Washington’s Voluntary Stewardship Program begins to take shape

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Washington state’s Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) passed a milestone on March 8 when Thurston County became the first VSP pilot project to submit a final draft work plan for review and approval by the Washington State Conservation Commission.

Close behind is Chelan County, the second of two pilot projects commissioned by the Legislature, which is scheduled to submit its work plan later this month.

After this, the majority of Washington’s counties will be following suit over the next several years and VSP will take root across the state.

VSP is a ground-breaking program enacted by the Washington State Legislature in 2011 that requires the 27 counties that “opted in” to develop a voluntary process for meeting the State’s Growth Management Act’s goals of supporting and enhancing agriculture and protecting critical areas in watersheds designated by the county commission.

The program is an alternative to GMA regulations and enforcement actions, and the litigation that it has encouraged in recent years.

VSP requires that agriculture and environmental protection be treated with equal importance and that local communities work together cooperatively to develop metrics and benchmarks that can be used to determine if the program’s goals are being met.

In 2014, the two pilot project counties reached out to members of agricultural organizations, environmental groups, Native American Tribes and others to ask for representatives to serve on local VSP Watershed Groups. These Watershed Groups were then given the daunting responsibility of developing a draft Work Plan that turns an idea (voluntary stewardship) into to a working program.

Data collection was one of the first priorities for Work Plan development and the Thurston County Watershed Group (TCWG) quickly discovered that while there was a great deal of information available about critical areas and related environmental issues, local agricultural data was spotty, incomplete and often out of date.

TCWG’s solution was to create two subcommittees ­— a Technical Team comprised of environmental interests and government agency staffers to compile critical area data, and an Agricultural Viability Subcommittee comprised of local farmers, economists and educators to define “local agriculture” and figure out what it needs to be viable.

Over the next two years, the subcommittee conducted a national literature search with the help of county staff, consulted a variety of experts and conducted several work sessions with local agricultural producers and businesses. As a result, it came to several conclusions that have now been incorporated into the Thurston VSP Work Plan draft.

The first was that farming and ranching rely on a healthy and growing “agricultural economy” to sustain their operations. Agricultural producers need a reasonable return on their investment of time and money in order to stay in business and keep “working lands” working.

Secondly, the subcommittee identified five critical elements that are necessary for “agricultural viability.” The categories that these elements fall into are 1) Land, 2) Water, 3) Infrastructure, 4) Regulatory Reform, and 5) Access to Markets, Finance and Information.

Finally, the subcommittee created a two-track approach for assessing the “value” of local agriculture. The first track involves a “market analysis” of agricultural economic activity to determine the contributions that it makes to the local economy.

The second track assesses the “social or community values” that local agriculture, especially food production, represents in order to capture its non-monetary worth. The latter was deemed important because it accounts for why people are willing to “buy local,” sometimes at higher prices, and helps capture all of the many benefits that local agriculture brings to the communities that it supports.

One other important feature of the Thurston plan is the notion of “adaptive management.” VSP is a new and innovative approach for supporting agriculture and protecting the environment and so its implementation will have to be dynamic, starting with the best information available and then filling in the gaps through lessons learned. During an informal review of the Thurston plan in January, one member of the state review panel wryly noted that creating a VSP program is much like “passengers flying in an airplane while they are still in the process of constructing it.”

The Thurston VSP Work Plan draft received good marks and positive feedback during its preliminary review and is now before the State Conservation Commission for final action. The Commission has 45 days to act and if both the Thurston and Chelan plans are approved and receive Legislative funding for implementation, Washington State should have active VSP programs underway on both sides of the Cascades by this summer with more to follow in the coming years.

The author is volunteer member of the Thurston Watershed Group and has been serving as the chair of the Agricultural Viability Subcommittee. He is the managing partner of Friendly Grove Farm in Olympia, Wash., and is a former member of the Thurston Conservation District Board of Supervisors. In a former life, he helped one of Washington’s larger counties enforce environmental regulations as a deputy prosecutor.