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Kitsap farmers grow new opportunities
Nikki Johanson thinks progress has come between people and their food.
Growing up, her father would load his 1932 Chevy truck with eggs from the family’s Pheasant Fields Farm on Clear Creek Road and take them down to docked ships in Silverdale. From there, the eggs went all over the world.
In her lifetime, Johanson saw Silverdale’s farmland, once called the “egg capital of the world,” buried under freeways and housing developments. More than five acres of her family’s Pheasant Fields Farm was lost to Highway 3 construction, and she says the Kitsap Mall sits on “prime farmland.”
“There’s been very little respect or regard for the need to conserve that type of thing,” she said.
Johanson’s mission now is to put Kitsap agriculture back on the map.
Johanson’s dog Rocky greets incoming cars at the farm, which now produces vegetables, pumpkins, flowers, herbs and poultry, in addition to chicken and duck eggs. These days, the farm’s produce isn’t carried away on ships, but sold directly to customers at Kitsap County farmer’s markets and restaurants.
Johanson is a local new incarnation of an old idea, the family farmer. The market for locally-grown food is growing partly because of environmental concerns, the movement to support local economy and farms, and a growing public desire to know how food is grown.
And Kitsap agriculture experts say the demand outpaces local production.
“As a society, we’ve lost our connection with local foods literally in one lifetime,” said Arno Bergstrom, director of environmental forestry and agriculture at Kitsap County’s WSU Extension office. “I’m excited to see some of that come back.”
People are also getting smarter about how to produce food responsibly, Johanson said.
“There’s a huge demand,” Johanson said, adding that Pheasant Fields Farm is open for the public to see how its food is produced. “They don’t just want local food, but they want to know how you’ve grown it.”
That’s why Jean Schanen is in the business. In addition to growing more than 70 different foods at her Start Now urban garden at her home in Bremerton, she manages FreshLocal in downtown Bremerton, dedicated to selling locally- and responsibly-produced food. The store opened in mid-November.
Schanen says most farmers can’t afford to be certified organic, but she knows her suppliers guarantee naturally-grown produce, including Johanson’s duck eggs.
“My personal belief is if you know the farmer, that’s better than certification,” she said.
Though Schanen does her part to connect shoppers to more than 20 Kitsap County suppliers, she says there is 10 times the demand for Kitsap-grown food than what local farmers can produce.
Less than 1 percent of the $1 billion of food consumed annually in Kitsap County comes from local farmers, Bergstrom said.
Getting young people into the farming business is part of the solution to meeting local food demand, Schanen said. Next month, she and her husband Glenn will receive their first intern at their Start Now Urban Farming School, which will teach urban farming practices and marketing at their garden.
Another piece of the puzzle is making county policy more accommodating to local farmers, Bergstrom said.
For one, Kitsap County does not have a Right to Farm policy like the one that went to effect in Washington in 2005 and was since enacted by most other counties. Such an ordinance protects farmers from nuisance complaints such as any odors or noise that might arise from typical farm activities, Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom joins Schanen and Johanson in hailing the creation of the Food and Farm Policy Council, which would work with the county and county departments on such policy issues. The nine-member panel, formed on Monday, will advise on county farming policy.
Farming has been an ignored sector of county economic development for 40 to 50 years, Bergstrom said.
“If we care about local food, then we need to work together to make whatever adjustments or changes so it’s possible for farmers to be more successful,” he said. “There really is tremendous potential.”
Johanson and Schanen are also active in organizations such as the Kitsap Community Agricultural Alliance, a local farming education and support network aimed at growing new farmers.
Nancy Lovgren of Poulsbo browsed the selection at FreshLocal a few weeks ago. She likes that she can get seasonal produce year-round.
“Everything that they have is something that I like,” she said.
Schanen insists that Kitsap County could mostly subsist on its own food and uses her store to prove it. Many of her carrots come from her own garden, fresh clams and oysters come from Seabeck, and cupcakes and salsas are made in a commercial kitchen across the street from her shop. As long as the supply of beans and grains from outside the region remains steady, Kitsap is a self-sufficient producer.
“We have a whole lot of security that comes from having a food supply close to home,” she said.
For those who want to get their hands dirty, Johanson says there is still ample opportunity to be a Kitsap farmer.
“If you got an acre, you can start a farm,” she said.