by Meghan Fenwick
In the 1960s, Ralph de Vries retired from dairy farming in the Skagit River Valley and spent his free time vegetable gardening in a greenhouse. He primarily grew Dutch potatoes for his friends and family, a staple from his home country, the Netherlands.
Today, Ralph’s Greenhouse has grown to 250 acres of farmland adjacent to the original dairy operation. The farm is now run by his son Ray de Vries and his wife, Becky. Every crop grown and sold by the de Vries family and their employees is USDA-certified organic, fertilized by cow manure and compost.
In neighboring Whatcom County, policymakers are hoping that food system workers can achieve similar success. On July 25, the Whatcom County Council unanimously voted to adopt the Whatcom County Food System Plan (1). This 10-year plan aims to strengthen all stages of a crop’s life cycle, from farm to fork, making each step in between more sustainable and equitable.
The council approved an ordinance (2) in November 2018 to establish a Food System Committee, charged with updating the community food assessment (CFA) and creating a comprehensive food system plan. This ordinance outlines issues of food insecurity, food system worker conditions, and farmland losses throughout the county.
“Food in Silos”
“We had historically been dealing with food issues in silos,” said Riley Sweeney, chair of the Food System Committee. “Agriculture would be dealt with as agriculture, groceries would be treated like retail businesses, processing facilities would be dealt with by manufacturers. There was no cohesive vision for what Whatcom County could be.”
In two separate meetings on Sept. 26, the food system committee and the county addressed the plan for the first time since its adoption. Ali Jensen, program specialist at the Whatcom County Health Department, led a presentation to the committee on carrying out implementation. Jensen proposed using the “Cream of the Crop” page of the plan to determine immediate actions.
At its meeting, the county council unanimously voted to allocate $150,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to a Food System Committee project.The committee will use these funds to upgrade the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center’s (EWRRC) kitchen to a certified commercial kitchen in collaboration with the Whatcom County Health Department.
In a memo to the council (3) , Sweeney outlined which Food System Plan goals are relevant to this project. Establishing a commercial kitchen in the east Whatcom area food desert will provide a processing facility for local farmers.
The EWRRC hosts educational cooking and nutritional classes as well as monthly community meals. This investment aligns with the committee’s broader goal of fighting food insecurity in the county.
Years in the Making
In 2019, the committee began work on a new CFA (4) in collaboration with the Whatcom Food Network, which carried out the previous county CFAs in 2013 and 2017. This report confirmed what many Whatcom producers and consumers experienced: the food system is vulnerable, and the Covid-19 pandemic brought its flaws to the forefront.
The disruptions to the global supply chain during the pandemic left lasting impacts. According to the 2021 CFA, essential workers in the farming and fishing industry were especially vulnerable to contracting the disease. Closures of markets near and far, compounded with safety protocols restricting operations at local vendors, intensified economic pressures for food system workers.
Troy Lenssen is a fourth generation-dairy farmer in Lynden and president of the Whatcom County Farm Bureau. With rising costs that he attributes to increasing regulations, Lenssen is watching the farming business model become unsustainable.
“The worst was the shortages of some products because of shutdowns, and the demand loss because of food services closing,” Lenssen said. “We just kept going, we have no option but to: cows could care less.”
Before the pandemic, 12 percent of Whatcom residents were food insecure — lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. More recent estimates increase that to 20 percent.
Raspberries and Dairy
“By volume, our bulk export for food is a huge part of our food economy,” Sweeney said. “We grow a lot of raspberries and a lot of dairy, and those are popular items that are sold all over the world. Our goal is to make sure that if there are disruptions in the global food economy that we can still eat, provide, consume and have thriving food producers here in Whatcom County.”
In 2017, berry and dairy farms accounted for 78 percent of the market value of agricultural products in the county, amounting to $292 million in sales. The Pacific Northwest has long been a major national producer of a variety of blackberries, raspberries and other berries, the mild climate facilitating their success. In 2021, many berry farms saw devastation to their crops during a heat-wave event.
One of the five goals of the plan is to increase resiliency in the Whatcom County food system. While sustainability seeks to maintain the status quo, resiliency suggests a capacity to adapt to and recover quickly from outside disturbances.
The food system plan claims that economic pressures have rendered the traditional approach to food policy unsustainable. To reach the resilience goal, the committee has proposed five objectives with 21 action items total. Four of the five objectives include the words “local” and/or “community.”
“When the kids are eating food in their school cafeteria, they should be eating some of the food that’s grown just down the street,” Sweeney said. “Part of that is building community connections, and part of that is making the economics work out.”
The actions seek to increase the supply and demand of locally and sustainably sourced food, expand the workforce, invest in local ownership of food businesses, and support new and generational farmers in land acquisition.
This plan enables the Food System Committee to request funding from the county, though the Food System Committee did not explicitly ask for specific funds in the plan. In the Sept. 26 committee meeting, Jensen explained that a large part of the implementation process will be to map out funding from the county and from outside sources.
Buying and Selling Locally
As business picked up, Ralph’s Greenhouse shipped leeks and potatoes across the United States. Leeks are generally better suited for the West Coast climate than the East, according to de Vries. Over time, as interest in local and organic produce has increased, the farm’s market has shifted to primarily provide to Pacific Northwest buyers.
“As there’s become more organic vegetables available, our market has shrunk back,” de Vries said. “You shouldn’t really have to move vegetables to Boston from Mount Vernon, unless they can’t grow them. That’s a long trip. But for many years, that’s how it worked.”
Ralph’s Greenhouse products can be found at select grocery stores such as WholeFoods and Haggen. The Skagit Valley Food Co-Op and the Puget Sound Food Hub also feature products with the Ralph’s label, and have since the early days of these markets. De Vries remembers when the Skagit Valley Food Co-Op, established in 1973, was a small gathering in a church basement.
Co-ops, farmers markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs provide avenues for local farmers to sell products in their community. CSAs are often a collaborative effort across multiple small farms, where community members pay for subscriptions and receive regular harvests.
At East of Eden Farm in Bellingham, owners Sam and Liza Janis estimate that 80 percent of their sales comes from their storefront and CSA memberships combined. They moved to Bellingham in the summer of 2018 and have also sold their fruits, vegetables and herbs to local restaurants and through farmers markets.
“We’re very small and intensive, cultivating just enough really for the store and for CSA,” Sam Janis said. “People know us, and they know what we do here. There’s solid trust there.”
In the traditional CSA model, customers typically pick up an assortment of products weekly. East of Edens uses a free-choice model, where customers choose from items on a menu. Each customer can buy a share and receive a 10 percent discount on all products between March and November.
The farmstand will often feature products from other local producers, such as salmon from Fall Line Fisheries, beef from Shuksan Cattle Co. and cheese from Ferndale Farmstead.
Many of the hundreds of actions in the Whatcom County Food System Plan reference the value of CSAs and farmers markets and suggest that the county support these operations.
The plan also outlines areas where these avenues fall short. Increasing demand for local and organic food reveals a need for small farms to expand beyond these markets. While three of the five farmers markets in Whatcom County accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance for Women, Infants and Children credits, CSA’s limit payment options.
One of the 12 priority actions items in the plan is to enable BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] and other marginalized communities with more opportunities to collaborate with these markets.
“If you transition to organics, the cows are presumably better off, and now you’re selling your milk or your cheese for 30 or 40 percent more,” Janis said. “It’s out of reach for a lot of middle-income people. There’s a question of ethics at the consumer level if the food system is too expensive for the majority of consumers.”
A Compromise Document
According to a 2017 survey by the USDA, only 2 percent of Whatcom County farmland is certified organic. While there are many organic farms in the county, they tend to be small.
Two action items relate to setting a target organic-farm acreage, and supporting farms in the transition from conventional to organic. Both are listed under the umbrella goal of regenerating the county’s soil, water and land.
It takes labor, time and funding for a conventional farm to transition to organic practices. Before a crop can be certified organic, no prohibited substances can be applied three years prior to harvest. Another indirect cost is labor: without pesticides, insecticides or herbicides, weeding has to be done by hand or by machine.
“There is just no market for organic dairy, it’s just a sliver of milk sales nationwide,” Lenssen said. “I have respect for the guy with two acres and a CSA just as much as the 1,000-acre potato farm and 600-cow dairyman.”
In an April 25 meeting, the council decided to table the food plan after receiving a joint letter of concern from Whatcom Family Farmers and the Whatcom County Farm Bureau. Both are nonprofit agriculture advocacy organizations that felt large-scale farmers perspective was not adequately represented in the original document.
“There were more action items related to organic farming, but we got some pushback from some of the larger farming community in Whatcom County, who pointed out that it isn’t always economically feasible on a larger scale,” Sweeney said. “Which is a fair point. However, it is more environmentally sustainable.”
In the following three Food System Committee meetings, the council discussed suggestions from Whatcom Family Farmers, the Whatcom County Farm Bureau, and others and made changes. Other points of contention included water rights, farm worker safety and general language suggesting greater regulatory oversight. Agriculture representatives emphasized the importance of providing equal support to all types of producers.
“All of their community meetings were in Bellingham, west of the freeway and south of Smith Road, nowhere near where the farms in Whatcom county are,” said Lenssen. “All of these policy suggestions could impact farmer’s lives, yet they never had a seat at the table.”
According to Sweeney, the Food System Committee did encourage participation from big agriculture during the community engagement process. Page 9 of the plan describes this process, including small group discussions and outreach to specific communities. The committee shared drafts of the plan to the public and analyzed their comments to make edits.
“We’re glad that they’re engaged now, and we hope they continue to stay engaged throughout the implementation because the implementation is where the rubber meets the friction points,” said Sweeney.
For East of Eden and Ralph’s Greenhouse, synthetic fertilizers were never considered. Ralph de Vries grew his crops in Washington the same way he did in the Netherlands, with the help of cow manure.
When a USDA representative approached Ray de Vries in 1988 about a new organics certification, he saw a marketing opportunity which would not substantially change his operations. The paperwork was worth the appearance of legitimacy.
East of Eden’s organic products have not received the USDA seal of approval, and the Janis family does not plan on enrolling in the program anytime soon.
“Nowhere in our marketing do we encounter any constraints around not being certified organic, and it limiting our sales,” Janis said. “So it would really be for marketing and generally contributing to the movement. I think if we were at a larger scale, it would make a lot of sense.”
Janis recognizes that organic is not for everyone. Some of the products featured at East of Eden’s farmstand do not come from organic farms, such as Ferndale Farmstead.
“I really like what they do,” Janis said. “I like their product. I think it’s very high quality, it’s tasty. I see their animals, and they look to be in really good health, and I know what their practices are. I’ve come to better understand the need for practices that wouldn’t be allowable in organic certification in that setting.”
As well as economic tradeoffs, farmers have to make ethical and moral decisions when it comes to farming practices. Some dairy farmers believe that using antibiotics is in the best interest of a cow’s health, which is not allowed under USDA protocols.
In de Vries’ opinion, not only are there markets for both conventional and organic farming, but each is necessary to meet consumer demands. To him, a thriving food system means collaboration, not competition.
“We’re all neighbors, and we’re all on this earth together,” de Vries said. “It’s our job to help the other guy, and farmers need each other.”
The food system plan offers five types of action: policy solutions, county leadership, infrastructure, education and community collaborations. The conversations and compromises aren’t over, said Sweeney, and, as the implementation process begins, community engagement is essential. The plan recognized that in many cases, the committee is building on innovations and connections that the farming community have already made.
Ralph de Vries used to say you can’t have organic vegetable farms without healthy dairy farms, and his son, Ray, carries on this sentiment. Neighboring farms regularly borrow tractor equipment and loading docks from Ralph’s Greenhouse. Farmers markets wouldn’t be possible without each vendor bringing something to the table.
“When we have thriving local farms, everybody wins,” said Sweeney. “Figuring out a way to make it efficient and cost effective is in everybody’s interest. And I think shifting people’s thinking to a more collaborative place that is focused on solutions is worthy of everybody’s time.”
What Is the Food System?
The Whatcom County Food System Plan defines a food system as each step in a meal’s lifecycle. These steps can be summarized by these categories:
• Soil, Water, and Land
The five goals of the food system plan:
1. Cultivate equity and justice within our food system
2. Protect and regenerate our soil, water, and land
3. Build a resilient and vibrant local food economy
4. Ensure access to healthy food for all
5. Mitigate emissions from food system activities and adapt the food system to a changing climate
Meghan Fenwick is a senior in her last quarter at Western Washington University. She is majoring in environmental journalism and loves exploring the connections between people and the natural world.