With wildfire smoke once again hovering over the Puget Sound region (shouldn’t be so bad this time, hopefully), the scorched earth in rural parts of western states is again top-of-mind. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned in Washington alone this September, surpassing prior seasons in mere days.
Farms, of course, weren’t left unscathed. The fires destroyed land for cultivation, animals, and the future of many family businesses. They also underscored our current climate crisis and its threat to a vital element of agriculture and our food system. “Water is really the thing that kind of underpins farming and, in a lot of ways, is also a really vulnerable resource when it comes to hotter, drier conditions,” says Melissa Campbell, the executive director of Washington Farmland Trust.
The organization formerly known as PCC Farmland Trust has protected farms from development in the region for more than two decades. It’s a mission that especially resonates in this moment: With Covid-19 emptying grocery store shelves and imperiling farmworkers, the importance of preserving a local food economy is plain to even the least food system-savvy among us.
The fires reinforced its urgency. As the flames raged earlier this month, Campbell saw farmers leading efforts to help one another, including across state lines. “We had farms here in Western Washington and across Washington offering to help be a home for [Oregon farms'] livestock until the farmers were able to get up and running,” says Campbell.
Inspiring, certainly, but farmers shouldn’t have to rescue our local food system alone. Donations can help—Washington Farmland Trust and Viva Farms aimed to raise $350,000 on September 30 for farms via a “Love the Land” virtual benefit concert featuring Dave Matthews, among others—but so can a conscientious trip to the grocery store. For the uninitiated, here are some simple ways to support local farms, now and always, courtesy of Campbell.
Advocate at the store. OK, maybe not the easiest of requests for an introverted city. But instead of just ducking in and out of grocery store aisles silently, ask the produce, meat, and dairy managers to source from Washington farms, if they're not already. How do you find these people? "They may not be on the floor, but they're typically around. You need to ask."
Vary your meat eating. Those who've cut back on meat consumption may still have go-to cuts. But trying less popular varieties helps ensure that parts of an animal don't go to waste. And if you can spring for a full animal from a farm (and a large freezer), that really helps.
Google around for your favorite items. You might not know all of the farms in the area, but you definitely know what you like to eat. A search to see if any local producers sell your personal favorites might yield more luck than in the past. Farms have ramped up their online ordering and contactless pickup and delivery services due to the pandemic.
Try farmers markets and CSAs. The most well-known forms of support are still the best, as these purchases directly support farms. Don't know where to go? Here's a helpful list of farmers markets in the area from The Stranger. It can't hurt to start your spring CSA share hunt a little early, either.