A reader wrote in with this question recently: "Do you know if there is any data about whether Whatcom County produces enough food to feed its population?"
The short answer is, "Perhaps yes, if we eat mostly berries." I'm just joking (sort of). The real answer is much more complicated.
Studies show there is just barely enough fertile and farmable land still available in Whatcom County to feed everyone who lives here. "Still available" means not contaminated in some way, such as paved over.
However not all possible land is currently being used for farming. For example, some is being used for golf courses, residential backyard grass and many other non-food uses. Let's take a look at a few of the problems involved if Whatcom County farms were to feed all county residents.
Whatcom County currently has about 148,000 acres being actively farmed and, according to the 2010 Census, we have about 201,000 people. One commonly used estimate says we would need about half an acre to feed one person for a year using sustainable methods. That includes fruit, vegetables, grains (for both human and animal feed), chickens (both for eggs and meat), dairy goats (for both milk and meat), and pigs.
Doing the math, that means we need at least 100,000 acres of farmland to feed everyone in our county. We have that much. So far so good, at least in theory.
From there, though, things start to get very complicated very quickly. For example, tomatoes can only be harvested during a short time of the year, and they don't keep very well. We like to eat tomatoes year-round. Either everyone will have to quickly scramble to learn to can, dehydrate or freeze tomatoes, or we will need processing plants to do those things for us. That kind of infrastructure currently doesn't exist, or is being used for other purposes.
Getting crops to the consumer without significant waste from transportation damage or spoilage is another problem. It's one thing for an individual farmer to bring small amounts of produce to a weekly farmers market, but it's quite another to bring large quantities to a grocery store and get consumers to purchase it in time. Again, infrastructure is required that currently isn't in place.
Companies like Acme Farms + Kitchen are attempting to create solutions to these infrastructure issues. Acme picks up fresh food from farms, portions it out for their customers and makes weekly deliveries. They also do some processing, such as freezing peppers. Will their business model work on a sufficiently large scale? Time will tell.
Winter food is another problem. Are enough consumers willing to learn skills such as canning, dehydrating, freezing and root cellaring? Or will commercial facilities to do these kinds of things be necessary? What about people who don't cook at all? Eating foods directly from the field would require huge behavioral changes that can't happen overnight.
Notice there are no cows on the list of foods produced by our half acre, yet most of us eat beef and dairy and plenty of it. Add enough land for cows, and our land needs just went up at least another quarter acre per person, maybe more. Our current county farmland is suddenly barely enough. Nearly a third of our county farmland (44,000 acres) is presently used to grow corn and grass for silage (aka animal feed).
Farmers understandably like to grow crops which will produce the most income. As a result, a lot of current farmland is monocropped - used to grow single products. Examples are berries, which grow well in our naturally acid soil. A large part of the Whatcom berry harvest is exported outside the state (our farmers provide 65 percent of the raspberries consumed in the US). Every acre used to grow food to ship outside the county means an acre of food which needs to be imported to feed ourselves. Since different crops have different values, how would we convince farmers to grow the variety of foods we need to fulfill our nutritional needs instead of the crops for which they can get the most income per acre? Also, not all farmland is suited for growing all crops.
Transitioning to a local food economy will take years at best, and I've only just scratched the surface of the issues. Yet I think there are a lot of signs across the country, and especially here in Whatcom County, that having access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is a priority for growing numbers of families. Farmers markets, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, organic foods, grassfed livestock - the demand is quickly increasing. As we begin to care more about what we put in our mouths, the economy will shift to meet that demand.
Will we ever feed Whatcom County from Whatcom County farms? It's really up to you.
SUMMER HARVEST HASH
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1 pound ground beef, grassfed (Second Wind Farm, Everson)
1 small smoked cayenne pepper, minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
2 teaspoons salt, split
2 small or one medium onion (Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead)
2 fresh garlic (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
2 medium carrots, diced in 1/2 inch pieces (Terra Verde Farm, Everson)
3/4 pound fingerling potatoes, cut in half (home garden, Lummi Island)
1/2 pound rainbow chard, coarsely chopped, including stems (home garden, Lummi Island)
1 teaspoon fresh basil, minced
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the ground beef, 1 teaspoon salt, and the smoked pepper, and cook until meat is well browned. Remove the mixture from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
In the same pan, add the onions and saute until just starting to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute or so. Add the carrots and potatoes, and cook until softened, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the meat back to the pan and mix in the chard, basil, and vinegar. Continue cooking until chard is wilted and meat is heated through.
Serving Suggestions: Top with sour cream or grated cheese. Instead of using ground beef, top each serving with an over easy fried egg.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com