It takes a village to build a farm and keep it viable long-term. In 2015, Katie Pencke and Matthew McDermott founded Alluvial Farms. For over two years, the couple from Seattle and Michigan searched for and bid without success on land in hopes of realizing their dream to raise pastured pork and grow organic peas and barley to feed the hogs. “It’s such a big question: If your family doesn’t have 100 acres, how do you get onto land?” Pencke said in a 2018 Lynden Tribune article. Their persistence eventually paid off. In February 2018, with help from several agencies working together—Whatcom Land Trust, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Whatcom Conservation District (WCD)—the pair became proud family farmers and owners of 48 well-drained acres on Goodwin Road southeast of Everson. But that might have never been possible if it weren’t for the salmon-bearing stream—Dale Creek—that runs along the property’s northern border.
Collaborative Partnerships Balance Farmland and Habitat Protection
Dale Creek is a salmon-bearing stream—primarily of Coho salmon but also Chinook, char, steelhead and cutthroat. That fact meant that the land that was soon to be Alluvial
Farms was eligible to enroll in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a voluntary restoration program administered by WCD and FSA. CREP pays land owners an annual rental rate, the costs for planting and maintaining native trees and shrubs, in exchange for removing environmentally-sensitive land from farm production and establishing a protective buffer along fish-bearing creeks. The contract period lasts either 10 or 15 years. Enrollment in this program and the protection of this valuable resource were the crux that enabled the rest of the farm purchase move forward. Pencke and McDermott had been turned away by several banks. So many that they were able to win loan approval from USDA FSA acting as a bank of “last resort.” Before purchasing the land, WCD helped the pair by conducting a pre-purchase property assessment that looked at soils, critical areas and historical photos. WCD also developed a proposal for a CREP project, which would eventually plant about 10 acres along Dale Creek.
Whatcom Land Trust then provided Alluvial Farms with a three-year conservation loan to buy the land, with options to either pay back the loan in three years with 3% interest or record a conservation easement on the 10-acre riparian habitat area along Dale Creek that CREP is helping to restore. The conservation easement will keep the restored riparian buffer permanent, even after the CREP contract expires.
Alluvial Farms was given the equivalent of a bridge loan because of a $1.3 million grant of the Whatcom County Working Lands Conserving Watersheds Project. This program is aimed at preserving a long-term, viable agriculture industry by providing landowners financial incentives to keep their farms in production while also protecting the watershed.
“This is part of our Farming for Food & Wildlife program that seeks to balance farmland protection and habitat protection, which we believe are compatible and not mutually exclusive,” explains Whatcom Land Trust Executive Director Gabe Epperson.
WCD also helped Alluvial Farms develop a farm plan as part of the requirements for their conservation easement with Whatcom Land Trust.
Once the purchase was complete, Alluvial Farms hit the ground running. They established a 20 acre organic grain field that provides half the quantity needed to feed their pigs. More than a hundred Berkshire cross pigs are now raised annually outdoors on ten acres of organic pasture rotation and a heavy use area for winter rooting.
In 2020 they achieved Animal Welfare Approved status with help from A Greener World and have had their crops certified organic with Oregon Tilth. The pair also grows wine grapes and hemp for CBD self-care products.
To ensure their waste was properly managed, WCD assisted the pair with additional soil testing and the development of a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan that helped them receive funding for a now complete 2,500-square-foot aerated composting facility.
In spring 2020, thanks to WCD, the CREP program planted almost 5,000 native tree and shrub seedlings throughout 10.4 acres to create a forested habitat buffer along 3,237 feet of Dale Creek. Thankfully, that effort was not harmed during the recent flooding. “Our farm is high and dry so we were not impacted by flooding. Dale Creek did jump its banks directly below our farm, and flooded Mack Road and all the parcels between us and the Sumas River, however.”
It’s possible that the recent flooding may have helped a few adult salmon reach areas not previously accessible to them. “My son saw a full-sized spawning salmon in the creek this year in the days following the historic flooding,” adds Pencke. “Since we have been watching the creek here starting February 2018, we have never seen large adult spawning salmon in this part of the creek, though we have seen lots of small fish in the summer. Even now we are not sure how salmon could have accessed our portion of the creek due to downstream fish passage barriers.”
Penke and McDermott plan to support and encourage additional conservation and restoration efforts on a parcel across the creek from them, and seek additional help for a section just downstream from them where flooding and substantial property damage occurred this year.
“When you look across the whole landscape of the county and broader, preservation adds up and will ensure the next generation and thereafter have natural spaces that hold wildlife diversity,” says McDermott. “I hope this ends up being a model for other people.”
Alluvial Farms continues to grow their business and improve the functionality of the property. “We are currently building a house, a retail space and a 10,000 cubic foot capacity aerated composting facility,” explains Pencke. “We also started helping our contractor with CREP maintenance this year.”
The Alluvial Farms success story demonstrates that with creative partnerships and passionate landowners we can see the return of salmon, preservation of critical farmland, protection from flooding and a profitable farm business. We are thankful to be a part of this project and look forward to innovating with Alluvial Farms and others in the future.
By Lorraine Wilde and Aneka Sweeney