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Originally published April 19, 2013 at 12:00 PM | Page modified April 26, 2013 at 12:54 PM

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From wild birds to beet seeds, the Skagit Valley's riches are being kept safe

Competing interests collaborate to save what's best for all.

Pacific NW staff writer

For more 'InFARMation'

For decades, the Skagit Valley's rich diversity in agricultural crops has remained largely invisible, even to visitors. But not for long. With the valley recently designated as the state's first "Agricultural Scenic Corridor," a variety of crop-identification features are on the way.

The north and south edges of the valley along Interstate 5 now are marked by "InFARMation" signs, directing motorists to dial up AM 610 on radios for agricultural information. Also, newly designed crop-identification signs, supplemented by a "Talking Fields" smartphone self-guided tour program, are on the docket for this summer. More information: www.skagitonians.org.

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THE WAYWARD elk could not have known. A solitary bull, he struck out from the upper Skagit Valley during last fall's rut, heading west, downstream, along the Skagit River — and just kept right on going.

Marching across the Skagit Flats, the elk clearly did not intend to make a point about smart land use, creative coalitions between tractor drivers and policy wonks, or any other trappings of the fight to save the Puget Sound region's last, best fertile valley from death by pavement.

But in the course of a trek that would take him, remarkably, all the way to Whidbey Island, the bull made the point anyway: The simple fact that this elk, by no means a stealthy ungulate, was able to march across the entire Skagit Flats without drawing notice, getting mowed down on a highway or tangling his antlers in a subdivision playground swing says something profound about the place he walked.

It is not momentous, in other words, that the elk did cross the valley, but that he still could.

The Lower Skagit Valley, a lingering teardrop of tillable soil in a swelling asphalt sea, is still decidedly "wild." This is partly due to luck, but a great deal due to human design — a multipronged defense against the very industrial and suburban sprawl that swallowed up nearly every other place in the region where fertile soil once sustained both plentiful crops and endangered critters.

Saving the Skagit for farmland and wildlife — complementary goals — is beyond the scope of any single person, government or agency. It is being accomplished by thousands of people, many with seemingly contradictory goals, sharing only a love of the place itself. Since the subject at hand is preservation, few of these people will tempt fate by crowing loudly — or at all — about success.

But prod them long and hard enough, and some will confess that, from a historical perspective, something remarkable has happened over two decades in what many people refer to as the "Magic Skagit": The 20-year-old battle to save the valley for its hallmark family farms, and the abundant wildlife that comes with them, is being won.

"This is one of the most unique agricultural valleys still functioning, and one of the most healthy watersheds," says one of those warriors, Allen Rozema, executive director of the nonprofit Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland (SPF). "That's not by accident."

A DECADE AGO, the threat to the valley was largely commerce and housing, and even some second- and third-generation farm families were seeing handwriting on the barn walls. With swelling population centers lying both north and south, former Skagit farmlands were being purchased as homesteads, even with 40-acre minimums imposed by Skagit County. Bustling growth in the colliding cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon threatened farmland from the Cascade Mountain foothills.

The recent recession, coupled with some effective land-use watchdogging, has helped hold the "green line" against those forces, Rozema says. As a result, much of the 55,000 to 60,000 acres of tillable soil that was left in the valley west of Interstate 5 a decade ago has remained farmland. And while the bulldozers stay mostly idle as the economy struggles to its feet, farmland advocates have been making haste to lock up as much of that land as possible.

It's a mixed-bag approach: In 1996, Skagit County residents approved a publicly financed Farmland Legacy Program, which pairs local money with matching public grants and private donations to pay for conservation easements. The goal: Keep the land in perpetual use as farmland and wildlife habitat. Today, that program has more applicants than money, a healthy sign, officials agree.

A satellite view of the valley floor hanging in Rozema's office tells the tale visually: A square here, a rectangle there, dotting the map with islands set permanently aside as farmland. Other easements or outright purchases by a strange-bedfellows group of Seattle-area greenies, local land-trust operatives, bird hunters and various farm groups have set aside even more land.

Support extends far beyond the valley. Rozema's agency's membership roster is heavy with donors who live in the Greater Seattle area but consider the Skagit Valley a regional touchstone — a place where they can pop in for a few hours or days and slow life down to its former speed.

It's not just cheerleading. More and more, Puget Sound residents have put their money where their mouth is with regard to Skagit Valley preservation. Shoppers are paying more — sometimes substantially more — for Skagit produce delivered directly via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box programs, or, increasingly, by seeking them out in local grocery stores hopping on the organic and locavore bandwagons.

Skagit farms, some of them now operated by mid-lifers who fled the city to try farming on their own, can sell crops like blueberries, which once brought 50 cents a pound from industrial buyers, for five times that as locally branded, organic fruit. For some, that's allowing the small-farmer's dream — profitable farm-to-customer crops, with no middleman — to become a reality.

Farmland thus remains in production through a complex web that mixes old and new farmers playing a game of field-rotation musical chairs to grow 80 crops across the valley floor. Best known for its tulip-bulb and potato industries, the valley's hidden cash cow is seed production. A combination of the perfect soil and 17-hour summer daylight helps the Skagit produce 90 percent of the nation's spinach seed, half its beet and cabbage seeds, and a large portion of other produce seeds.

"The Skagit is an ideal breadbasket for Seattle," says Ethan Schaffer, co-manager of Viva Farms, a local farm-incubator program. "We could produce almost the entire amount of food needed for all of Seattle. This is their food shed."

THE EMERGENCE of these diverse farming enterprises is good news for the valley's other prime draw and gift to the continent: wildlife. The Skagit is prime habitat not only for the occasional visiting elk but for the tens of thousands of migratory birds that make local fields either a critical port-of-call along the Pacific Flyway or a permanent winter home, in the case of lesser snow geese and tundra and trumpeter swans.

Populations of all the valley's avian visitors — hundreds of species of song birds, shore birds and raptors also live here year-round — are healthy, says Chris Danilson, Skagit district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Wildlife. As many as 65,000 snow geese were in residence this winter, and 5,000 to 7,000 swans joined them, providing a winter-long tourist draw.

Generally, what's good for Skagit farmland is also good for its winged visitors.

"The reason the birds are here is that the land's in till," Danilson says. "It's not because we're chopping it into five-acre ranchettes or putting up condos."

But farmers have taken an even more proactive role, not only leaving some fields available for migratory birds but creating quality habitat on their own by intentionally flooding some of their lands. For the past six years, a handful of Skagit farmers have teamed with The Nature Conservancy for a Farming For Wildlife pilot project, modeled after a similar effort in Oregon's Klamath Basin. The project essentially pays farmers to incorporate temporary bird habitat — flooded fields — as part of their crop rotations.

The results have exceeded expectations, says The Nature Conservancy's Kevin Morse. Participating farmers have proved capable of creating the right habitat, birds are using it, and preliminary research shows the flooding might actually assist in wiping out some crop diseases. Future financing, of course, is unknown, but a template now exists.

"What's really exciting now is that farmers anywhere in the Puget Sound area, Oregon, possibly even California can sign up and receive (federal) farm-bill funding to implement this practice," Morse says. "I would confidently say that the interest is growing."

ALL OF THIS has combined to keep alive that Skagit Magic, which, for outsiders, might sound silly. But frequent visitors know it when they feel it. For many, the mystical reacquaintance occurs right on I-5, heading north and cresting Starbird Hill, several miles south of Mount Vernon.

It is a profound sight: Suddenly, the Puget basin's normal topography drops off the map, replaced by miles of flat, lush green land, saltwater brushing its western shores, the foreboding black-rock hills of the San Juan Islands looming on the horizon, and that indescribable Skagit light painting it all in soft hues that often seem otherworldly.

"I call it the 'coming home view,' " SPF's Rozema says. "It's visual, and it's emotional."

Picture it with the warehouses, industrial parks or subdivisions filling similar Puget Sound valleys, and the message is clear: Working farmland is the glue. But preserving it has proved to be an endless game of land-use Whac-A-Mole.

The largest single threat to local farmland today is another "green" concern: conversion of agricultural land to salmon habitat, says Mike Shelby, executive director of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, which has represented valley farmers for decades.

A truce of sorts had emerged here. But in the past year, federal agencies, sensitive to demands to better protect endangered salmon, have begun attaching more-onerous requirements for increased buffer zones and other mitigation to financing for farm-bill and matching-grant programs used to set aside farmland. That's a huge concern in the valley, where about half of the tillable land has been reclaimed from saltwater marsh via diking and tidal gates.

Another new worry is what's expected to be a flood of new rail traffic, with crude-oil trains originating in the Dakotas moving up and down the north-south Burlington Northern Santa Fe line and an east/west spur along Highway 20. Crude-oil trains already are running to the Anacortes Tesoro refinery, which just invested $55 million in a new rail yard. More trains are expected to soon begin serving the Shell refinery and BP's Ferndale refinery, as well. And Shell has made initial feelers about acquiring hundreds of acres of active Skagit farmland for a railcar facility. All of this is in addition to heavy coal-train traffic that would run on the BNSF tracks if a controversial new Whatcom County shipping facility is approved.

Preservationists do have one new weapon at their disposal: The Legislature last year approved a proposal from Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland to establish a farmlands "parity policy" under the State Environmental Policies Act. It adds the potential loss of farmlands to the list of critical impacts considered before permitting development. But to date, the law is largely untried.

THE KEY TO preservation, farmland supporters say, has been ordinary people doing their own small parts to achieve a big goal. A hopeful sign for the valley's future is that some of them are young, idealistic and determined.

Sarita and Ethan Schaffer of Viva Farms, the farm-incubator program, note that saving farmland is of little use without identifying the next generation of sowers and reapers.

"We're in the farm-er preservation business," Sarita says.

Their program combines hands-on training on Viva's 33-acre farm plot with education and access to farmland loans and lease programs. It also provides an immediate market: either at the farm's roadside produce stand or an established CSA program that trucks boxes of farm goods to Seattle-area residents. A Seattle restaurant is a long-term dream.

Viva has a dozen incubator farms working, many headed by Latino farmers who learned their trade as farmhands. Many of them have begun collaborating with other fledgling farmers — white professionals or retirees. In fields and along ditch banks, a cross-cultural exchange is occurring: White farmers with marketing, communication and business skills swap their knowledge for Latino hands-on farm experience. It's the sort of cultural benefit to family farming that doesn't show up in statistics or register in land-use planning.

And it's the very sort of unseen Skagit Magic, farmland advocates say, that justifies the fight to keep the valley floor muddy enough to host the current unique population of creatures — be they antlered, winged or rubber-booted.

That fight goes on. One threat vanishes, another emerges, the fragile balance quivers, but so far stands. When Skagitonians call the valley breathtaking, Shelby says, they might mean it in a context all their own.

"You can't ever stop to take a breath."

Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Tom Reese is a Seattle freelance photographer.

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