The Skagit River Valley

Posted in Farming on Thursday, May 05, 2022

The Skagit River Valley

Home to some of the world’s best soil and the most iconic river delta in Western Washington

On any spring or summer day, you would most likely agree that the Skagit River Valley is just about the most beautiful place to be in the world. Surrounded by fields of potatoes, tulips, hay, berries, vegetables and grains, this unique delta is home to a bounty unlike any other in the world. Located in northwestern Washington, the western portion of the basin flows out of the foothills onto the largest delta in Puget Sound. The delta is split by Interstate 5 and is also arguably the most productive agricultural region in Western Washington. It is home to some of the best soil in the world and includes approximately 60,000 acres of subtidal farmland. The Skagit River is home to all five salmon species, including the most abundant run in Puget Sound of the iconic Chinook.

Balancing the protection of farmland with the protection of Chinook salmon has been the focus of farmers, landowners, tribes and concerned citizens for more than 20 years. Years ago, it was determined that the solution to salmon recovery is salmon habitat restoration integrated with successful farming. Farms are the best neighbor to salmon-bearing streams, and farmers within Western Washington, and specifically the Skagit River Basin, operate on generational land and thin margins. For most, the land has been held by family members since the late 1800s.

Area Farm History

“Commercial farming in the Skagit Valley began in earnest in the 1880s after much of the Skagit River’s flood plain was walled off behind dikes, converting a maze of marshes, streams and open channels into some of the most fertile farmland in Washington.” (Historylink, 2021)

Immigrants from the eastern U.S., Scandinavia and other European countries quickly moved into the region and transformed the marshes into productive farms. They found success with oats, hay, barley and potatoes. Later, farmers also grew vegetable seed, hops, green peas, strawberries, rhubarb, tulips and daffodils to support Washington communities. The early dikes often failed during heavy rain events, and Skagit River flooding ravaged the area. In 1895, the Washington State Legislature allowed landowners to organize into diking districts, which were responsible for maintaining the dikes and protecting the farmland behind them. Those same diking districts are operating today.

Land Management Today

Today, Skagit River Basin farmers have partnered with tribes, state and federal water and wildlife agencies, and salmon advocates to protect Chinook salmon in the area. Regional farmers provide and protect habitat for fish and wildlife species through a land stewardship model based on viable food and fiber production.

The Ruckelshaus Center helped study the issue, and in 2010, helped establish benchmarks for protection of salmon and their habitat on natural resource lands of long-term commercial significance and ultimately led to the implementation of a successful Voluntary Stewardship Program and other local efforts.

Voluntary Stewardship

The Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) offers counties and agricultural landowners farm-friendly options for protecting fragile and/or hazardous natural resources —referred to as “critical areas” — in places where agricultural activity is conducted. VSP uses financial incentives to voluntarily engage agricultural landowners in actions that protect critical areas such as wetlands and other fish and wildlife habitats.

Improved Farming Practices

Precision farming techniques have ensured that soil and crop health are considered, and water and fish are protected. Also, the land involved in Western Washington farm production is part of a scientific “rotation” of various crops that keeps land producing food in the most productive, economical and environmentally friendly way possible.

Improved Fish Passage

Not only have the dike and drainage districts improved their infrastructure, they have also made strides to replace old tide gates. Many districts have invested in more fish-friendly gates and better fish passage units.