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Development code's farming impact

by Martha Ireland
for Peninsula Daily News

June 21, 2006

"Sorry to bother you," the strangers called over the portable electric line delineating my horses' roadside mowing assignment.

"No bother," I replied, leaving my manure fork and wheelbarrow in the corral.

They were a couple from Darrington, which is northwest of Everett in the Cascades, and the man's father was from Chicago.

Bound for Neah Bay, they paused Tuesday at Ireland Farms, drawn by the giant horse mushrooms.

"How do you get them to grow?" the younger man asked.

"God plants them," I smiled, pointing the way to the mushroom pasture. "Of course, you've got to have horses."

While they collected their gourmet bounty, I deposited the barnyard accumulation from the previous night into our manure bin.

Later, it will fertilize our fields, spawning those delectable mushrooms.

Months ago, I was scooping when Clallam Conservation District Manager Joe Holtrop dropped by and observed, approvingly, our too-small-to-require-a-permit manure-handling system.

I heard from Haltrop again regarding my June 16 column ('Does eco-farming really help farms?'), which quoted Chimacum farmer Roger Short's concerns about regulations that ostensibly protect the environment but actually stymie ecologically beneficial agriculture.

"You could substitute Steve Johnson of Lazy J Tree Farm for Roger Short and it would be almost the same column," Holtrop said.

However, while recognizing that he and Short are both good stewards of their land, Johnson sees differences.

Short joined Monday's tractor convoy that picketed the Jefferson County Courthouse protesting amendments to the county's development code that he finds alarming.

For example, buffers swelling as much as 450 feet wide would remove nearly 82 acres — more than 25 percent — of Short's 320 acre from agriculture if imposed along the 1.5 miles of salmon stream flowing through his fields.

In contrast, Johnson said he has no buffer problems, although only 60 to 65 of Lazy J's 85 acres on Gehrke Road east of Port Angeles are farmable.

The remainder lie in the Siebert's Creek valley, where Johnson voluntarily partners with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe on stream restoration and salmon habitat enhancement.

"I'm definitely an environmentalist," said Johnson, who quietly hopes regulations restricting ecologically beneficial activities can be altered.

"I'm not on prime farmland," Johnson said, referring to his arid farm at the tail end of the irrigation line, which is 22 miles by ditch from the Dungeness River.

Applying mulch — roughly 4,000 square yards to two acres to improve one particularly bad section — builds up the soil, retains water and turns organic materials that otherwise would be burned, dumped or hauled to the landfill into a stable and useful product.

Johnson charges a small disposal fee per truckload of brush, then grinds, waters and stirs it until it becomes mulch.

He applies 80 percent of the mulch he produces to his own land but needs to sell the balance to generate cash for his very expensive equipment.

After seeking technical advice from the conservation district, Johnson is waiting to see what regulations come out of the Clallam County Planning Commission's agriculture subcommittee.

"We believe that what Steve is doing serves the interests of the community and the environment and want to encourage it," Holtrop said, "but the rules are rather rigid."

For example, the state Department of Ecology and Clallam County want the entire area where composting is done to be paved.

Johnson doesn't want to concrete his farm and is frightened by other farmers' horror stories about spending tens of thousands of dollars on studies and plans in vain attempts to meet permitting requirements.

He's backed off from seeking a permit.

"If it cost $40,000, it would sink me," he said. "I'm just squeaking by, and looking to the future, I want to do more than squeak by.

Martha Ireland was a Clallam County commissioner from 1996 to 1999. She and her husband, Dale, live on a Carlsborg-area farm. Her column appears every Friday. E-mail: irelands@olypen.com.


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