El Nino, a no-show so far, losing steam

The weather has yet to be influenced this winter by a warmer Pacific Ocean and likely won’t be impacted in a major way, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.

Federal climatologists reduced the chances that an El Nino will form in January or February to 82 percent, down from 96 percent a month ago. If an El Nino does occur, it will be weak, according to NOAA.

“Significant global impacts are not anticipated during the remainder of the winter, even if conditions were to form,” the agency stated, in its monthly outlook on sea-surface temperatures along the equator.

The temperatures guide seasonal forecasts. For months, a warmer-than-average ocean between Ecuador and Indonesia has led climatologists to predict odds are high the Northwest will have a mild winter. In some past El Nino winters, snowpacks that supply summer irrigation have been smaller than normal. Washington’s “snow drought” in 2015 was during a strong El Nino.

This year, the warm ocean has not yet triggered the atmospheric conditions that eventually warm the northern tier of the U.S., according to NOAA. As a result, the sea-atmosphere system has remained neutral.

The sea and atmosphere are most likely to act together in late winter and early spring, according to NOAA, but by then the ocean may not be warm.

After months of warming, ocean-surface temperatures are cooling down toward neutral conditions.

The equatorial Pacific has cooled to 0.7 degree celsius above normal, down from about 1 degree above normal the month before. Climatologists classify temperatures within 0.5 degree celsius of normal as neutral.

By March, the chances an El Nino will prevail are 66 percent, down from 70 percent in last month’s outlook, NOAA forecasts.

In a 90-day period that ended Jan. 5, average temperatures in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Northern California were slightly above normal, except for the southeast corner of Oregon and the southern end of Idaho, where temperatures were slightly below normal, according to NOAA.

The region also received slightly less precipitation than normal.

NOAA was to issue a new three-month weather outlook Jan. 17.

Warm, dry winter predicted for Northwest

Odds are high that the Pacific Northwest will be warmer than average the next three months, and current drought conditions are expected to persist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said Dec. 20.

Temperatures in Oregon, Washington and Northern California have been generally above average recently. That trend is expected to continue in January, February and March as an El Nino forms, according to NOAA.

“Western snowpack is generally behind average, particularly the farther west you go,” NOAA climate scientist Deke Arndt said. “The Cascades have quite a bit less snow on them than is typical.”

NOAA updated its seasonal outlook for U.S. temperatures and precipitation. More than anywhere else in the Lower 48, the odds favor above-normal temperatures in Western Oregon and Western Washington, according to NOAA. Odds in the rest of the West also lean toward higher-than-usual temperatures.

The odds favor a drier-than-average winter in Oregon, Washington, Northern California and the Idaho Panhandle, with the rest of the West having equal chances of wet, dry or average precipitation.

Nearly 90 percent of Oregon and nearly 33 percent of Washington were in some stage of drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Dec. 20.

“Persistence (of drought conditions) is forecast for the Pacific Northwest,” NOAA meteorologist Brad Pugh said. “That’s related to the low snowpack currently over the Cascades and also the seasonal outlook for drier than normal conditions.”

In Oregon and Washington, snowpacks in the Cascades ranged Dec. 20 from 95 percent of normal near the Canadian border to 39 percent in northern Oregon, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Pugh said an El Nino has yet to influence the weather. Sea-surface temperatures have been above average for several weeks, but the warm ocean has yet to link up with the atmosphere to form an El Nino. “We haven’t seen that atmospheric response to the warmer than normal sea-surface temperatures,” he said.

Climatologists pegged the chances that a weak to moderate El Nino will form in the next month at 90 percent. An El Nino typically will have its greatest effect on Northwest winters after Jan. 1.

El Nino’s warm waters are along the equator. According to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska also are higher than average and resemble the mass of warm winter that contributed to the 2015 drought. Pugh said those warm waters did not factor into his forecast.

In a conference call with reporters, Arndt said global temperatures for the year will be the among the warmest, according to records that go back 139 years. “It is virtually certain that 2018 will go down in the record books as the fourth-warmest year,” he said.

Through November, 2018 has been the 16th warmest on record in the U.S., according to NOAA. November was cooler and wetter than average in the U.S., even though the West Coast was warm. California had its 10th warmest November on record, according to NOAA.

Voluntary plans in place to preserve farming in 27 Washington counties

Voluntary guidelines for protecting wetlands, wildlife habitat and other environmentally sensitive ground are now in place in the 27 Washington counties that opted into what’s billed as an incentive-based, farm-friendly option to the Growth Management Act.

The State Conservation Commission recently approved the last of the work plans submitted by counties. The plans are an alternative to county ordinances that could have imposed large, uniform vegetation buffers between farms and water.

Farmers can participate, or not, by conferring with conservation districts. Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said he hopes they will.

“This has the potential to provide a very long-lasting benefit to ag, while protecting the environment,” he said. “It could change the landscape forever.”

The Voluntary Stewardship Program has been about a dozen years in the making. It stems from the conflict that arose between agriculture and the 1990 GMA’s command that counties protect sensitive environmental areas.

Counties were required to adopt rules to comply with the law, and farmers in some counties faced losing the use of large chunks of their property to mandatory setbacks from water.

The Legislature in 2007 put a moratorium on new county restrictions and let farm groups, environmental organizations, counties and Native American tribes try to work out their differences. The talks led to lawmakers in 2011 giving counties the option of developing plans that seek to maintain or enhance agriculture, wetlands and habitat in their current condition. Twelve counties, despite urging from the Farm Bureau, opted to not participate.

The plans were years in the making. Instead of what farm groups deride as “big, dumb buffers,” the stewardship program relies on farmers working with conservation districts to protect watersheds.

The State Conservation Commission has presented a two-year, $9.9 million budget proposal to implement and monitor the plans.

“The real exciting part is these plans are truly non-regulatory,” Stuhlmiller said. “No farm can be forced to do anything.”

The voluntary program does not change other laws. If conditions degrade in a watershed, a county can ask state and federal agencies to crack down, according to state law.

The program, however, assures farmers that maintaining the environmental conditions that existed on July 22, 2011, are what’s expected of them.

“That is a big deal — to give ag that certainty,” Stuhlmiller said. “We’re going to show, ‘Hey, ag really does do good things.’ “

The counties that opted into the Voluntary Stewardship Program are: Adams, Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Columbia, Cowlitz, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Garfield, Grant, Grays Harbor, Kittitas, Lewis, Lincoln, Mason, Okanogan, Pacific, Pend Oreille, San Juan, Skagit, Spokane, Stevens, Thurston, Walla Walla, Whitman and Yakima.

USDA calls on poultry owners to ‘defend flock’

The USDA has started a campaign to remind poultry farmers to safeguard their flocks from infectious and fatal diseases.

Bird flu and virulent Newcastle disease are particularly worrisome. Bird flu continues to surface in the U.S., though not with the ferocity of the 2015 calamity.

Virulent Newcastle disease, similarly contiguous and deadly, has been found 176 times since May in Southern California, almost entirely in what the USDA calls “backyard exhibition chickens.”

The USDA’s new initiative, dubbed “Defend the Flock,” resembles two earlier campaigns to promote biosecurity, but has been broadened to apply to commercial and backyard poultry.

Foreign countries do not take lightly infectious diseases in non-commercial flocks. The U.S. poultry industry was quickly prohibited from many countries in late 2014 when a small backyard flock in Southern Oregon came down with highly pathogenic bird flu.

“While each of the previous campaigns were successful, by combining them and emphasizing shared responsibility, USDA will improve its ability to promote biosecurity and protect avian health across the country,” USDA Chief Veterinary Officer Jack Shere said in a written statement.

Highly pathogenic bird flu claimed more than 50 million chickens and turkeys in the U.S. in 2015. The disease killed few, but contaminated flocks were euthanized. The USDA reported that revenue from U.S. poultry exports declined by $1.3 billion from the year before.

The outbreak started in the Pacific Flyway, the migratory route over Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. The virus appeared in late 2014 in commercial poultry farms in British Columbia and then in a wild duck in Washington and then that backyard flock in Southern Oregon.

From there, bird flu hit commercial poultry barns in California and the Midwest. The panzootic, the animal equivalent of a pandemic, erupted into what the USDA called the worst animal-health disaster in U.S. history.

Migratory waterfowl spread the disease in their feces, making poultry kept outdoors particularly exposed. The outbreak was so devastating, however, because the virus got into barns holding tens of thousands of birds.

The virus clings to clothes and equipment and can be spread from barn to barn by workers, according to a report prepared for lawmakers by the Congressional Research Service. The report, citing USDA findings, said the virus also may have been moved about by rodents and small birds, and even the wind.

Low pathogenic bird flu, less contagious but just as fatal to flocks, most recently appeared in the U.S. in October in commercial turkey barns about 60 miles apart in Minnesota.

Globally, highly pathogenic bird flu has appeared in 68 countries and killed nearly 122.6 million birds since 2013, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. New outbreaks continue to be reported in Asia and Europe.

Virulent Newcastle disease, formerly known as exotic Newcastle disease, affects the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of poultry. “Virulent” is part of the disease’s name, and the word is apt, according to the USA. The disease strikes so quickly that many birds die without showing any signs of being sick.

USDA posts information online about safeguarding flocks at www.aphis.usda.gov/animalhealth/defendtheflock.

Small organic farmers will bear brunt of Washington fee hikes

Washington organic farmers and ranchers with modest sales likely will pay higher fees to have their products certified by the state Department of Agriculture beginning early next year.

The department says it spends more money evaluating organic producers than the current fees raise. The department proposes to close the gap with a rate structure that moves away from basing fees on gross sales.

Instead farms would pay the same first-time application and inspection fees, regardless of size. Large producers would still pay more because an annual fee to renew certification would be based on revenue.

But while most larger producers would see modest increases in fees, many small producers would pay nearly double,

The department said it evaluated 176 farms in 2017 with less than $15,000 in income from organic sales. In most cases, the farms paid the minimum fee of $220 for certification. Such farms will now pay a $375 inspection fee, plus a $137 renewal fee. The fee for first-time applicants for all farms would be $375. The application fee is now $250.

The department’s organic program supervisor, Brenda Book, said the new schedule will better reflect the time the agency spends certifying farms and processors.

“A small operation can be quite complicated and take a long time,” she said. “The reality is we don’t have a shorter or more abbreviated inspection we can do.”

The agriculture department certifies more than 1,100 organic producers in Washington. The voluntary program allows producers to market their products as certified organic.

The department hasn’t made a major restructuring of fees in more than 30 years. Along with new fees, the department proposes to adopt a new logo to affix to organic products. The department plans to replace the current logo that depicts George Washington with a design that features leaves.

Designing a schedule that bills each producer for the department’s exact costs would have been too complicated, Book said. “We want to focus on organic certification, not an administrative evaluation of fees,” she said.

The department checked 1,123 organic producers in 2017, according to an agency filing. Producers paid an average of $2,295 in fees, bringing into the department nearly $2.6 million. If the proposed fees had been in place, producers would have paid an average of $2,853, which totals $3.2 million.

The department will have two public hearings on the rates: 10 a.m. Nov. 28 in Olympia at the Natural Resources Building, conference room 259; 1111 Washington St. SE; and 1 p.m. Nov. 30 in Yakima at the department’s office, 21 North First Avenue.

Written Comments on the proposal are due by Nov. 30. To comment by mail, write to Henri Gonzales, Agency Rules Coordinator, P.O. Box 42560, Olympia, WA 98504-2560. Send email comments to wsdarulescomments@agr.wa.gov.

The department tentatively plans to have the new fees in place by Jan. 14.

Urban farmers make it work in residential neighborhood

LONGVIEW, Wash. — For more than 25 years, Scott and Dixie Edwards have farmed where you don’t expect a farm.

They have 7 acres two blocks outside Longview in a residential neighborhood at the foot of a big hill named Mount Solo. There’s a church up the street, and Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are close.

In this case, the farm benefits by being near people. Scott Edwards, 64, and Dixie Edwards, 66, are tapping into the desire that some consumers have to buy local and eyeball their farmer and the farm.

Beginning after the Fourth of July and continuing into mid-fall, the Edwardses deliver boxes of fruits and vegetables to customers each week. In the box is a letter written by Dixie Edwards with cooking tips. “If you have never roasted zucchini, it is worth a try,” she advised in July.

Other customers come to the farm to pick up produce. They are young and old and in between. A requirement appears to be willing to try different vegetables.

“We do a little bit of everything,” Scott Edwards said. “You have to be into eating healthy.”

They started the farm and a native-plant nursery in 1993. The nursery brings in more money, always has. The couple reports, however, that after a quarter of a century, the food thing is catching on.

“Farming was always more of a lifestyle than a business, and now it’s becoming more of a business,” he said. “It’s finally becoming profitable.”

For years, they sold produce and plants at weekend farmers’ markets in Longview and Astoria, Ore. Loading and unloading goods was physically hard, and working the markets left no time to rest from the week’s labors. “It was a killer,” Scott Edwards said.

Five years ago, they started selling food to members of an Episcopal church who signed up to receive weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables. After two years of that, they looked to expand into community supported agriculture.

The business didn’t grow; it exploded. Organizations in the private and public sectors got interested. More than 50 employees at the local community college signed up for shares.

“It was too much,” Scott Edwards said. “Everything was good. It was just stressful as heck.”

The interest by institutions in participating in community sustained agriculture waxes and wanes, making planning difficult, they said. The past two years have been smoother. More customers are coming to the farm to buy produce, and it’s best when the shoppers come to them, they said.

Scott Edwards grew up in Longview. He and his wife farm land that has been in the family since 1962. His parents bought it to farm, raise cattle and rent out the house on the property. Scott Edwards said it was his second home growing up and calls it a “rural Eden on the outskirts of town.”

Dixie Edwards also lived in Longview as a girl until her family bought a farm near Stella along the Lower Columbia River and not far from Longview. They went to the same high school, two grades apart, and were married in 1988. Scott was working for a conservation district in Kitsap County, while Dixie worked in water-quality programs for the county and later a public utility district.

In 1989, they rented land in Kitsap County for a native-plant nursery and a few years later moved to Longview and opened their business, Watershed Garden Works, which combined the nursery with an organic farm. “This was our way back to the farm,” Dixie Edwards said.

Scott Edwards studied organic agriculture in the 1970s at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. “Doing something organic was almost like crackpot back in the day,” he said.

The Edwardses say they’re following organic practices, but haven’t paid the fees and filed the paperwork to obtain certification. They said if they were marketing to a broader population they would, but their customers can see what they’re doing.

For the farm and nursery, they employ two full-time and two part-time workers year-round, along with a couple of seasonal workers. Good help is hard to find, they said.

Many of their customers are new to the area, they said.

“I think Longview and (neighboring city) Kelso are going through a big change, like a lot of communities are,” Scott Edwards said. “There are a lot of possibilities for farmers.”


Feared plant pathogens pop up in Western Washington

Black leg and black rot, plant diseases that Washington agricultural officials have long been on-guard for to protect the vegetable and oil seed industries, appeared this month in Western Washington in separate incidents.

Seeds from an organic radish farm in Island County tested positive for black leg, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, black rot appeared on leaves of a brassica crop in Skagit County.

It’s unknown how either disease was introduced, Washington State University plant pathologist Lindsey du Toit said. Growers in both places reported the pathogens, helping efforts to contain them, she said.

“Both have the same repercussions for the seed industry,” du Toit said. “I was pleased to see there wasn’t an attempt to cover it up.”

Black leg is a fungal disease that infects cruciferous crops such as canola, broccoli and cabbage. An outbreak of black leg in the Midwest and eastern U.S. in the 1970s was traced to Northwest-produced seeds, devastating Western Washington’s vegetable seed industry. It had not been detected in Western Washington in recent years, according to the agriculture department.

Black rot is a bacterial disease. According to the American Phytopathological Society, black rot “must be considered the most important disease worldwide of vegetable brassicas.”

To guard against both, the agriculture department requires crucifer seeds planted in Island County and five other Western Washington counties to be tested and treated for black leg and black rot. The department extended the requirement to 20 Eastern Washington counties in 2015 after black leg was found in canola fields in Oregon and Northern Idaho.

In Island and Skagit counties, the farmers planted seeds that had been tested, du Toit said. Seeds, however, are destroyed during the test, so samples from seed lots are screened.

Du Toit said she examined plant matter that she collected from the field in Island County, but did not find black leg. The seeds had been harvested about a month earlier, and the disease was discovered in testing at Iowa State University.

Black leg and black rot can be spread in the rain or by wind. The crop in Skagit County will have to be destroyed, du Toit said.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture mandated statewide testing for black leg in 2015 after an outbreak in the Willamette Valley.

The five other Western Washington counties in the quarantine area are Clallam, Lewis, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom. The quarantine also covers all of Eastern Washington.

Volunteers harvest corn for Puget Sound food banks

About 100 volunteers in Snohomish County, Wash., harvested approximately 8,750 ears of corns for Puget Sound food banks Sept. 7, reviving a gleaning tradition that had been dormant for a couple of years.

Dan Bartelheimer of Sno-Valley Farms grew the corn on about 3 acres. “We’ve been doing something like this for eight to 10 years,” he said.

The last couple of years, however, there were no volunteers to harvest the field. Bartelheimer said the Rev. Jim Eichner of the Holy Cross Church of Redmond, an Episcopal church, organized volunteers for an unprecedented turnout. Eichner also oversees the Food Bank Farm.

“It worked the first year we tried it, and we’re definitely going to continue it,” Bartelheimer said.

The harvest gave people a taste of farming, he said. “It’s always fun for the first half hour, hour.”

Bartelheimer, president of the Snohomish County Farm Bureau, said other farmers in the county are interested in hosting gleaners at the end of the harvest.

“I think something like this creates a lot of goodwill between the farmers and community,” he said.

The Snohomish Conservation District helped organize the event.

Organic Farm School taking applications for 2019 class

The Organic Farm School on Whidbey Island, Wash., is accepting applications for an eight-month training program that will begin in March for people who aspire to own or manage a small organic farm.

Students learn about organic agriculture on a 10-acre farm about 30 miles north of Seattle. The tuition is $6,500, and students put in full days in the field and in classrooms.

“What we want our potential students to know is that farming is an honorable profession and that we want to get them prepared to do it for the long term,” the farm’s executive director, Judy Feldman, said.

The school started a decade ago to train Whidbey Island residents for a community supported agriculture program. There are, however, only so many people on Whidbey Island. The school now draws students from around the country.

This year, Feldman said, there are students from Arizona, California, Iowa, Montana and Pennsylvania. They range in ages from 20 to 43. Some are getting started and some are looking to make a mid-career change.

The school takes applications into December, but caps enrollment at 12 to 15, so Feldman encouraged applicants to apply by Thanksgiving. This year’s class, which graduates in November, is a small one, six students.

Limiting enrollment keeps running the farm from being too easy, Feldman said. Students put in 8- to 10-hour days during the week. “Most farmers would say, ‘That’s easy,’ ” she said. “We want them to get at least a taste of a farmer’s workload.”

The school covers crop and livestock production, business planning and direct marketing.

Students grow vegetables, and seed and cover crops and raise poultry, sheep and pigs. They sell products through a community supported agriculture program, a farmers’ market, grocers and farm stand.

Students learn skills such as basic mechanics and carpentry, operating equipment and greenhouse propagation. The school’s production manager is Raelani Kesler and the classroom instructor is Aaron Varadi.

“Our goal is to expose students to as much as possible,” Feldman said.

For housing, students have the option of renting a shared room in the farm’s five-bedroom house. Rent is reasonable and the house is a two-minute walk from the farm, she said. Not everyone chooses to live in the house, she said.

Scholarships are available. More information and applications are available online at organicfarmschool.org.

Marketing key to success for new farms

As director of Washington State University Extension in Cowlitz County, Gary Fredricks advises people interested in becoming farmers.

First of all, he counsels, budding farmers should have a marketing plan. How will you sell what you produce? “That to me is the first place to start,” he said.

Second, they should have a farm plan. How will the land, buildings and other resources work together? “Mistakes cost money,” Fredricks said.

Third, if you have animals, what will you feed them? It may be the biggest expense. “To me, good pasture is free food,” Fredricks said. “Once you start buying feed, it gets expensive fast.”

And, he adds, check your motives and interests.

“You have to be passionate about farming. If it’s all about the money, I just don’t think it’s going to be what you want,” he said.

Small ag is big

Fredricks, 63, has been director of Cowlitz County Extension since 2002. The southwest Washington county has timber and manufacturing, but relatively little large-scale food production. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the county had 492 farms that year, but 396 of them had less than $10,000 in sales. The median size farm was 15 acres.

Fredricks said he believes that’s enough space to make a go at farming. “If I have 10 acres, I can grow a lot of vegetables,” he said.

Cowlitz County’s agricultural profile is similar to many other Western Washington counties. Fredricks has spent his career in the region and serves as an all-purpose adviser to small farmers. His expertise ranges from goats to composting to pastures.

WSU alumnus

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science from WSU. His office in Longview is decorated in the style of a Cougar alumnus — WSU banner, WSU poster and a WSU rug. Since June 1, he has been spending two days a week in Chehalis as interim director of WSU Extension in Lewis County, a position he filled following the retirement of the previous director.

Fredricks grew up in Tacoma and spent weekends on his uncle’s dairy in Auburn, south of Seattle. After earning his master’s degree, he worked briefly at a dairy and for the federal Milk Market Administrator. He began his career with WSU Extension in 1984 as an adviser to dairies in Clark County, south of Cowlitz County. At the time, Clark County had 84 dairies, Fredericks recalled. He now counts five.

Although agriculture in Western Washington has shrunk in some ways, Fredricks said there are business opportunities for new small farmers, particularly if they can cut out the middle-man.

Small farmers are positioned to sell directly to customers shopping for locally grown food, he said.

“More and more people are looking to know where their food is coming from,” Fredricks said. “When we’re talking about expanding agriculture, we have to talk about small farms.”

Websites, farm guides, whatever — get your name out there, he said.

“Marketing is about connecting with people, and it takes time, and it takes work,” Fredricks said. “It’s that personal connection that will allow for that premium.”

A progression

According to the Census of Agriculture, farming is not the main occupation of most Cowlitz County farmers. Fredricks said small farmers typically move into the field gradually.

“It’s usually a progression. They don’t just jump into it,” he said. “They have flexibility and a little less risk.

“I’ve seen people take hobbies and expand it and make some significant money off it,” said Fredricks, citing the example of a woman he knows with mason bees.

Making a living with livestock and a small land base is tough, he said, though animals can be a feature of agritourism.

Established small farmers should welcome small farmers and not view them as competitors crowding farmers’ markets, he said.

More farmers make more robust markets, he said. “From my standpoint, marketing is probably foremost.”