Our food is at risk

State policies are making it too hard to farm

The term “resilience” describes farmers overall, and Whatcom’s family farmers certainly display that characteristic. In 2023, we saw a continuing return to some normalcy after the disruptions and uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Berries continue to be harvested, cows continue to be milked, beef cattle are raised, and seed potatoes are grown and distributed. Our smaller farms continue to serve a growing market for locally grown food. That’s all good.

However, the story of potato farmer Jeff Bedlington and his wife, Diana, shows the other side of family farming today. The Bedlingtons’ third-generation family farm grew specialty seed potatoes on 500 acres of farmland, serving some of the same customers Jeff Bedlington’s grandfather served in the 1950s and ’60s. A toddler grandson loves his John Deere tractor, and the Bedlingtons envisioned the fifth generation taking over. But it was not to be.

This year, the Bedlingtons pulled the plug on their farm. It seemed their only other solution was to double their acreage and significantly invest in other efficiencies, such as bigger equipment, to cover the ever-increasing costs of farming. The uncertainty of water rights — of being able to irrigate their crops — proved to be the final straw.In 2024, all water rights holders in Whatcom County, including farmers, will have to defend in court their right to use water. Many are facing great uncertainty due to a broken promise by the Washington State Department of Ecology. They were told 30 years ago that if they had land without state-issued water rights, they could continue to farm and apply for the right to the water, and the state would eventually issue formal legal rights. But Ecology never did that. Now those farmers face fines of up to $10,000 per day for irrigating their own crops.

There is more than enough water in Whatcom County, provided we manage it well. Most farmers take irrigation water from large aquifers with plenty to supply their irrigation needs. 

Why is this now considered a problem? In recent years, state courts ruled that taking water from the ground equals taking water from streams. Because of that ruling, all users of groundwater will be sued in the proposed water rights adjudication in Whatcom County.

Our community is waking up to the reality of adjudication. More than 300 people attended information sessions in September and November hosted by local agriculture. Many realize that not only are farmers like the Bedlingtons at risk, but also nobody can be certain that the court will not disrupt their water. The solution is negotiating a reasonable settlement that allows the continued use of water and the protection of natural resources.

Water rights may be the biggest long-term threat to our family farmers, but other policies continue to make it harder to farm. Some state and environmental leaders continue to try to impose massive buffers on streams in farmland. If they succeed, an estimated 30% of productive agriculture land in Whatcom County will be lost, leaving the viability of farming very much in doubt.

Another ongoing concern is the continually increasing cost of labor. Overtime laws passed by the state are making our farmers far less competitive while taking much-needed income away from both domestic and guest farm workers.

There is encouragement. Reasonable tribal, environmental and legislative leaders have come together to propose voluntary buffers that will help salmon and protect farmland. Farm workers across our state are starting to speak out and protest the well-intended laws that end up hurting them.

For the future of our family farmers, citizens of all political persuasions need to understand the impacts of harmful policies — and then unite to do what is right to protect food and those who produce it.  

Fred Likkel is the executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers, which works to preserve the legacy and future of family farming in Whatcom County by unifying the farming community and building public support.