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Guest commentary response: Whatcom farmers already sound stewards of water

Usage tax on farmers no solution to water issues

Chickens roam a pasture at a farm outside Bellingham. The Whatcom Conservation District
Chickens roam a pasture at a farm outside Bellingham. A tax on farmers will provide no solution to water issues in Whatcom County, says guest writer Steve Groen. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Steve Groen Guest Writer

As a lifelong, multi-generational Whatcom County farmer, I cannot help but respond to Eric Hirst’s opinions (CDN, Feb. 14, 2024) about a water-use tax on local farmers.

It’s no doubt water is a finite resource and the climate is changing, and water availability and quantity are paramount to the survival of our farms, wildlife and our communities. Eric’s opinions are well-intentioned, but won’t solve these issues. 

Smart water use critical for farms

Best management practices require farmers to practice strict, technologically up-to-date water conservation; doing anything less is financial suicide. Water comes at an extreme cost; overwatering and untimely applications cause plant disease, pestiferous insect population explosions, costly labor expenses, high energy costs, degraded fruit and vegetable quality, all of which will result in losing markets. Mr. Hirst should probably educate himself about these types of agronomic practices, and how they relate to water conservation.

To suggest “switching from water-intensive crops to those that require less water” is a simplistic approach to an economically complex, multigenerational and market-driven process. Farming is likely the most capital-intensive enterprise business in existence. 

Farms mostly evolve over generations, and it’s highly unlikely a start-up farmer will survive the continuous assaults of Washington state policies and taxes. Eric’s proposal of another tax would be just another nail in the coffin of the existence of farmers. New taxes will not save orca or salmon.

Farmlands must remain productive

Fallowing farmland that costs a minimum of $20,000 an acre without annual crop income is unfathomable. Any farmer who has not, or will not, practice regenerative soil health practices is no longer in business. A farmer has no ability to turn off his property taxes or his land payments, not to mention the risk of losing market share of valuable produce to out-of-state competitors. Growing a crop that requires less water, such as wheat, will never support these land values, driven mostly by urban sprawl and development.

Moving farmers off streams to groundwater sources has been happening for decades. The roadblocks to this practice are placed by the state Department of Ecology, and complicated by tribal issues. In the Bertrand Creek watershed, conservation management is an international issue as most of the watershed is located in British Columbia.

The state system is broken, common sense does not prevail, and the Inslee administration is hostile to farmers, as evidenced by his introduction of HB 1838, which would have required farmers to maintain stream and ditch bank riparian buffers up to 250 feet, without fair compensation. After this failed, the House Democrats reintroduced a similar failed bill. 

The statement that adjudication will limit future water use for agriculture is a presumption made before a court ruling — it’s likely, but the statement reflects what seems to be the majority opinion of the populace without any consideration of the facts, and could be the final death-blow to multigenerational Western Washington farms. Farmers will have a voice to defend their rights in court at great expense, but who can predict how the court will rule, and when?

We are environmental stewards

Farmers are conservationists. We control invasive plants. We provide migratory waterfowl habitat at the expense of our crops. We restore riparian areas. We are the last and only stand against urban sprawl. We pay a disproportionate amount of property taxes to the services we receive.

Take note: Migratory birds and predators live and feed in farm fields, not in canary grass and blackberry-infested green belts between housing developments. When we are gone, where will the wildlife live? 

Farmers understand and care about water, wildlife and environmental stewardship, anything less is a death sentence for us, when the farms are gone, the salmon, the wildlife, rural communities, the watersheds are doomed. A user tax will not save salmon. Farmers understand and embrace modern water-use technologies, regenerative practices and stewardship issues. It’s how we survive.

Steve Groen and his spouse Sheri own a multigenerational Whatcom County farm. He is a past board member of the Bertrand Watership Improvement District, Whatcom County FSA, Whatcom County Agricultural Advisory Committee and the Whatcom County Conservation District. Steve has worked for many years as crop adviser in Washington, Oregon and Wisconsin.

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