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Friday, June 06, 2008

Gov. to farmers: 'How are we doing?'
Gregoire visits with Washington growers as she prepares to bid for second term

Cookson Beecher
Capital Press

Friday, June 06, 2008

Gov. Chris Gregoire, right, and Skagit County, Wash., grower Steve Sakuma of Sakuma Bros. Farms near Burlington, Wash., discuss the farmís ripening strawberry crop during Gregoireís recent stop at the farm to talk about agriculture with a small group of local farmers. She is seeking re-election this fall.
BURLINGTON, Wash. - With strawberries ripening under hoop houses behind her and raspberry canes leafed out in long rows in front of her, Gov. Chris Gregoire asked a small group of Skagit County farmers for a "report card" on how the state is doing in its goal to help keep agriculture profitable.

"We want to keep farmers farming," she said. "The clear direction of state policy is to keep farmland, period."

Gregoire visited with the farmers on May 31 at Sakuma Bros. Farms on her way back to Olympia after attending an Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner in Bellingham.

Pleased at the chance to share their thoughts with the state's top official, the farmers detailed some of the challenges they're facing - among them land use, farmland preservation, the price of fuel and fertilizer, getting locally grown food into schools, global warming, anaerobic manure digesters, and, yes, even the cool, wet spring weather.

They had a willing listener.

"Is it working?" she asked about the state's new farmland preservation project and recently passed legislation that aims to get locally grown foods into schools and institutions.

Grower David Hedlin, who serves as a board member for the La Conner School District, had some good news to share about how students react to healthy foods.

"One of the surprising things we've learned is that when you start serving really good food you sell twice as many lunches," he said, referring to the reaction of children in his district.

Steve Sakuma said the goals of the program hold out great promise to small and large farmers alike. But it's far more complex logistically than most anyone realized.

"It's a great target," he said. "If you can get a handle on it, you've got a winner - a real winner."

Brothers Daryl and Kevin Mass, who received a $500,000 grant from the state Legislature to build an anaerobic manure digester that will serve four dairy farms near Mount Vernon, told the governor about a permitting problem they've run into.

"Some of the rules on water quality make it hard to use anything but manure," said Daryl. "We need to be able to take all (agricultural) wastes."

The governor assured them she'd take this issue "to the top" at the state's Ecology Department.

"I'm a firm believer in anaerobic digesters," she said. "I want that digester to work."

Land-use issues also came to the fore. Potato grower Jerry Nelson told the governor that the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife is buying prime farmland for habitat, often paying prices that are higher than market value.

"They're pricing us out of the market," he said. "We can't compete."

Seed grower Curtis Johnson echoed Nelson's concerns, pointing out that the agency offers prices too high for farmers to compete with.

Saying that there are 50 ways to kill a farmer, Hedlin said that even if you have everything you need, but you don't have enough land, you can't stay in farming.

With Congress debating cap-and-trade legislation to combat global warming, the issue of agriculture's carbon footprint was put before Gregoire.

"When we look at our costs and see this issue out there, we're worried about how it will add additional costs to our already additional costs," said Nelson.

Pointing out that the governor has often said that agriculture is part of the solution, Nelson said the industry, nevertheless, is very dependent on trucking and therefore petroleum.

"Everything we get depends on transportation," he said. "So this carbon footprint is going to be very expensive for us. We're not at all excited about it."

While Gregoire could understand his concerns, she made it clear that the state can't "sit back and do nothing."

"I will not stand by and let the U.S. Congress finally wake up on this issue and deliver to us how it should be done," she said. "I'd rather have us decide our own destiny."

But when she proposed rail as an alternative to trucking, pointing out that the high cost of fuel is threatening farms in Eastern Washington that truck their goods to the ports, several farmers shared some realities with her.

Compared to trucking, rail offers no accountability at the other end as to the quality of the product or the time the product will arrive, they said.

Sakuma said it's a bigger challenge than can be tackled on the state level - that it needs to be solved on the national level.

"When we get to the end," he said, referring to the final destination and the quality of the products shipped and the timing involved, "it's got to be right."

Gregoire, meanwhile, had some of her own ideas about supporting local farmers. As her black hybrid Chevy Tahoe was being prepared to leave, she asked Sakuma a question:

Would his farm's raspberries be ripe in time for her daughter's wedding in August?

Staff writer Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. E-mail: cbeecher@capitalpress.com.

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