Phases and Findings

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Phases of the Study:

First Phase – We worked with local stakeholders to identify a diverse set of small and medium-sized county farms, including multi-generational and new farms, conventional and organic farms, and a range of operation and product types. Initially, 135 farmers throughout Snohomish, Whatcom, and San Juan counties were identified and invited to participate in the study. Some could not be reached, and a few declined; others were excluded due to their having similar types of operations. In all, 22 farmers from Whatcom County, 7 from Snohomish County, and 16 from San Juan County participated in the study.

Second Phase – We researched and developed four threat scenarios for regional small and medium-sized farms – seasonal flooding, climate change, fossil fuel spikes, and urban encroachment. Each scenario described a likely event in the future. The scenarios highlighted possible impacts on Northwest Washington agriculture, using past events, published projections, and publicly available information. Colleagues, partners, and experts involved in this information-gathering and fact-checking phase included WSU extension personnel, agricultural resource committees, disaster management authorities, academic faculty and research scholars, and public works agencies – all reviewed the scenarios for plausibility and accuracy.

After developing the scenarios and adapting each to the three specific counties, we invited the farmers to a series of “farm resilience” workshops designed to discuss the threats and responses. We held one workshop in each county during February and March of 2010. At the workshops, farmers discussed how vulnerable local small and medium-sized farms were to each scenario and what strategies they had used to reduce the impact of these threats. Some farmers even talked about ways they had or could capitalize on the threats presented. A professional facilitator, contracted outside the Resilience Institute, facilitated the workshops.

Following a number of workshops, we reviewed the tape-recorded workshop discussions, looking for strategies or strategic themes that farmers identified as being useful across multiple threat scenarios. Some strategies — whether they were business-oriented, political, technical, or community-oriented – appeared repeatedly in discussions and seemed to be strategies for learning, adapting, and strengthening farm flexibility to a wide range of farm threats. These we labeled as resilience strategies.

Some Findings:
The following are some of our findings based on the workshops.

  • The workshops highlighted both threats to small farm viability and current strategies for enhancing resilience. At the farm level, threats related to labor issues and overreliance on energy inputs, and lack of available time. Farm-level resilience strategies nearly everyone highlighted included being flexible, maintaining access to land, and effectively managing relationships with neighbors, customers, and landowners. Other resilience forces operated at the farm network level – where many growers utilized co-operatives or informal support, designed novel marketing schemes, or worked with advocacy groups as tools to address the threats of farmland loss and negative public perceptions.  At the policy level, regulations that threatened farm viability had to do with wetland buffers, water rights, manure application and nuisance ordinances, and program reporting requirements.
  • Most importantly, it was clear that there was little, if any, policy-level support for farm resilience. Current U.S. government policies support price stability, especially for large farms, and assist when farms are not resilient in the face of extreme events. There seem to be relatively few tax credits, assistance programs, or other policy efforts that encourage agriculture sector resilience. This is unfortunate given the potentially large leadership role that small- and medium-sized farms can have in promoting resilience. Rather, many small farms seem to operate close to resilience thresholds that threaten long term viability of individual farms and regional agricultural systems. It also is clear that the “key experts” “or resource people” necessary to inform USDA and certain farm support organizations about the unique vulnerabilities and resiliency of farms are the farmers themselves.
  • The image below catalogs overarching threats to small farms at three levels – the farm, network, and policy levels. Notably, the broad threats to farming the farmers identified in the workshops were not necessarily those of the scenario narratives we initially developed. Rather, these initial scenarios served as catalysts that brought out persistent negative contexts in which farmers currently operate. These economic, social, and policy contexts threatened small farm viability.

Strategies

Third Phase -After identifying threats and resilience strategies that emerged from the three workshops, we invited the farmers to a culminating workshop in February 2011 where we presented our findings. In general, the farmers confirmed the accuracy of our findings, but also indicated where more nuance or depth needed to be added. The farmers were, in effect, confirming and verifying the results.

Following the culminating workshop, we worked with four workshop participants to produce a 2.5 minute film and a series of farmer interviewsexplaining threats to small- and medium-sized farming and how non-farming community members could support farm resilience. This short film will be aired on local television stations and serve as a platform for raising funds to produce a full-length documentary on small farm resilience. Also, we encourage the farmers themselves to make use of the film, as they see fit.