Can Farmland Be Preserved?

This week, it was announced that we are losing an institution in Snohomish County. Branch’s Quarter Horses, a ranch that has been breeding, training, and showing champion reining quarter horses for 42 years, is closing its doors and leaving the state. Why?

It’s the property taxes. The 11 acre ranch, bought 42 years ago for $36,000 dollars, is being taxed at $65,000 a year. For years, property taxes hovered around $400 per year, only escalating as suburban sprawl started to encroach in the late 90’s. The only choice left now for the owners is to sell and leave.

The tax structure here is chasing agriculture out of this county. It’s based not on the current use of the land, but on the potential value. There are some breaks for agricultural land but those are limited to the geographical area where it is placed. In other words, no matter how long you’ve owned a parcel or what use you’ve made of it, the state will value it according to the current zoning. Agricultural status, many times, extends to certain areas designated for only agricultural use and, in this county, those seem to match the flood plains. You can farm or ranch for decades outside of those narrow zones, without any guarantee that you’ll be able to keep that land for that purpose.

We are losing our farmlands, even in this economy, at a fearfully rapid rate. Across the street from our little farm, a developer is planning to build 600 homes on 2500 acres, and the permit for the first 60 has already been issued. How long we will be able to stay here is anyone’s guess.

Planning for the Worst, Hoping for the Best

In light of the recent events in Japan, I am feeling compelled to share my own experience with a very large earthquake. I am a survivor of the Great Alaskan Earthquake, which registered a 9.2 on the Richter scale. I was living in Anchorage at the time, and my family has many tales, and not just a few pictures, from that quake. My folks got everyone through the rough days that followed because they were well prepared and well stocked.

Preparation is key. Here, in the Puget Sound, we are subject to the very same tectonic forces that caused the earthquake in Alaska. We are on the Pacific Rim, which borders the Pacific Plate. We have had 9.0 force earthquakes here, one in 1700 that created tsunamis recorded by Asian historians, and one in 900 that is responsible for creating the unique character of West Seattle. (Yes, it juts straight up out of the surrounding ground. If you fly around Seattle, you’ll see what I mean.) A significant event like this could happen at any time.

To best prepare for a quake, think of “before, during, and after” the event. Let’s start with the things you should do now.

  • Designate at least one contact person for your family and close friends. Choose someone outside of your home region, who has, and regularly checks, email and telephone services. If they also text messages or use Twitter and Facebook, all the better. The internet actually stays connected better than land lines or cell phones.
  • Check to see if your home is prepared for an earthquake. See the City of Seattle’s site on this, which is quite good. Make sure the frame of your house is bolted to the foundation. Secure tall furniture and artwork to the walls of your home. Make sure cabinets have latches, especially if they are near where you sleep. Look at the interior of your house and see if there are things that would fall and potentially injure someone. For decorative items displayed on open shelves, try some Museum Putty.
  • Create an emergency kit for your place of work that contains, at a minimum, 5 days worth of water, a flashlight – preferably hand crank, some freeze dried foods, a first aid kit, and a supply of any medicines you can’t live without. I like making my own so that I know what’s in it.
  • You’ll want a kit for your car as well, which should also include sturdy walking shoes, a change of clothes, and a warm coat, even in summer. See Seattle’s site on this.
  • The kit for your house should be more extensive, since it will need to cover all your family members. If you use canned food, which is perfectly fine, make sure the opener is taped to one of the cans. There’s nothing worse than having food and not being able to eat it. Make sure your kit is regularly updated with fresh water. Also, a hand crank radio with a phone charger is really invaluable.
  • Get some training in first aid.
  • At your house, ensure that you know where the gas shutoff valve is and have the wrench required to turn it off right at hand. It’s also helpful to know how to turn off water to the house in the event of a leak.
  • If you have kids, you’ll want to take some extra steps to prepare them for a disaster, especially when it comes to connecting with your non-local contact. Review how their schools are prepared to handle a quake. See the Kid’s Section of the Seattle site.

When a good-sized earthquake hits, it is usually characterized by an initial bump, followed by a growing rumbling shakiness. You have a second or two to decide where you are going to go. Once an earthquake passes 8.0, you can no longer stand or move very far. You’ll want to stay away from glass and place yourself next to a structural wall or sturdy piece of furniture. Do not use a doorway! They are not that structurally sound and a swinging door can be quite a hazard.

When the shaking subsides, many people make the mistake of running directly outside the building they are in. This is the worst thing you can do. Even buildings that are seismically reinforced have glass windows and heavy pieces of siding that crash to the ground right after a quake. Stay in the building until you are absolutely sure nothing is falling. Always look up and make sure things aren’t tilting precariously.

If you are driving, it will feel like you’ve blown several tires and your instinct will be to pull over and stop. Go with it! That’s the correct thing to do. However, don’t do it on a bridge or overpass. Get off of those with some haste, if it’s safe to do so, and then stop. Suspended roads are the weakest part of any transportation system.

When a quake is especially large, certain truths become quickly evident:

  • You’re going to be very worried about your loved ones.
  • Everyone will be confused and many people will panic. Don’t be one of them.
  • You’ll instinctively want to go home immediately.

After a bit of time, it will become clear that:

  • You’re not going anywhere for up to 5 days. In large events, roads become impassable.
  • No one may get to you for up to 5 days. Again, for the same reason.
  • It will be up to you to deal with any immediate consequences of the quake, if you are capable of doing so. This is when your previous training in first aid will really help.
  • There will be a lot of confusion to go along with the aftershocks, even from official sources.

The first thing to do is to make sure you are safe. Then make sure those around you aren’t injured or in need of help. If you are near water, tidal waves (tsunamis) are the first concern. It’s always a good idea to move immediately away from any ocean beaches, even if there’s no alarm. I do mean immediately! People in Prince William Sound had between zero and five minutes to evacuate, because the epicenter of the quake was so very close to them.

If you are at home, make sure your gas is shut off. Even if it looks like nothing is wrong, this is always a prudent move. Our next door neighbor in Anchorage did not do this and when the furnace kicked on after the earthquake, the house exploded. My mother remembers hearing the boom, seeing the fire, grabbing a baby under each arm and running flat out until we were out of harm’s way. Your gas will need to be turned back on by a professional which might take some time. However, I’d much rather have a cold house than one in little bits and pieces.

Fire, in fact, is your greatest enemy after an earthquake. If you see any small ones getting started, put them out as quickly as possible. The Great San Francisco Quake of 1906 was not as big as Alaska (7.9 on the Richter scale). However, the fire that followed destroyed the entire city.

Next, update your non-local contact however you can. Twitter and Facebook are excellent for this, since you’ll know immediately if the connection is working and the message will hang around for people to see. Texting is good, if the cell towers are still up. Phone calls will be the most difficult to do. It’s interesting that the internet tends to remain viable even during massive events, when other systems go down. Then turn your phone off! Who knows how long the electricity will last or when you’ll be able charge it again? You can turn it on periodically for messages. Unless it’s a life-threatening emergency, don’t make phone calls. It will just use too much juice and will just jam the system.

People will be in shock and will be dealing with the aftereffects of a massive dose of adrenaline. Ensuring that they have tasks to do will help with this. If you are good at organizing people, you can help with this by coordinating tasks that will ensure that everyone in the general vicinity is safe, at least until other, more official help arrives.

So, the immediate danger is over. Now what? This is the most excruciating and, yet, boring time. You wait for hours for news or supplies or help, all the while dealing with the stress of some big aftershocks. A hand-cranked radio is absolutely the best thing to have on hand. Even though much of the news will be inaccurate, as it is right after a large disaster, you will still get notices of roads that are open, any mass transit that is working, where to get supplies, and what has happened in other parts of the region.

You need two important things to get through the next few days: water and safe shelter. (You can survive without food far longer than water.) This is where your emergency kit comes in. In addition to your kit’s supply of water, you have other sources, including the ice cubes in your freezer and the water in a standard hot water heater. If you suspect that pipes are broken, do not drink from your taps. Especially in low-lying areas, this water can become contaminated very quickly.

The earthquake in Alaska hit on Good Friday in March. There was still a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures were sub-freezing all the time. We spent several days and nights bundled in our Suburban. We had good outdoor wear to keep us warm and the car protected us from the wind. In Puget Sound, the biggest threat is hypothermia, cold caused by temperatures that are above freezing. Rain is the culprit here. You need to stay dry, as well as warm. Cars out in the open, off of roads or bridges, are good. Safe buildings are good. In any case, you will be sleeping rough, so do the best you can.

I always applaud the heroic efforts of the rescuers and helpers who spring to action during a disaster, especially since they are usually in the same state we are, having just gone through the same event. We had two groups who really helped us. One was the US Air Force. They rebuilt their landing field almost immediately and used the radios in their planes to contact the world outside Anchorage. (All the land lines had been cut and, at that time, there were no other forms of communication.) The second group was the Salvation Army, who immediately dispensed blankets, food, and water during those first 5 days.

Experiencing a disaster like this is difficult, but proper preparations will make it a bit easier. To find out more about this, go to the FEMA site or the Seattle site. They all have extensive tools and instructions for keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.

Slow Food and Fast Horses

It rained and the deer repellent wore off. Last night, the horses chewed almost all the way through one of the 10″ posts. Today, the Sister fenced each individual post in wire, connected to the electric fencing. If that doesn’t keep them from destroying the paddock, I’m not sure what will.

Seriously, the horses need a job. You know how destructive teenagers can get when they are bored, especially when they top out at a ton apiece.

Tuesday night I went to a meeting of the local chapter of Slow Food. In some ways, I’m not really sure how to write about it. It only lasted for 1 1/2 hours but it felt like much more, there were so many ideas zinging around the place. The plans are ambitious but, with the number of motivated individuals involved, I think most will come to fruition. Stay tuned here for more details as things happen.

It’s snowing right now. This means that we’re all stuck on the farm. Some of us are working from home, but we’re all here. So, what’s the best way to entertain ourselves while snowbound? You guessed it; we muck out the horse stalls.

Now, there’s something quite philosophical about shoveling the daily contributions to the farm’s future, fully-composted fertilizer. Somewhere between the motion of sweeping and the organizing of neat little piles, I start thinking of the bigger cycles surrounding us. Tonight, I could hear a large flock of snowgeese on the way to their overnight grounds, a number of nocturnal birds kicking up a fuss, and the munching of big horses chewing hay. Everyone’s being fed and settling down for the night, the blanket of snow tucking everything in for a long nap.

It’s this routine that starts freeing your mind to ponder bigger things. When I’m alone, I contemplate the ebbs and tides of my life. I consider how my decisions have created my current existance and yet how new opportunities have completely changed the direction I’ve taken. Who could have known that only a few years ago, I thought I would never be able to live on a farm, play with horses, or grow my own food? Yet, here I am, and grateful to be so.

When there are more than one of us, we start chatting about plans for the farm, what we are going to plant in the spring, what buildings we want to improve, what cool wildlife we’ve seen hanging around. The snow starts falling harder. Then someone makes a crack about “frosted road apples” and how that’s NOT a breakfast cereal. We start giggling. I mention something about “poopsicles” and we all start laughing till we can’t breathe.

The horses, up to their eyeballs in hay, pay us no attention.