Congressman Kilmer hears from farmers during JeffCo visit

Posted 9/7/22

From getting food for the table, to a roof over their heads.

Local farmers raised a troublesome crop of issues during a recent roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer.

Kilmer, the 6th …

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Congressman Kilmer hears from farmers during JeffCo visit

Posted

From getting food for the table, to a roof over their heads.

Local farmers raised a troublesome crop of issues during a recent roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer.

Kilmer, the 6th District Democrat, made a whole day swing through Jefferson County during a visit late last month, which included a tour of sewer projects in Port Townsend and Port Hadlock, a stop at the main campus of Jefferson Healthcare to chat with staff and talk about the hospital’s new building project, and a meeting with Jefferson Land Trust to learn about the trust’s Chimacum Ridge acquisition efforts.

It was a packed day on Aug. 24, which wrapped up with a roundtable discussion with farmers gathered at Finnriver Farm.

The Chimacum roundtable, hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance, followed a tour of the nonprofit’s research farm.

Though the talk centered on what Congress should include in the next Farm Bill next year, other issues loomed large, including workforce housing, water supply, fair wages for farm workers, support of ag tourism, student loan forgiveness for farmers, and support for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) funding.

Kilmer said he was anxious to hear farmers’ concerns, and staff from the Organic Seed Alliance passed out sticky notes that attendees to the roundtable could post on large white sheets posted on the walls of the Finnriver hay barn.

“I’m here way more to listen than to talk,” Kilmer told the group of roughly three dozen.

He offered thanks, and then a quick assessment of his main charge in Congress.

“Thank you for being stewards of our environment. And thank you for being an important part of the economy,” he said.

“Making sure that every community in every zip code has economic opportunity is really what I focus on. And this industry is a big piece of that in rural America.”

Kilmer added that recent times have been stressful for many.

“I just want to acknowledge that these last few years have been the pits. Obviously, the pandemic has been tough on everybody,” Kilmer said. “And certainly as we saw the shutdown of restaurants, and are still seeing restaurants struggling to get back up on their feet, those who sell to restaurants have also born a substantial amount of cost there.”  

Kilmer recalled the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — “a pretty big deal” — and its measures to combat climate change.

“I know that the pandemic is not the only challenge that your industry has faced. I know that there’s been challenges related to workforce shortages; I know that there’s been issues related to supply chain that have been significant,” Kilmer said.

But he added that the Inflation Reduction Act was the most significant federal effort to address the climate crisis in the nation’s history.

“That’s actually important. It’s important to recognize that law acknowledges your industry is part of the solution. That we look at sustainable farming practices as we look at efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Kilmer said. “We have to look at every sector of the economy and that the ag industry can be an important part of that process.”

The new law includes funding for rural communities to invest in energy production, and Kilmer said there was also new funding for farmers facing economic distress.

Kilmer said he wanted to know the priorities of local farmers as talk of the Farm Bill gets underway.

But first, there was something more immediate.

“I’d also frankly just love to hear how things are going. What’s keeping you up at night. What challenges you are concerned about,” Kilmer explained.  

Turns out, there were plenty.

John Bellow, owner of SpringRain Farm & Orchard in Chimacum, said rising costs were changing what the farm could offer its customers.

“The cost of inputs for our farm operation is killing us. We were responding to it by raising our prices and contributing to everybody’s perception of inflation,” Bellow said.

The cost of organic poultry feed is up over 20 percent since January, he added. 

“So the price of our chicken has gone up,” Bellow said.

“It’s more problematic with a specialty product like turkeys,” he noted. “Now that we can no longer be profitable at $9 a pound for organic turkey, we don’t produce them anymore. 

“I don’t know that there’s much of a solution to that,” Bellow continued. “The cost of fuel to drive  what I assume every farm drives is a 20-year-old delivery truck is problematic. I think I’m putting $150 into my delivery truck every two weeks.”

Kilmer said there was already a discussion around priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill, consistent with the Biden administration’s priorities.

“Obviously there’s been a consistent effort to strengthen nutrition assistance programs, support for family farms,” Kilmer said. “The Organic Seed Alliance has done an amazing job of making sure that the needs of small family farms are represented in those discussions on the farm bill. Climate and conservation programs are a big priority for this administration.” 

Kilmer said he wanted to focus his efforts on strengthening organic farming and addressing everything from technical assistance to mentorship assistance to financial assistance to farmers.

Talk of the Farm Bill brought Bellow back to the necessities.

He suggested the Farm Bill include support for electrification of farm vehicles.

“Farmers themselves will be the last people to ever get there. There’s a reason why we drive 20-year-old delivery trucks and not fancy, brand-new, fuel efficient vehicles,” he said.

“I’m faced with wanting to get a new delivery truck because I can no longer fit all the produce and food that we’re selling each week into my existing delivery truck. I have to make choices every week about what we’re going to put in it; what we’re going to leave behind,” Bellow said.

But if he buys a bigger vehicle, Bellow said he would have to sink money into a fossil-fuel burning vehicle.

“If I do that, I’ll have that vehicle for the next 15 years. And it’s a very poor choice, and yet there’s no support that would allow me to invest in the conversion to an electric vehicle,” he told Kilmer.

Electric vehicles are a good fit for farms, he added. 

“That’s an ideal thing for a farm. I don’t need to go 300 miles with my vehicle between charging. I might have to drive 80 or 90 miles between charging. A commercial vehicle is very well suited to be electrified,” he added. “It’s already built to carry the weight of that onboard battery system.”

David Engle, the former superintendent of the Chimacum School District, told  Kilmer about his lifelong interest in children learning where food comes from.

“It seems really basic,” Engle said.

He recalled from his teaching days the fifth-grade students who didn’t understand that food came from the soil. 

“Just like I had kids who didn’t understand what a sleeping bag was and that there was such a thing as wilderness,” Engle added.

School gardens should be incorporated into their educational programs, he said,  and noted that it’s in the best interest of communities to feed their children the best high-quality food they have.

“There’s a lot of self-interest there. It’s not a noble gesture. It’s important,” Engle said.

The design of Salish Coast Elementary incorporated a production garden into the school’s food service and place-based learning programs.

Having staff and other resources is essential to making such programs successful, Engle said.

“It needs to become a permanent feature of what education looks like for the 21st century,” he added. “Every student needs to know why it’s important that high quality food is available.”

Laurie McKenzie, a vegetable breeder and manager of the Organic Seed Alliance’s research farm in Chimacum, agreed.

She said she was raising her 3 ½ year old on the farm, and added, “the importance of good food, as a mother, is foundational.”

McKenzie recalled taking rainbow carrots to Salish Coast Elementary, and a visit to fourth-graders to talk about breeding vegetables and how to grow seed. 

“As a plant breeder myself, who didn’t even know that plant breeding was a thing until I was in grad school basically, to have gone to this fourth-grade class and then in the class, say, ‘Who feels like a plant breeder?’ and all the kids are like, ‘I do!’”

Answering Kilmer’s earlier question, McKenzie said one of the things that kept her up at night was farmers’ access to land.

“I have friends who would love to be farmers in this area and absolutely have no path forward in owning or leasing land that is viable farmland,” she said.

“I know that’s true everywhere. It’s especially true here,” McKenzie said. “I bought a 5-acre property with my husband five years ago. We could sell it for twice what we bought it for, at least, right now.”

“Land prices this year have skyrocketed,” she said.

Another young farmer agreed, saying she had been in farming for a decade but her income in agriculture was not enough to qualify for a bank loan.

Low margins, and low pay were other crucial issues.

Kilmer lent a sympathetic ear, and acknowledged the farmers’ needs for more support.

After the close of the session, Kilmer got a feel for farming from the seat of  a John Deere tractor.

He said it was his first time driving one. 

McKenzie, from the Organic Seed Alliance, gave the congressman a few minutes of instruction; forward, neutral, reverse. County Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour watched with a smile.

“What kind of insurance do you have on this thing,” one of Kilmer’s aides asked.

“Oh dear God,” he said before the tractor lurched forward.

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