Snohomish County, WA: Farmers, tribes, environmentalists and sports anglers join forces to protect farming

Capital Press Staff Writer


MONROE, Wash. — Snohomish County dairy farmers Andy and Jim Werkhoven recently discovered their cows have been dining on million-dollar corn silage.

At least that’s the estimated value of a 40-acre tract of land the two farmers have been leasing for more than a decade to grow silage for their cows.

Years ago, the owner had been savvy enough to divide the land into 5-acre parcels. Now, with property values heading skyward due to the county’s proximity to Seattle and Everett, each of those parcels has an estimated value of $125,000.

Local farmers say it’s no wonder the owner is considering selling the land — it boils down to a choice between cows and condos, with condos the likely winner.

Land capable of sprouting a crop of pink flamingos and an arsenal of barbecue grills obviously brings in a far higher financial return than land leased for silage.

This intense development pressure highlights the dilemma farmers in the Lower Skykomish and Snoqualmie valleys are facing as they struggle against forces that could strip them of their livelihood.

Responding to the threat, a group of local farmers, the Tulalip Tribes, environmentalists and sports anglers have joined together in efforts to keep farmers on the land, help salmon recover and preserve open spaces.

“They all go together,” said John Sayre, director of NW Chinook Recovery. “If you begin to lose one, you begin to lose another.”

That was the message members of the groups shared with Bob Lohn, Northwest director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, during a luncheon last week.

Telling him he’s a “key player in fish recovery,” they asked him to help break some of the logjams in the way of getting an agricultural habitat conservation plan for the Lower Skykomish and Snoqualmie valleys approved.

Going one step further, they also asked him to lend whatever support he could to a proposed biogas project, which is designed to use cow manure to create “green electricity” at the now-closed dairy farm at the Monroe Reformatory. Just recently, the Department of Energy awarded the Tulalip Tribes a $250,000 grant to do a feasibility study of the project, which has been spearheaded by a partnership of farmers, the tribes and environmentalists.

Farms and fish

In 2001, a group of farmers in the Skykomish Valley developed an agricultural habitat conservation plan along the lower stretch of the river. The plan would encompass land owned by various farmers. As time went on, the nearby lower Snoqualmie Valley was included.

To the farmers, the value of such a plan is that once the feds sign off on it, those who abide by the terms in the contract gain assurances that additional regulations won’t be imposed for the life of the contract.

A wide range of interests has been involved in hammering out the plan, among them farmers, the Tulalip Tribes, fisheries scientists, sports anglers and conservation groups.

During the recent luncheon, Sayre gave a draft of the plan to Lohn.

Dairy farmer Wiard Groeneveld emphasized how important the effort is to farmers.

“We’re hoping the plan will give us some certainty,” he said. “Without the land, we can’t survive. If we leave, our farms will probably be developed.”

Dairy farmer Art Groeneweg shared similar thoughts.

“This is one of the greatest places to dairy,” he said. “I’m not in a hurry to leave or get forced out. Whatever we can do to work together would please me.”

Terry Williams, commissioner of Fisheries and Natural Resources for the Tulalip Tribes, also put the spotlight on cooperation.

“Knowing we have a long-term partnership gives us direction; it orients our compass,” he said, referring to the strong ties between the farmers and the tribes.

“It boils down to the fact that we have to save the fish and the farms,” said beef raiser Dale Reiner. “This is where we’re headed.”

Looking across the room and noting the many interests represented, Lohn said that though he’s often shocked at what he hears at meetings, he’s seldom surprised.

“But I’m enormously surprised by what I’ve seen today,” he said. “This is the kind of partnership you dream about. It’s one of the most promising efforts I’ve seen.”

Referring to the draft of the habitat conservation plan, Lohn said he’d review it and try to nail down some kind of agreement on parts of it.

“I’d like to focus on getting something you can build on,” he said. “I’d like to take what you’ve got here and see if we can give you some long-term assurances.”


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