Community Voices: A Conversation with Salmon-Safe

silver salmon

PCC’s mission is to ensure that good food nourishes the communities it serves, while cultivating vibrant, local, organic food systems. We’re proud to partner with organizations throughout the region and share their stories.

Salmon-Safe is devoted to restoring agricultural and urban watersheds so salmon can spawn and thrive. The nonprofit has certified some 95,000 acres of farm and urban lands. PCC began encouraging its growers to transition to the certification in 2006, which the organization has credited as an instrumental step in its growth. (See here for more history and here for the story of one notable farmer.)

Sound Consumer contributor Tara Austen Weaver recently spoke with Salmon-Safe’s farm program manager, Brian Muegge. A condensed, edited version of their conversation follows.

 

How did the Salmon-Safe certification get started?

The program was started in the late 1990s by employees of the non-profit Pacific Rivers, an advocacy and policy-focused organization. It was a pretty contentious era—if you remember the spotted owl and timber wars. We set out to work hand-in-hand with academic resources and farmers to find a system to protect water quality, habitat, and biodiversity in Pacific Northwest salmon watersheds. We started in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. A few years later we expanded to the Snoqualmie Valley, partnering with Seattle-based Stewardship Partners. We now work across the West Coast.

 

Can you tell us about the certification program and what that encompasses?

Salmon-Safe is third party, independent certification based on a farm assessment and peer-reviewed standards. Our standards focus on promotion of watershed health and climate resiliency across several key categories:

  • Enhanced soil health: enhancing water retention through practices like no-till or reduced tillage, as well as cover cropping of fields to promote increased organic matter.
  • Drought Mitigation: updating farm irrigation systems, tracking water usage, selecting drought tolerant crops, and seeking alternative watering sources that don’t limit fish habitat quality.
  • Water Quality Protection: bolstering rigorous on-farm approaches to Integrated Pest Management, phasing out harmful chemistries to fish and wildlife, and implementing cultural and biological controls.
  • Temperature Mitigation: restoring riparian habitat in order to enhance ecological benefits like shade, bank stabilization, and supporting aquatic fish and wildlife habitat.
  • Climate-Adaptive Farm Ecosystem: integrate native biodiversity through non-farming area habitat enhancements, and bolstering practices like crop rotations in-rows that support beneficial insects and soil organism diversity.

 

What are the negative impacts from farm to stream to salmon?

Sadly, there can be a lot—every one of our standards is getting at something that could be a negative impact.

Here’s an example, copper is approved for organic growers—but elevated copper levels in a watershed spells trouble for a lot of species in an aquatic environment. So we work directly with farmers, but we also work with other certification organizations to embed or overlay our standards on their programs. We’ve worked with the Oregon wine industry with their program called Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), so when growers are certified in their program, they’re certified in our program as well. We do similar types of partnerships with the Food Alliance, Oregon Tilth, and Demeter. Organic certification is connected to people’s health, but there’s not enough about the health of the environment.

 

What sort of reaction do farmers have to your work?

We take a really collaborative approach. This is all voluntary, so the farmers in our program are interested in collaborating and working together. We have good relationships with several agriculture sectors of the farming community—we’ve worked for about ten years with the Hops Commission and the Hops Growers of America, and the wine industry is similar. We’ve found the Salmon-Safe message resonates with farmers across political ideologies.

We just got a $6.3 million grant for eastern Washington from the Biden infrastructure bill. It’s a grant we will manage but the funds pass through to our place-based partners—like the Palouse Conservation District, the Blue Mountain Land Trust, and the Nature Conservancy of Idaho—who are already working with farmers and we can just add our program to the outreach they are already doing. This grant will have four initial partners, but it will expand to eight or nine; this is what we’ve been working on for twenty years and it’s finally happening.

 

Why is it so important to be aware of the impact of farming on salmon?

Salmon are what we call a keystone species. Within their food web, they are relied upon in an outsized way by other species. Let’s take a Chinook salmon. It spawns in rivers on the West Coast—and there are species within the river that like to eat their eggs, and species that eat the dead salmon. And the dying fish promote soil health due to the compounds in their skin and muscles breaking down and that brings nutrients into the forest and upper reaches of drainages where they spawn. And when those fry hatch there are so many species that eat them. And once they’re adults, they move into Puget Sound and the Pacific and provide food for the Southern Resident Orcas, who are endangered, and their primary food source is Chinook salmon.

When the conditions we are working against occur, salmon die—and their populations will continue to dwindle. They are cold-water species, so when you have erosion and sediment into a stream, it warms up the creek. If you have low water from irrigation withdrawal, it warms the water. All of these factors will lead to salmon populations dying.

 

What are ways that people can get involved and support the salmon?

Try to get involved in your local watershed—find out what organizations are doing conservation work. Maybe go see the salmon run at one of your local parks, like Carkeek Park and places that have viewing sites. There are really cool non-profits working to promote salmon conservation—Long Live the Kings is one, and they have volunteer days. And I would just implore people to think about where their food comes from. It’s really important to shop from retailers that are doing the work to make sure the food they’re putting on their shelf is doing the right thing. It’s important to read the label and pick the sources that have the lightest impact on the environment.

 

How to Help

For more information visit SalmonSafe.org.

Many products at your neighborhood PCC are certified Salmon-Safe (see the full list online here). Look for the label on products like Hop Frog Farm microgreens, and PCC’s private label eggs.

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