Feeding communities is particularly challenging in this time of systemic upheaval, climate change and uncertainty. Consumers, farmers, policy makers and Indigenous stewards of San Juan County’s food system are relying on connections to meet these challenges — connections to the land, and to each other.
To that end, Washington State University San Juan Islands Extension Director Brook Brouwer on March 4 welcomed community members from across the Salish Sea and beyond to the 10th annual San Juan Islands Agricultural Summit.
The theme of this year’s event, held on Lopez Island, was “Building Infrastructure for Change.”
“We’re facing climate change, emerging war in Europe, systemic racism,” said Brouwer. “We’ve spent the past two years in a pandemic, navigating loss and disconnection, riding waves of hope and disappointment … and I might add, riding dysfunctional ferries.”
Designed to support growth for the agricultural community, the summit has always been open to everyone, from consumers to policy makers, with the goal of sustaining the food systems that feed everyone.
“When I think about planning for the unknown, I think about diversity,” said Brouwer. “I studied plant breeding, and one of the takeaways was simple: There’s strength in diversity — resistance to pests and disease and weather. If we look at ecosystems and community, there’s strength in connection.”
Blazing heat, rivers of rain — and new practices
Extreme weather events of the past year — from 100-degree heat in June to November’s “atmospheric river” — on top of pandemic-induced restrictions and shortages have tested the limits of our shared food system.
At S&S Homestead Farm on Lopez Island, partners Henning Sehmsdorf and Elizabeth Simpson raise sheep and cattle biodynamically. This method involves feeding their cows and sheep on pasture, and has resulted in healthier soils. The amount of organic matter in their fields, which is one important way soil health is measured, has increased from 3–4 inches to 15–18 inches.
Sehmsdorf believes in his low-input farming methods for the health of the animals, the soil and the community. But there’s isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to adapting these tried-and-true methods to unpredictable challenges.
“For 50 years we’ve wintered animals outside, until this year,” said Sehmsdorf. To adapt to the region’s unprecedented rain year, he said, “We did something we’ve never done before — we housed our sheep inside and fed them there.”
He would have moved the cattle under cover too, but there wasn’t enough room. Due to pandemic restrictions, Sehmsdorf hadn’t been able to access the county’s mobile butchering unit. When winter arrived, he found himself with three dozen sheep instead of his usual six or seven.
Angie Shephard shared that her family’s farm on San Juan Island is “really productive in the summertime, but very wet in the winter.” Their challenge, like Sehmsdorf’s, was providing animals with sanitary, sheltered space during the winter.
“Our sheep needed to be in the barn at least three months of the year, sometimes longer,” said Shephard. “This fall was so wet, they had to come in earlier.”
“There are absolutely physical infrastructure needs — that’s one of the barriers that comes up in needs assessments of San Juan County’s agriculture,” said Brouwer. This includes on-farm buildings like barns and processing facilities, as well as waste and water systems.
The summit connected farmers with individuals and organizations that work to make sustainable infrastructure more accessible.
Through its Farm Cost Share Program, the San Juan Conservation District equips land managers in their ever-changing environments with the funding, research and technical assistance they need to build resilient infrastructure and keep their operations afloat.
The Shephards worked with SJCD to build a new waste storage and compost facility, which helped the family move manure out of the barn and create a healthier environment for their animals.
“We do this parcel by parcel, landowner by landowner. Everybody has a different operation, everybody has a different goal,” said Matt Claussen, SJCD Natural Resource Planner, during a summit session. “That is really the benefit of connecting the agricultural community, and this particular summit, because you get a chance to meet and talk with other people and see different ideas.”
Resilience in the pandemic
Infrastructure for change, said Brouwer, is as much about shelters and compost facilities as it is about connections. The summit serves to connect people and organizations at various points in the food system, so they can connect island families with island-grown food.
It’s these connections that, in the face of pandemic-induced market and supply chain disruptions, have sustained communities by funneling money into local farms and food shares. (Also read “Local food banks have been addressing a hunger crisis — even before COVID,” Salish Current, Feb. 5, 2021.)
“I was on the board for the San Juan Island Food Hub, and we made a very quick pivot from wholesale to retail,” said Roger Ellison, Lopez Island Grange. “Suddenly we had a demand for people to pick up produce in a safe way, so we packaged bags and handed them to our customers through the windows of the cars.”
Similarly, the Lopez Food Share “leapt into action and became very devoted to the idea of sourcing as much food from Lopez as possible, and regionally,” said Christine Langley, Lopez Harvest. “So instead of selling to the restaurants, I was able to switch over and start selling to the food share.”
Langley has provided island grocery stores and restaurants with fresh produce for more than 20 years. At the summit, farmers and food businesses swapped stories and ideas as they weighed options for the coming growing season.
“Certainly there was a lot of funding available to get some of these things going,” said Langley, which may change “as some of those supports fall away.”
Sehmsdorf is working toward a food system in which “not just people with deep pockets, but everybody has access to nutritionally whole, fresh produce.”
As the agricultural community reckons with systemic upheaval on multiple fronts, it’s also realizing the need for deeper connection to the land and a deeper responsibility to the land’s original stewards.
“I don’t think there’s a single one of us that is untouched by the grief of disconnection,” said summit keynote speaker Rowen White, a seedkeeper and farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne in present-day southwestern Quebec.
White’s work as an activist for indigenous seed and food sovereignty centers on seed rematriation, a growing movement to return indigenous seeds once removed from their ancestral grounds. These seeds, which have since been stored in public institutions, museums, seed banks, universities and individual collections, are returned to their places and communities of origin where they are used to restore food sovereignty for Indigenous families.
“This journey that many of us Indigenous peoples are on, and that perhaps many of you are on, is to restore our landscape. There is a cultural element to the work that we do … that is inextricable from the very practical, hands-on aspects of growing food,” White said.
Journey to restoration
Descendants of this region’s Indigenous peoples, as well as its Euro-American settlers, are on a similar journey.
At the summit, attendees gathered with members of the Samish Nation, Coast Salish Youth Stewardship Corps and Tulalip Tribes to discuss the importance of restoring traditional foodways around the Salish Sea.
Coast Salish relationships to the land extend back thousands of years, sustaining the health and culture of generations since time immemorial. At the summit, one member of the Samish Nation listed several traditional uses for ocean spray, in Samish, q’ets’ilhch, and described the traditional practice of controlled annual burning to cultivate essential food sources like camas, qwlhól, and bracken fern, seqá:n.
This ancestral knowledge is key to building equally resilient and equitable food systems today. But after hundreds of years of genocide, cultural oppression and disconnection, gaps in that knowledge lie open, as one attendee said, like wounds.
At the summit, Andrew Gobin, Environmental Scientist with the Tulalip Tribes, spoke about how agriculture has been a mechanism of colonization in the United States, where legislation has historically prevented Indigenous people from owning land.
“Trying to make farmers out of everyone was just another way to remove us from the land,” said Gobin.
European landownership structures disconnected Coast Salish people from essential sources of food, sustenance and culture and from each other.
Moving forward, together
After such atrocities, Caitlin Leck “can’t begin to realize what it would take to accept the invitation to speak.” Leck, who coordinates the San Juan County Food System Team, helped facilitate the discussion. She emphasized that positive allyship starts with conversations like these — people have to show up.
“It’s really important to keep these conversations going, with recognition that any type of cross-cultural connection is going to take time and relationship-building,” said Brouwer. “This connection is not only historic but current” and has implications for larger conversations about land management and food production.
“We’re here to share what we know, and you share what you know, so that we can fill in these gaps,” said Sam Barr, member of the Samish Nation and co-director of the Coast Salish Youth Stewardship Corps.
Filling in the gaps, said one Samish elder, means creating space to grow and nurture indigenous plants and ecosystems — whether you’re a farmer, a business owner, or homeowner.
“This is how we survive,” said Leck. “This is how we move forward together.”
After ten years of summits, Brouwer said he’s observed a clear cumulative impact.
In 2020, attendance at the summit jumped to 230, from 160 in 2019. The same year, 74% of attendees made a change to their food or farming business based on something they’d learned at the summit.
“If we can help people make changes in the way they operate or relate to one another, we’ve had success,” said Brouwer. “And that’s something we’ve definitely seen.”
“We’re just trying to keep moving the food system forward, and doing that through education and connection.”
— Reported by Sarah Reeves
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