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WWAA Comments on Skagit Agritourism proposed code

There have been a lot of opinions surrounding proposed code changes in the Ag-NRL zone of Skagit County regarding agritourism and event venues. Below is the recommendation WWAA submitted to the County Planning Commission recently. This recommendation was fully passed by the board of directors. We encourage all of our members to submit their own personal comments and recommendations to the County before the public comment period ends August 17th, 2023. The button below will take you to the County site for more information and comment submission.

WWAA's recommendation:

Our organization has represented farms of all sizes, male and female owned, in Skagit County for nearly 80 years. These farmers created the unique landscape and economic power of this County. Also, the world is dependent on the food we produce commercially. Our valley’s soil is rated in the top 2% of soil in the world. What we have here is unlike any other state and region in the U.S., and we must treat it as such. The Right to Farm Ordinance is as necessary today as it was in 1991, and any negative impact on farm operations or farmland must not be ignored. Skagit County’s success relies on agriculture and the many farm families who support our communities. Because of this, we support the proposed agritourism code language that the Ag Advisory Board drafted, with a few suggested changes.

We acknowledge that agritourism has become another essential industry to the County. Event venues of this area are successful, however, because of the open spaces and beauty of agriculture. Without active, large-scale farming, they lose their unique opportunities and customer base.

 

We support agritourism activity that is an accessory to a working farm operation, and does not negatively affect neighbors or cause the loss of farmland.

 

We believe that agritourism should be defined as: 

“an activity that is an accessory to a working farm operation. It is operated on land and accessory buildings within the farm and is operated by the owner or operator of the farm or family members.”

We also support amending the current definition of agricultural accessory use in SCC 14.04.020:

  • (6) Miscellaneous agricultural support buildings, including barns, sheds, corrals, farm offices, coops, retail spaces and seasonal roadside farm stands, which are used for on-site soil dependent agriculture on a working farm.

  • (8) Any agricultural accessory use that is an agritourism event or activity shall be an accessory to the primary farming operation of the farm site.

 

We support the County Ag Advisory Boards’ amendments for subsections 9 and 10.

 

While we do not believe wedding events are agritourism events specifically, we support creating a pathway for responsible, working farm event venue operators to operate legally within the Ag-NRL under temporary special use permits that are renewed annually.

 

We also expect event venues to be held accountable to standards and regulations that complement and protect agricultural operations and farmland in the County. There have been a number of negative impacts on agriculture from events that don’t operate responsibly, and we want to ensure that there is a clear process for enforcement of bad practices and negative impacts in the future. Our members have witnessed vendors and attendees illegally entering farm fields, attendees calling agencies due to farm smells, and vendors threatening farmers who don’t stop operations for ceremonies. Farmers face many potential challenges with event venue neighbors, including the obvious physical pressures of having additional people near fields and ranches. Many farms carry additional liability insurance because of these events. If a member of the public crosses onto a farmer’s property and is injured, the farmer is liable. Also, there are often additional food safety implications that farmers must manage when neighboring events happen. If someone crosses into a farm field and disrupts or urinates near a food field, that field will be unharvestable due to food safety regulations. We cannot stress how important it is to have a set of enforceable regulations for event venues to operate within the Ag-NRL. 

 

We support amending SCC 14.16.900(2)(h) to add additional criterion in Special Uses for a special use permit for temporary events:

  • (v) Special use permits for temporary events in Ag-NRL are additionally subject to the following criteria: 

    • (A) All events must be accessory to agricultural use on a working farm.

    • (B) Events should support the sale of products and food grown on the working farm. At least 50% of the products sold must be cultivated on the onsite farm throughout the season, or include products grown by the farmer-operator.

    • (C) Events may occur on no more than 12 calendar days per year. 

    • (D) All permits are subject to annual review.

    • (E) Permit holders must be onsite during all events to monitor activities and uphold standards.

    • (F) Any structures, spaces, or septic infrastructure created for temporary events must be removed once the permit is no longer active and the land returned to original state with no farmable land loss (ie: parking lots, pathways, restrooms, eating areas, etc.).

    • (G) A proper traffic maintenance plan for the event must be approved by the county 30 days prior to the permit activation, and must have minimal impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

    • (H) Events must include a plan to keep visitors restricted to their property and guarantee zero impact (physical or other) on neighboring properties. This plan must be approved by the county 30 days prior to the permit activation.

    • (I) Permit holders will be held financially liable for any damages, harassment, distress, or loss of production on neighboring properties during the event caused by any intrusion of event attendees, hosts, or vendors.

 

We also recommend that the Skagit Right to Farm Ordinance be included in the Special Use contract with the permit holder held accountable to reading and understanding this ordinance.


Finally, we recommend that fees for the permits and sizable fines for violators should be used to fund enforcement of the program. Fines for those who violate permit rules, or those who operate without a permit, must be large enough to deter non compliance. To operate an efficient enforcement program, the County may hire a third party contractor as enforcement staff, similar to how the Farmland Legacy program operates.

Washington Legislature passes budgets

Many items included that may impact western agriculture

 

Still awaiting the Governor's final signature, state legislators passed an increase to many state programs that will potentially effect western Washington farmers during the 2023-2025 biennium. Last weekend, the Legislature passed a $69.2 billion state operating budget, which includes more than $4 billion in new spending. They also passed nearly $9 billion in capital construction projects.

The largest note for many are farmers, is the increase in the State Conservation Commission's (SCC) operating and capital budgets. For some comparison, the SCC's operating budget will increase from roughly $40 million to $97 million, and their capital budget will jump from $30 million to $65 million. These increases will be distributed through local conservation districts. The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) will be funded at $15 million over the biennium. Here are a few other line items that may affect area farmers from the operating budget:

Office of the Governor

  • $480,000 for the governor to convene tribes, local governments, agricultural producers, commercial and recreational fisher organizations, business organizations, salmon recovery organizations, forestry and agricultural organizations, and environmental organizations to participate in a process facilitated by an independent entity to develop recommendations on proposed changes in policy and spending priorities to improve riparian habitat to ensure salmon and steelhead recovery. The independent entity must develop recommendations on furthering riparian funding and policy, including but not limited to, strategies that can attract private investment in improving riparian habitat, and developing a regulatory or compensation strategy if voluntary programs do not achieve concrete targets.

Department of Ecology

  • $2,256,000 for the department to provide technical assistance to landowners and local governments to promote voluntary compliance, implement best management practices, and support implementation of water quality clean-up plans in shellfish growing areas, agricultural areas, forestlands, and other types of land uses, including technical assistance focused on protection and restoration of critical riparian management areas important for salmon recovery.

Department of Fish & Wildlife

  • $997,000 for fiscal year 2024 and $997,000 for fiscal year 2025 to continue the assessment of riparian ecosystems. The assessment must include identifying common statewide definitions of terms for riparian usage, recommendations to improve data sharing, and identifying any gaps in vegetated cover relative to a science-based standard for a fully functioning riparian ecosystem and comparing the status and gaps to water temperature impairments, known fish passage barriers, and status of salmonid stocks.

Recreation and Conservation Office

  • $398,000 to establish a riparian coordinator position within the governor's salmon recovery office to work with state agencies to improve project coordination, develop common metrics across programs, and consolidate data platforms.

Department of Labor & Industries

  • $3,774,000 and $890,000 for the creation of an agriculture compliance unit within the division of occupational safety and health. The compliance unit will perform compliance inspections and provide bilingual outreach to agricultural workers and employers.

Skagit Mediation Money

The Legislature also included $350,000 over the biennium for a conflict resolution process mediated by the federal mediation and conciliation service. According to the budget, this funding must be used by the department to facilitate meetings between Skagit tribes, drainage and irrigation districts, and state and federal resource agencies and support the technical work necessary to resolve conflict. Invited parties must include the National Marine Fisheries Service, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, and Skagit Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium LLC. A report documenting meeting notes, points of resolution, and recommendations must be provided to the legislature no later than June 30, 2025.

Pink flags show how extreme buffers impact local farms and food.

"Site potential tree height" buffers means 235 feet on each side of a fish bearing waterway (streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, wetlands, even drainage ditches) in some areas. This massive amount could lead to a major reduction of farmland and will eliminate some farms.

BUFFERS WILL IMPACT THE FOOD SUPPLY AND LEAD TO...

LESS FARMLAND

Large no touch buffers will remove thousands of acres from farm production throughout the state, and may eliminate an estimated 20% of Western Washington agricultural lands.

LESS DIVERSITY

With the reduction of land there will be a reduction of farms in northwest Washington. This means fewer small, unique farmers offering local products.

MORE URBAN ZONES

Extreme buffers will lead to a sell off of agricultural land in northwest Washington. Those sales will lead to urbanization, not wildlife refuge.

ACRES MATTER

Farmers in Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties must be precise with their planning due to crop specifications and scarcity of land. The profit margin for farms in Western Washington is 1-5%, which leaves very little room for error and makes every inch of farmland valuable.

 

Skagit County is home to only about 80,000 acres of farmable land, managed by roughly 1,000 farming families in 10 to 100 acre “chunks” divided by irrigation and drainage ditches and small land parcels. Farmers here grow more than 80 different crops, and rotational farming allows farmers to break up disease, insect, and tillage cycles naturally. Every inch of farmable soil matters to the community and local food supply.

FARMLAND IS HABITAT

A potato farmer who uses best management practices has land that is free of noxious weeds, urban runoff, and road pollution. Farms protect salmon and wildlife better than any other use on that land, especially urban zones.

The land below sits along a slough and includes a small local farm.

BuffersMann.jpg

If a 235 foot buffer was implemented, the small farm would be nearly eliminated.

BuffersMann.png

Other Current Issues

WWAA services support local and statewide agricultural viability, through both direct leadership and indirect participation. Natural resources conservation and recovery initiatives, agricultural research and extension programs, and agricultural preservation actions dominate our work on a daily and annual basis. Our organization’s diverse membership, coupled with this region’s complexity, create for an immense and ongoing list of commitments and services/activities.

 

Much of WWAA’s support for this community is hidden in the background of dike, drainage, and irrigation infrastructure and natural resource projects/stewardship seen throughout the Skagit Valley and Delta. 

Western Washington Agricultural Association withdraws from DFI & TFI

Recently, on behalf of its membership, the Western Washington Agricultural Association (WWAA) board of directors voted unanimously to withdraw from Skagit Delta Tidegates and Fish Initiative (TFI).  

 

WWAA leadership believes the recent decisions by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Army Corps of Engineers to reinitiate Section 7 Endangered Species Act consultation of the TFI Implementation Agreement was procedurally improper and without cause. Under these circumstances, WWAA believes that it is no longer in the best interest of its farmers to continue to participate in the Agreement. WWAA has detailed its position and clearly explained that the agencies’ decisions were neither warranted nor justified based on the Notice of Intent to sue by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (SITC).

 

Also, after thorough review of current circumstances, WWAA has elected to withdraw from its professional service agreements with the twelve Skagit County Dike and/or Drainage Districts (Districts) that are signatory to the TFI. WWAA has also withdrawn from the Skagit Drainage and Fish Initiative (DFI), and terminated its role and participation in District business.

 

“This is a positive step on behalf of our membership and the farmers of Northwest Washington. It allows our organization to focus on advocating for agriculture in other arenas,” explained WWAA’s President Jenn Smith (Mt. Vernon). “Based on recent actions taken to realign District priorities, we decided they are best represented by their commissioners from this point forward.” 

 

“In 2006 our leadership entered into negotiations to help improve salmon health with our partners in local, state, federal, and tribal agencies,” said WWAA’s Executive Director Brandon Roozen. “Even as SITC removed themselves from the formal seat given to them more than a decade ago, we stayed to do our part. Our hope is that elected leaders and resource agencies can create more effective coordination with the Districts, and we can continue to be the voice for agriculture. This will allow us to concentrate primarily on protecting our farmers through advocacy and by fighting poor policy ideas. Actions taken by SITC and the recent state legislative session proved that we have a lot of work ahead of us to protect agriculture in Northwest Washington from harmful ideas coming from Olympia and beyond.”

 

WWAA has provided Districts with local, state, and federal regulatory and environmental support for infrastructure and water management since 2005. It also helped create the DFI & TFI and served as a signatory partner. WWAA continues to support the implementation of both programs and will remain engaged in agricultural topics and policies associated with agricultural infrastructure based on its mission and support of the agriculture community.

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