farmer, WSU’s scientific aid and King County’s Agricultural Commission’s consulting connections, the soil health has developed into conditions very lucrative for blueberry production.

Daryl Bartone, George Vanderhyke and Karyn Noones and the thousands of people and organizations incorporated into the local agriculture movement throughout King County have accomplished unprecedented actions. Increasing local produce consumption from 2 to 30% within 10 years of the devastating Seattle Fault earthquake is something the County can be proud of.

 

The region’s strong identity with local agriculture, healthy food and ecological education has not reached its peak. There is a clear capacity for King County to incorporate their plans and programs into other Washington counties. Adopting similar projects, ideals and taking the initiative could shake up millions of lives and communities, but this time in a positive, sustainable and beneficial direction.

 

 

 

Author: Anthony de Aguiar