Sustainable Agriculture: What it means to us

Creating a food system that supports human well-being and ecosystem health.
September 21, 2018

We believe a sustainable food system is a holistic food system — one in which food production, human well being, and ecosystem health are all in balance. Because agriculture is a part of our heritage here in the Pacific Northwest, it is easy for us to visualize the entire lifecycle of how food is produced, processed, packaged, labeled, distributed, marketed, consumed, and disposed of. Food production is influenced by (and has impacts on) climate, water, social justice, and the ecosystems that sustain all life.

In Whatcom County, RE Sources and our partners are working toward a balanced, sustainable food system built on principles that further the ecological, social, and economic values of our community. For the past three decades, we have worked to support our community to create a food system that:

  • Stewards natural resources in a way that maintains and enhances them for future generations,
  • Supports the health and well-being of farmers, farmworkers, and community members,
  • Plans for resiliency through myriad challenges, from increased drought conditions with climate change to local population growth to shifting pressures on land use.

We work within seven key areas to support an enduring, healthy, equitable food system in Whatcom County:

  1. Clean and plentiful water for people, farms, and fish
  2. Just and equitable working conditions
  3. Preserving farmland and soil quality
  4. Working collaboratively for lasting solutions
  5. Sustainable farming practices
  6. Localized food production
  7. Reducing and recycling food waste

Our vision

Too often our community is presented with a false choice between economic stability and environmental protection — in reality, the two are intertwined. Hyper-focusing on our differences of opinion and viewpoints is causing widening division in our communities. Hatred, fear, and disregard of those who are different is harmful to our community and diminishes our ability to face social justice and climate change challenges locally and nationally.

RE Sources is committed to holding respectful conversations, seeking collaborative solutions, and partnering with stakeholders representing a broad array of interests and views to find common solutions.

We are reaching across the county to listen and build partnerships with other groups that are committed to making Whatcom County a shining example of how to create a just, coordinated and thriving local food system. We work together because we all agree on this one thing: healthy people, clean water, and economic prosperity are inseparable. RE Sources is part of several collaborations, including:

Whatcom Food Network. We serve on the Whatcom Food Network (WFN) Steering Committee to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate in support of a thriving local food system. We ensure protection of water and land, and that climate change impacts are represented in this work as we can’t have a thriving food system without clean and plentiful water, farmland, and productive soil. . We worked alongside the WFN to get policies in the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan update to create a food system plan for Whatcom County.

Tenmile Clean Water Project. Over a decade ago, we helped launch the Tenmile Clean Water Project, a citizen group who adopted their own watershed to improve water quality in rural Whatcom County. We continue to be a member of this citizen-led effort to involve rural property owners in taking action to protect and improve their watershed. One key member of the Tenmile Clean Water Project is the Whatcom Conservation District. We support their work to address water quality impacts by farms of all sizes, including smaller hobby livestock farms. Monitoring water quality using methods based in sound science is the best way to track the success of regulatory and voluntary efforts.

Portage Bay Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee. Our work on a sustainable food system is also focused on ensuring thriving recreational, commercial and ceremonial shellfish harvesting. As a member of the Portage Bay Shellfish District Advisory Committee, we work alongside farmers, tribes and concerned citizens to advise the County Council on actions and operations relating to the restoration of water quality in the Portage Bay watershed.

Environmental Caucus to the WRIA 1 Planning Unit. RE Sources is part of the Environmental Caucus, which represents environmental interests on the WRIA 1 (Nooksack Watershed) Planning Unit. The WRIA-1 Planning Unit is the multi-stakeholder committee tasked with creating and implementing the county’s Watershed Management Plan, which focuses on ensuring a sustainable water supply and restoring streamflows and salmon populations to the Nooksack watershed.

Agriculture stakeholder groups. RE Sources collaborates with members of the local agricultural community, from addressing water supply issues in Nooksack Watershed, to water quality sampling, from preventing urban sprawl into agricultural zones to enhancing lowland agricultural streams and riverbanks. We have also been involved in regional cooperative efforts to preserve and enhance agricultural lands and rural communities, and to identify threats to those values and the quality of life in our state.

Clean water is the foundation of our economy, the health of our communities, and our way of life. But in Whatcom County, our streams and bays are in trouble. High levels of fecal coliform bacteria from manure and septic systems, stream temperatures lethal for salmon, and toxic contaminants threaten public health, salmon populations, and the local economy. Sprawling development is destroying wetlands and waterfront habitats. Polluted stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, and pesticides and fertilizers also contaminate nearby water bodies.

What’s more, the Nooksack River system’s water cycle is out of balance. There is not enough water in many of our local streams at key times of the year to support salmon populations essential to the Salish Sea food chain (including endangered orcas), the fishing sector, and to honor Tribal treaty rights. In the winter, streams flow rapidly with massive amounts of water — causing flooding and erosion of the land, and washing away or smothering salmon eggs and juveniles in sediment. Straightening of river banks, lack of native vegetation along rivers, and the loss of wetlands have caused this to happen.

Wetlands play a vital role in holding water on land during the wet season and slowly releasing water to the aquifer and streams during the dry season. The severity and frequency of drought is expected to increase as a result of climate change, and we currently have very limited plans in place for dealing with how this will affect water usage in increasingly dry summers — when people, farms, and salmon need water the most. It is critically important that we plan today for tomorrow so our grandkids don’t inherit a future of water shortages, contaminated rivers, failing crops, and unsafe drinking water.

To sustain enough clean water to support people and ecosystems, we inform the public, work with municipalities, and advocate for smart policies and county-wide planning.

Read more about our work to address water supply issues. 

Farmworkers are the cornerstone of the local food systems. Yet sadly, the 2+ million farmworkers in our country often receive unfair treatment — lacking basic rights, facing exploitation, and living in fear of retaliation for reporting abuses. The national immigration system is outdated and nonsensical, labor laws are discriminatory and often ineffectively enforced, and some farms engage in illegal or inhumane labor practices. In one of the nation’s most hazardous industries, farmworkers frequently have limited access to healthcare, work long hours in harsh conditions, and don’t have basic benefits such as sick leave or workers’ compensation. Many farmers in Whatcom and Skagit Counties work to create a safe and fair working conditions for their employees, and we applaud their efforts.

We believe that a sustainable food system relies on just treatment of workers at every level, including farmworkers. Committing to social justice in our food production is a moral imperative and key ingredient to achieving a balanced, sustainable food system. RE Sources prioritizes this commitment in three key ways:

  • Stand in solidarity with local causes for farmworker advocacy.
    Partnering with organizations like Community to Community Development, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and Front and Centered, RE Sources strongly believes in supporting and following the leadership of farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, including wages, health and safety, and access to justice through advocacy work.
  • Make visible the connections between pollution and frontline communities.
    RE Sources works to identify opportunities to address poor working conditions for farmworkers which are exacerbated by drought and pesticide exposure. The health of people most impacted by pollution and the health of our ecosystems cannot be separated.
  • Make our work more impactful by amplifying the voices of and standing in solidarity with frontline communities.
    We acknowledge that institutions and past policies have disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color. As an organization and community we need to build trust and follow the leadership of frontline communities. RE Sources is committed to making decisions and undertaking actions guided by racial and economic equity analysis.

Whatcom County’s population is expected to grow by 75,000 by 2040. Without proper foresight, coordination, or funding to plan well for this growth, our county’s farmland risks being overtaken by urban sprawl. And although soil health is key to a sustainable food system, current industrial farming practices frequently cause depletion of soil fertility, topsoil loss from erosion, and poor drought resistance.

Creating and protecting sustainable food production means making sure there is land available for farming well into the future. RE Sources works to:

  • Advocate for policies that protect farmland at the state and local levels.
    RE Sources has worked with the community and decision makers to incorporate stronger agricultural lands protection into the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. The Comp Plan informs regulatory policy, budget decisions, and development standards for local government on a 20-year planning horizon and determines how and where our county will direct growth into the future. Read more about our work on the Comp Plan.
  • Rally public support for land-use decisions that preserve land for agriculture.
    RE Sources has long been a champion of preserving local agriculture and family farms. We worked to prevent urban sprawl into agricultural zones by advocating for limits to Urban Growth Areas, which draw the boundaries for growth and development into farmlands. We also pushed for protecting and enhancing the amount of land available for farming by advocating for a countywide Density Credit program, allowing rural development rights to be purchased to allow for more density in urban areas. Additionally, RE Sources supported the creation of Whatcom County’s Purchase of Development Rights program in 2001, which has protected roughly 900 acres of farmland since its creation.

Read more about RE Sources’ work to move development away from farmland, and protect Whatcom farmlands from urban sprawl.

RE Sources supports the growing movement of small-scale, organic farms in Whatcom County. These farmers are models of practices that are in line with natural systems, support soil health and water quality, and are less carbon-intensive. We are committed to ensuring these local farms have the water, healthy land, biodiversity, and patronage they need in order to thrive. We do so by advocating for policies at the county and state levels, and by supporting local initiatives that strengthen these values and protect the resources that small farms depend on.

We also teach our community about natural cycles, healthy food production, and resource management through our RE Patch Community Garden behind The RE Store, and through our Educating for the Environment program. We demonstrate and teach workshops on organic backyard gardening, composting, rainwater harvesting, mushroom growing, and native plant cultivation and use.

Industrialized agriculture has come to rely on fossil fuels for synthetic fertilizers, farm machinery, and transportation. As a result, food prices are destined to increase with the inevitable rise in oil prices due to peak oil. Furthermore, our planet is warming at an alarming rate that scientists predict will make the environment uninhabitable for future generations.

Fortunately, the local food movement has been gaining traction across the country in recent years as a way for consumers to reduce their environmental impact. As people become aware of how a food’s carbon footprint relates to the distance it travels from farm to plate, farmers markets, produce stands, co-ops, and buy-local campaigns have become more popular. Purchasing locally produced food equates to fewer fossil fuels used for transportation and fewer carbon emissions, and also boosts our local economy, increases community connection, and builds self-reliance.

RE Sources supports and partners with businesses and organizations that make buying local food possible, like Community Food Co-ops, Bellingham Farmers Market, Sustainable Connections, Whatcom Food Network, Whatcom Farm to School, and hundreds of independently owned and sustainably operated restaurants and food businesses.

We waste a staggering amount of food in this country. The average American throws away about a pound of food per day. More than 30 percent of all food available for consumption — 60 million tons (or $160 billion worth) — is tossed annually. The environmental cost of that wasted food equates to close to 30 million acres of land, 4.2 trillion gallons of water, and nearly 2 billion pounds of fertilizer.

And 20 percent of landfill mass is made up of food waste. Yet shockingly, one in ten people around the world, or one in eight Americans struggle with hunger.

Food waste reduction and management is key to a sustainable food system. RE Sources is committed to teaching our communities why and how to reduce, sort, and compost food waste.

We provide free workshops to students of all ages and community groups on how our waste management system works, how much food waste is filling up our landfills, and how we can turn the problem into a solution. We help people recognize the ecological footprint of food, reduce their waste, and compost their food scraps. Action projects and goal-setting ensures that what is learned in the workshops is applied to everyday life.

We also support Whatcom County Schools in setting and achieving waste reduction and recovery goals and provide resources and training to administrators and custodial staff.

Read more about RE Sources’ Educating for the Environment waste education work.

(Photo by Alan Fritzberg)