Building Community Support for Agriculture on the Urban Edge

Final Report for SW97-043

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $113,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $37,289.00
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Dyvon Havens
WSU/Skagit County Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


This project is located in the Skagit Valley of northwestern Washington, an area where rich alluvial soils combine with a mild maritime climate to create a prime area for agricultural production. Increasing urban population and a widening gap between farmers and consumers threaten the agricultural economic base of the region. Prime farmland in the Skagit Valley is being lost at two to four times the rate of less productive agricultural land, and the number of acres in agricultural production has dropped from approximately 140,000 acres in 1960 to 90,000 acres in 1992.

The goal of this project is to build community support for agriculture by increasing communication and understanding between farm and nonfarm residents of the Skagit Valley and the region. By increasing community members' knowledge of agriculture and the economic and aesthetic benefits it provides, we can increase the long-term sustainability of the wider community, its landscape attributes, and its economic and agricultural bases.

Activities of the project include an Agricultural Speakers Bureau to educate the public about the link between agriculture and community quality of life, a Wildlife Habitat Assessment to learn how marginal areas of farmland provide for biological diversity, and a School Program for grade school students and teachers to increase their awareness of the Skagit Valley's rich agricultural presence and its value to the community and the region.

In 1998 project leaders and advisors developed an organizational structure for the program and planned a major public event to introduce the project to the community. Planning teams for the Agricultural Speakers Bureau and the School Program met regularly to develop and organize activities.

A Speakers Bureau Core Team developed the organizational structure for the implementation and management of the Speakers Bureau. The Speakers Bureau now has 54 speakers who have been oriented and trained. To date 45 presentations have been given, reaching approximately 900 people. As a direct outgrowth of the Speakers Bureau, a Harvest Celebration (HC) was developed and farm tours for the public were conducted, with over 6,000 area residents learning about the link between agriculture and community quality of life.

Dr. Claus Svendsen and students from the Environmental Conservation Program conducted wildlife habitat assessments in ten woodland sites adjacent to or surrounded by farm fields. A total of 14 species of small mammals were recorded, and five species of amphibians were observed. Habitat assessment data gathered include a vegetation inventory and an inventory of snags and dead downed logs. A socio-economic survey of farm woodlot owners was conducted.

The School Program Core Team developed a set of goals to guide development of curriculum materials. A sub group of three volunteers and one program staff developed a detailed curriculum outline to provide teachers with a framework for teaching fourth grade math, science, geography, history, and language arts in the context of the Skagit Valley's agricultural heritage. After approval by the Core Team, the outline was presented to the agricultural community for comment.

Project Objectives:

1. Develop a participatory model for building a community coalition to support agricultural communities on the urban edge.

2. Examine the socio-economic and ecological components of sustainable agricultural landscape systems.

3. Increase public (farmer and consumer) knowledge and appreciation of the socio-economic and environmental benefits to the community of the agricultural landscape.

4. Disseminate lessons learned from this coalition building approach to organizations and
leaders that share a commitment to the future of urban edge agriculture.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dyvon Havens
  • Claus Svendsen


Research results and discussion:

Objective 1. Develop a Participatory model for building a community coalition to support agricultural communities on the urban edge. A small advisory group was developed, including a county commissioner, the director of a farmland preservation organization, an agricultural economist, a teacher, and a crop producer. The group formed an organizational and advisory structure for the project, which consists of three Core Advisory Teams for the major activities. The Advisory Group includes members from each of the Core Teams. The Advisory Group developed a mission statement and a community-friendly name, and identified community members who might be interested in becoming involved in project activities.

Seventy people attended a community kick-off event introducing the project to the community (see Attachment 1) through the inclusion of community leaders and through media coverage. The event included speakers, wildlife habitat tours, exhibits, displays, and a social hour. Volunteers, some of whom became Core Advisory Team members, were recruited at the kick-off to participate in activities of the project.

Project activities were carried forward by the Core Advisory Teams. Members included farmers (crop, dairy, livestock, shellfish, organic, and timber); realtors; bankers; environmentalists; grade school, high school, and community college teachers; university researchers; WSU Cooperative Extension personnel; and representatives of agricultural businesses and organizations. The Speakers Bureau Core Team consisted of 11 volunteers and two program staff. Dr. Svendsen and his students carried out the wildlife habitat assessment. The School Program Core Team consisted of seven volunteers and two program staff. A 27-member farm tour advisory team was developed to guide a one-day Harvest Celebration (HC) to educate the public about agriculture. Twenty-one members of the latter are owners or staff of local farms. The advisory team system is proving to be an effective way of involving community members in project leadership while maintaining a central guiding body with members who are familiar with each of the activities.

Objective 2. Examine the socio-economic and ecological components of sustainable agricultural landscape systems.

Wildlife Habitat Assessment. Dr. Claus Svendsen and his students in the Environmental Conservation Program at Skagit Valley College conducted wildlife habitat assessments in ten woodland sites adjacent to, or surrounded by, farm fields (see Attachment 2). Their aim is to determine the wildlife habitat value of marginal areas of farmland and to assess the importance of these areas for biological diversity. Sites were inventoried for small and medium-sized mammals and amphibians. Above-ground traps captured primarily mice, voles, and weasels. Pitfall traps were dug into the ground, which trapped primarily amphibians and shrews. Animals were identified, sexed, and their breeding status determined.

Fourteen species of small mammals and five species of amphibians were observed. There were great differences in the number of species found from one woodland to another. As few as three small mammal species were found in some woodlands, while others had as many as nine or eleven species. The amphibian occurrences varied even more between woodlands. Habitat assessment data gathered includes a vegetation inventory and an inventory of snags and dead downed logs. Species richness of the canopy layer was generally four to seven species, which is comparable to richness from forestland. Greater variation was found between woodlands in the lower layers.

A number of forest-dependent species was found in several highly isolated woodlands (i.e. Ensatina, which is a salamander breeding in decaying logs on the forest floor). As a group, the woodlands had most of the small mammal species present that we encounter in the Pacific Northwest forestlands. However, Douglas squirrel, chipmunk, and flying squirrel were not detected. This is to be expected because they utilize the landscape at a greater scale than mice, voles, and shrews. The large percentage of species still present after more than a decade of isolation, suggests that the remnant woodland in the Skagit Valley is important for maintaining biodiversity.

Woodlands were also inventoried for snags and dead, downed logs. Newly downed logs are mostly structure on the forest floor, while heavily decayed pieces provide food, cavities and tunnels for small mammals, birds and amphibians, especially salamanders. For all the snags, potential nest cavities were inventoried by tree species and height class.

A pilot study of the bird communities in three woodlands was conducted to evaluate the best methods for measuring bird community richness. Generally, a woodland had about 20 different bird species. However, there were great differences between the woodlands, and a total of 38 species were recorded. These results will be used later to conduct a large-scale bird inventory, if funding can be obtained.

Dr. Svendsen presented information from the wildlife habitat study at the Speakers Bureau celebration (see next section). He also conducted tours, presented displays, and shared findings at the HC (see next section) with over 50 farmers and consumers about his study of woodlands located adjacent to or surrounded by farmlands. He taught people about the wildlife habitat value of woodlands, the value of these areas for providing biodiversity, and factors that contribute to wildlife habitat. His educational display included examples of traps, track plates, and other items used to conduct the study.

A socio-economic survey of Skagit River watershed woodlot owners was conducted (see Attachment 3). Findings showed that a majority of landowners were unwilling to convert their forests for profit and a large proportion keep their land wooded due to sentimental or personal reasons. Dr. Svendsen concluded that more than half the woodlots will persist into the future decades. There is great interest in wildlife by land owners; however, surprisingly, respondents had a neutral response to wanting to learn about wildlife in their woodlot. There is potential for future work in this area.

Objective 3. Increase public (farmer and consumer) knowledge and appreciation of the socio-economic and environmental benefits to the community of the agricultural landscape.

Agricultural Speakers Bureau. The Speakers Bureau Core Team developed an organizational and management structure for the Speakers Bureau. Core Team members and the extension agent planned and conducted an orientation session that was attended by over 50 people (see Attachment 4). The orientation session covered topics such as expectations of Speakers Bureau members; discussion of the Speakers Bureau mission, vision, and guidelines as developed by the Core Team; how the Speakers Bureau will operate; a demonstration speech and evaluation; and an overview of the speaker training sessions. Speakers Bureau members participated in six hours of speaker training, which was conducted by a professional speech educator and coach. The training was well received, and evaluation comments included, "Well organized, with a disciplined purpose. Mike was a great role model. The twelve-minute speech writing technique was great!" and, "The step-by-step approach to speech writing, concluded by giving the speech, was an exceptional approach. You taught and proved that it could be done."

Over 50 people attended a Speakers Bureau Celebration following speakers training graduation to honor the speaker volunteers and to officially introduce the Speakers Bureau to the community. Members were presented with colorful certificates that recognize their completion of orientation and training (see Attachment 5). The extension agent presented a "scripted speech with slides" she and Core Team members developed. The "scripted speech" is a slide set and script that gives an overview of Skagit Valley agriculture and is available for use by Speakers Bureau members. Several members have utilized this tool in their presentations.

Fifty-four people, including farmers, bankers, realtors, teachers, agricultural scientists, and others, are trained members of the Agricultural Speakers Bureau and are thus empowered to provide first-hand education to the public about the role agriculture plays in supporting open space, wildlife habitat, the local and regional economy, and a quality of life valued by residents. Twenty-five members have delivered 45 speeches to over 900 people in the community, many of whom are school children. Most speakers are formally evaluated by fellow Speakers Bureau members. Follow-up calls are made to those requesting speakers to gain additional feedback. Some comments are as follows:

• "Thank you for providing this service to our community. It helps us get to know the farmers who are the real guardians of our rural lifestyle here in Skagit county."

• "Even though many of us live in the rural areas, we forget what we have here. This is a good reminder to us to not take our agriculture for granted."

Speakers were scheduled throughout the day at the grange hall during the Harvest Celebration (see below) to discuss topics such as the following: "Salmon Habitat Restoration on Farmland," "We Are Losing Farmland," "The Evolution of Skagit Farming," "Is My Food Safe?", and "Farming and the Environment." A valuable lesson was learned here, because almost none of the 400 people who came to the grange hall wanted to stay to listen to speakers, preferring to move on to activities occurring on the farms. Our conclusion is that this type of sit-down education is not an effective way of presenting agricultural information to the public. On the other hand, there was excellent response from the public to the actual walking and wagon tours through farm facilities and fields.

School Program. The School Program Core Team used a facilitated discussion technique to develop goals for a school program. In addition to giving students a strong sense of place, the group wished to design a program that would "create an understanding so students appreciate the value of agriculture as an integral part of the unique qualities of the Skagit Valley." A sub group of three teacher volunteers and the project coordinator developed a detailed outline for six weeks of curriculum for the fourth grade (see Attachment 6). The program is based on four major activities: a study of current and historical maps; researching an occupation in the local field to table food system; designing and building a farm using simple, easily available materials; and a mock Town Hall meeting to discuss a proposed land use change. The six-week unit will conclude with a Farm Fair, with display of students' farm models and art projects, farm Olympics Games, presentation of certificates by local farmers, and the Town Hall meeting. Since teachers already have many demands on their time, and because there is currently strong interest in using applied situational methods, particularly for math and science, the group developed the curriculum outline as a way for teachers to incorporate current fourth grade math, science, geography, history, and language arts into an agricultural format.

The completed outline was shared with to 12 members of the agricultural community, who reviewed the document and gave comments and reactions to the curriculum outline. The curriculum outline is available for teachers who wish to utilize it to develop classroom projects. It is currently being used to develop and pilot test a curriculum for elementary teachers to use in the Washington State University Discovery Garden demonstration plots as an outdoor classroom. The curriculum includes instruction on commercial agriculture in the Skagit Valley, soil ecology, beneficial insects, animal cycles, and the study of seeds. Signs are in place in the WSU Discovery Garden informing visitors about Skagit agriculture. The Discovery Garden has been featured several times in local newspapers as an educational resource for the community.

In collaboration with a local elementary art teacher, students painted watercolor pictures of local barns. Student comments were solicited regarding the importance of agriculture to the community. The paintings and quotes from students were placed on display at several locations, including the Cooperative Extension display window in downtown Mount Vernon, the Speakers Bureau Celebration, the County Administration kiosk display area, a Harvest Celebration farm site, and in schools. One barn painting and one student quotation were selected for the Sharing the Skagit logo and subsequently used in promotional and educational materials.

Celebrating Skagit Harvest: A Festival of Family Farms (HC). Farmers now have a means of teaching consumers first hand about their farming systems and practices, the value of farming to the community, and urban edge agricultural issues. A 27-member Farm Tour Advisory Team was developed by the Extension Agent. Twenty-one members are farm operators or staff. The Team helped organize, implement, and evaluate a farm tours project called Celebrating Skagit Harvest: A Festival of Family Farms (HC). Refer to Attachment 7. Ten farms in 1999 and 12 farms in 2000 opened their gates to the public for educational farm tours, food, children's activities, educational displays and videos, music, and other activities. More than 6,000 people from western Washington, Alaska, British Columbia, California, and Texas attended the HC in these two years. Types of farms participating include dairy, alpaca, vegetable and berry, timber, oyster, organic, greenhouse, cut flower, apple, and flower bulb. The goals of the event are to increase public understanding of agriculture and to improve good will between the farming and nonfarming communities. Farmers also are learning from the event through their face-to-face discussions of issues with the public. Community businesses, organizations, private individuals, and Skagit County government helped support the event through cash and in-kind donations.

Dr. Claus Svendsen and his students led on farm wildlife habitat tours. Visitors learned about the mammals and amphibians in the woodland and about the important elements of wildlife habitat. Educational displays included live animal residents of the woodland. This event was critical in providing information about the woodland study to the mostly urban population. Farmer cooperators also learned about their woodland resource.

A Sharing the Skagit display, other educational displays, videos, and demonstrations with information about Skagit County agriculture were set up at each of the farm sites. One of the displays gave information about over 25 vegetable seed crops that are raised in Skagit County and sold to more than 33 countries around the world. Another display featured student paintings of local barns combined with the students' quotes about how agriculture affects their lives. Another display discussed a local nitrate leaching study and farmers' stewardship efforts through the use of fall planted cover crops.

Questionnaires were distributed to people attending the HC (see Attachment 8). In 2000, 462 persons responded. Forty-two percent said their attitude about farming changed as a result of their farm visits. Nearly all reported a change toward the positive. The comment most frequently received was that people were impressed with how complex farming is, how much science is involved, and how hard farmers work. Respondents were not aware of the high level of technology needed. The second most common response related to an increased understanding of farming in general: processing, agricultural issues, marketing, diversity of crops grown, costs, etc. Four people specifically mentioned their concern about the effect on farms of new salmon regulations. Three people said they realized farming is more environmentally friendly than they previously thought. Ten people said they now understand the importance of protecting and supporting farmers and farmland, and a few indicated they planned to take action toward that end. The third most common response was an indication of increased respect and appreciation for farmers and farming. Several people said they loved the farms before they attended the event, but that they loved it even more after participating in the day. Respondents said they gained a better understanding of how farms benefit our community. Following are quotes from the Questionnaire:

> "You have showcased agriculture in our county in a very professional, educational, and free way. Keep up the good work and let's keep ag No. 1 in Skagit County."

> "We are all so fortunate to have all this bounty around us and the people connected with it."

> "Really makes us feel more involved in the farming community, more committed and invested"

> "Many of us live here and never get to see the farming community. Thanks!"

> "Great way to educate the public, especially the children. Thanks!"

> "How wonderful for kids to see how our food is grown. A great idea. Thanks!"

> "Now have a much better understanding of how competition from foreign countries can drive some of our farmers out of business. Will support our farmers markets in my area."

> "Everything was extremely well organized! The program/publication gave excellent oversight, driving instructions, history. Very helpful and informative."

> "Thank you. We sent a check to Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland after reading the folder."

Research conclusions:

The aim of this project is to enhance community understanding of how agriculture is integrated with the total quality of community life, including landscape, wildlife, open space, quality food, and economic viability. The goals were achieved, as evidenced by the results of the HC Questionnaire. Nearly half those surveyed indicated their attitudes about farming changed (mostly positive) as a result of the event. The written comments showed increased understanding, appreciation, and respect for farming and farmers and how they benefit the community. Some farms reported an increase in sales as a result of the HC. Farmers learned, through the results of the HC Questionnaire, how valuable agriculture is to the community, in the eyes of its residents. Urban residents learned about local farming systems and the role they play in supporting open space, woodland areas, wildlife, and the local, regional, and global economy. A school curriculum is being carried forward that will teach elementary school children about the ways farming affects our lives. Through the wildlife habitat project, farmers learned how valuable their woodlot is for species diversity. Through the Speakers Bureau, a community-wide support system was developed that will carry forward to advocate for the continued viability of family farms.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Objective 4. Disseminate lessons learned from this coalition-building approach to organizations and leaders that share a commitment to the future of urban edge agriculture.

Local/regional dissemination of project information and findings currently takes place through the Cascade Harvest Coalition (a regional group supporting sustainable agriculture), the WSU Extension Food and Farm Connections Team, the Agricultural Speakers Bureau, Extension newsletters (see Attachments 9 through 12), and media articles (see Attachments 13 through 15). As a result of discussion at Coalition meetings, the extension agent was invited to give a presentation to the King County Agricultural Commission about the Agricultural Speakers Bureau developed in Skagit County. The King County Agricultural Commission is considering establishment of a speakers bureau using Skagit as a model. Several requests from various parts of Washington and the western UD have been received for information on methodology for developing a speakers bureau.

Information on the Speakers Bureau was also disseminated to the Pesticide Impact Assessment Program on their tour of the area in September 1999. The tour group included 20 pesticide specialists and decision makers from 19 states. Another agricultural tour group from South Carolina heard a presentation in August 2000 on the project and results. The extension agent presented the project and results to the WA/OR/BC Extension Vegetable Conference in The Dalles, Oregon, in January 2000. Berry, apple, potato, and vegetable seed commodity groups learned about the project and results at separate meetings and seminars in 1999 and 2000. The project was presented to the Skagit County Farm Bureau Board of Directors to leverage funding for developing teachers kits for piloting the school curriculum. The Skagit County Historical museum was a partner in the HC, with displays featuring the local farming industry. In January, 2001, the extension agent gave an oral presentation on the project at the Western Washington Horticultural Assn. Convention in Seattle (see Attachment 16).

A Speakers Bureau promotional brochure (see Attachment 17) was widely distributed during the annual Tulip Festival in April (50,000 attendees) and the HC in October 2000 (3,700 attendees). Brochures were also sent with two extension newsletters, "Skagit Crop Topics" and "The Gardener," and were distributed at several farmer breakfast meetings (berry, apple, and potato). Promotional mailings for the Speakers Bureau were sent to local schools, service clubs, elected officials, extension consumer lists, media sources, agriculture support organizations, and agricultural advisory committees. Brochures were hand delivered to chambers of commerce, county offices, libraries, local bookstores, an environmental interpretive center, conservation organizations, and private businesses

An educational display currently on view in Skagit County locations presents information about Sharing the Skagit and the local agricultural industry. The display was on view at the Skagit County Fair in August, and in the Cooperative Extension storefront window on the main street of Mount Vernon during September. It was on display at a local pumpkin farm during the HC, and throughout pumpkin harvest as school groups and consumers visited the farm during pumpkin season. Brown & Cole stores are featuring local farmers and their produce and also cooperated in carrying pro bono advertising for the HC through all their subsidiary grocery stores in two counties.

The project appears in the Skagit Extension web site at
[Ed. note: this is an updated URL.]

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Areas needing additional study

The project utilized farmers and community members extensively in advisory capacities. These teams were invaluable in supplying creative ideas as well as reality checks on practical applications. I would strongly recommend the use of this type of participatory approach when developing new projects concerning agriculture. It is also an excellent method for leadership development among members of the agriculture community. The interest and willingness of members of the community at large should not be underestimated when planning projects of this type.

When attempting to educating the public about agriculture, marketing and promotion is very important in getting people to come to an event. Once there, the public responds very favorably to the educational component of the event. We did learn, however, that people are not willing to sit down inside a building off the farm and listen to speakers. They are highly willing to listen to those same speakers if they are sitting on a wagon as part of a farm tour.

The socio-economic study yielded some seemingly contradictory results re: landowners' feelings about wildlife on their woodlands. While landowners strongly agreed their woodland is important for wildlife, they were neutral to learn more about wildlife in their woodlot. This is an area that has potential for educational work in the future. It was encouraging that 57% of those surveyed said they would not convert their woodland even if they could make a profit. The results of the wildlife habitat assessment suggest the remnant woodland in the Skagit Valley is important for maintaining biodiversity.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.