Tilth Alliance awards organic agriculture grants

A worker riding a tractor at Boldly Grown Farms, in Skagit County.

A solar-powered compost system. Seed saving equipment. Drip irrigation systems. Tree protectors for a nut orchard where sheep graze. These organic and regenerative agriculture projects and dozens more are getting a serious boost statewide thanks to more than $550,000 in grants from the nonprofit Tilth Alliance.

The Washington State Organic and Sustainable Farming Fund provides annual grants to farming projects that support organic and regenerative agricultural practices and mitigate climate change.

“There’s not enough money (in farming) to invest in the infrastructure that farms need to deal with these issues,” said Melissa Spear, the alliance’s executive director.

That’s especially true for small and midsize farms who typically struggle to access grants. An award of $1,568.79 to help replace an organic raspberry patch, as one Leavenworth farm received, or $3,500 to complete a solar-powered irrigation system, as one Colville farm was awarded, can make all the difference. Awards are a maximum of $10,000 apiece — a rounding error for a large-scale corporate-owned farm, but life-changing for a small producer who might not even generate that much profit in a year.

“It is really hard to survive as a farmer. A little investment like this helps them to have economic viability, to increase their beneficial environmental impacts, to produce more food for their communities,” Spear said. She noted innovative projects in the grant applications, like one proposal to study biochar for soil health.

Washington state is an agricultural powerhouse, and large farms export many commodity crops around the globe.

“It’s easy to think that’s mostly what we do (in the state),” Spear said. “But we have a thousand farms, and 80% of them are small. They are doing really important work, a lot of innovation occurs on these small farms.”

 

Combating climate change

The 2024 grants included $73,000 in contributions from PCC — $48,000 that previously had been directed toward purchasing renewable energy credits, as well as $25,000 from funds that in earlier years were granted directly from PCC to supporting organic farming. The majority of those funds went toward projects known to reduce carbon emissions, such as solar energy and composting facilities.

Contributing to the Tilth projects aimed at combating climate change, instead of purchasing energy credits, came about because “the landscape of our grid has really changed” since PCC first purchased renewable energy credits, said Mike Wenrick, PCC’s director of purpose.

Companies now have financial and legal incentives to use renewable energy that they didn’t have in the past, he noted. The price of producing clean energy has become cheaper, and at times costs less than “dirty” sources such as coal and gas. Laws now mandate using renewable sources, such as Washington’s Clean Energy Transformation Act requiring the state’s electricity supply to be free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. The Tilth projects proposed by local organic farmers had more of an environmental effect – and more of a guaranteed and local impact – than the credits.

Grant reviewers, who included farmers, Tilth staff and other agricultural professionals, including PCC staff, read through 112 applications and debated them in a series of online meetings. Applications had to meet Tilth’s stated requirements, including that multi-year projects were not an option and that farmers must have a minimum of two years of experience. The committee considered each application’s environmental sustainability impact, impact on the business’s success, community impact and feasibility.

Frequently, applicants noted that they would share equipment with neighbors or new knowledge with the greater community.

Meet the Washington farmers

Boldly Grown Farm in Skagit County, for instance, wants to expand from its existing vegetable crops to adding grains, dry beans and seeds. Those crops “are truly the bedrock of agriculture and the basis for our diets,” co-owner Amy Frye wrote in the grant application. They’re a great rotational crop for vegetable farmers and improve the soil — plus, growing seed crops would “increase local seed sovereignty and reduce our reliance on corporate agribusiness.”

However, “appropriately scaled equipment doesn’t exist in our agricultural community” for small or mid-size farms to dry and clean those crops. Existing grain elevators and seed handlers in the region need 10,000 to 20,000 pound batches to work properly, at a minimum, while the local farms are producing 50 to 5,000 pounds.

The $7,995 Tilth grant will help the farm buy a small-scale mill to winnow grain and build a seed dryer. In addition to producing their own beans and seeds, the farmers would offer seed cleaning to other regional farms and host public community workshops.

Such projects are an amazing investment, Spear said. “Then you’re not just helping that farm, you’re helping farms in that community.”

Other high-impact projects included building fencing for rotational grazing so farmers can incorporate livestock along with crops.

A particular focus for the grants was making sure they properly represented applicants who didn’t speak English as a first language. Immigrant farmers were underrepresented in the initial scores, but Tilth staff did a second review to make sure they were judging the intent and impact of the proposed projects rather than the fluency of the writers. Ultimately that group had a similar percentage of approved applications.

Tilth prioritized grants to farmers who were Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC), female, LGBTQIA or veterans.

The goal is equity, Spear said. “One of the things we really want to do is make sure we are not disadvantaging certain communities. We want to make sure we are sending money to communities that have been ignored, that have not gotten these resources.”

A few other highlights among the many 2024 grant recipients:

  • Dancing Goats and Singing Chickens, an organic farm in Yelm, received a grant to create eight irrigated one-acre paddocks for goats and sheep. The project will help restore pastures on the 12-acre property, improve crop diversity and allow the farm to ration forage for winter feed rather than buying hay — saving labor as well as money and making the farm more financially viable. Farmer Muhammed Ayub spends considerable time educating the community on farming and permaculture and focuses on hiring people who might normally have employment difficulties, including veterans and formerly incarcerated people. “He has been a mentor and inspiration to all of us,” wrote one supporter.
  • Jembe Farms, a 1.5-acre family-run farm in Port Angeles, received a grant to add a rose garden to its existing business of vegetables and cut flowers. Jennifer Unruh who runs the farm with husband Gabriel, wrote that the perennial flowers would feed pollinators, add to the cut flower bouquets she has learned she has a talent for arranging, and would provide a unique benefit for local florists. One florist wrote in a letter of support that it would be valuable for many businesses on the peninsula to have a local source for roses, which typically are imported from other countries and have a high carbon footprint. In addition, Unruh wrote, they would be beautiful for shoppers and visitors to the farm. “I believe that flowers decrease stress and add to our well being as humans,” she wrote.
  • Priscilla and Albert Ndlovu grew up working on farms in Zimbabwe, and currently farm on Ekuveneni Farm on a half-acre plot at Horseneck Farm, a shared 25-acre property in Kent. After growing food at a community garden provided through the International Rescue Committee, they wrote, they completed Highline College’s farmer training program and began their own small business. There is an “untapped” market for growing crops to meet the diverse needs of the community, they wrote in their grant application, such as a variety of collard greens they grew that is popular in other countries but not widely available in this region. They applied for a Tilth grant for supplies to help shift their farm to no-till or low-till gardening, to improve their production and quality and provide an opportunity to share tools with their farmer-neighbors. “We are very hard‐working farmers, but we have recently learned that there are some inexpensive tools and supplies that can help us work more efficiently and dedicate saved time to other aspects of farming, like marketing our produce,” they wrote. A letter of support from the director of Highline’s sustainable agriculture program wrote that the grant could improve the sustainability of the Ndlovu’s farm, the environment — and the 50 neighboring farmers on the same site.

 

Learn more

Visit TilthAlliance.org for more information.

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