By Dan Bartelheimer
The Snohomish River Valley has for generations been a picturesque and peaceful setting.It has been comprised of a variety of small family farms having a small dairy herd along with fields of grass, corn, peas, berries, etc. Several creameries along with vegetable and berries processing and packing facilities were located in and around Snohomish. It has been a great place to raise a family or visit for the day. The community was small and the people could rely on each other when the need arose.
At the turn of the century, land was being cleared and cattle were being introduced to the valley. My grandparents, Fred and Agnes Bartelheimer, moved from Nebraska to Snohomish with their family in 1912 and started farming. Hay was cut around the stumps with a hand scythe. Equipment was nonexistent and almost everything was accomplished with the use of your hands and back. When my dad completed the eighth grade, Grandpa said “You have enough foolishness in your head, now it’s time to go to work.”
Diking and drainage districts were established within the state and ditches were dug throughout the various valleys to remove the surface water. Dikes were built to hold back the tidal seawater and floodwaters from the rivers. The elevation of the valley was close to sea level and pumps were installed to lower the water level within the various drainage districts.
In the early sixties, the diking and drainage districts within Marshland (located between Everett and Snohomish) and French Slough (located between Snohomish and Monroe) were changed to Flood Control districts. At that time, the federal government under the Small Watershed Act, improved the dikes along the Snohomish River and built structures that contained a number of pumps and floodgates.
During the Great Depression, men from the Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) would clear the land by hand slashing the brush and putting it on small piles for burning. The larger trees and stumps were removed with dynamite. My grandfather was the local distributor for dynamite until the start of WW II, but the government didn’t want a German immigrant dealing in explosives so the dynamite distributorship was taken from him.
After the land was cleared, the water table was lowered with either open ditches or buried drain tile to get the water to the district ditches. Draining the land with open ditches was easier but beavers would often build dams in them or cattle would get stuck in them. The buried drain tile had advantages but it required digging ditches by hand two to four feet deep. The ground was wet and the ditches had to be dug down six to twelve inches at a time.
Some called it “back up ditching” because one had to stand on the higher ground while digging to keep from sinking up to your knees. The first tile were cedar pungent, followed with cedar boxes, cement or clay tile, and now plastic perforated ADS pipe. Many of the fields with crops have 500 to 700 feet of drain tile per acre.
Just like life itself, farming in the valley has been evolving and changing. Many of the changes have been driven by a political agenda at the federal, state, and local level. Food production was a high priority during and after WW II and continued through the sixties. A shift in governmental policy evolved in the eighties and nineties away from food production towards environmental concerns.
Various governmental agencies, including the US Department of Agriculture, Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Snohomish County have placed a high emphasis on enhancing native habitat. As a result, thousands of acres of land within the Snohomish Valley have been removed from agriculture and have or will be replanted to native vegetation. The ultimate goal of the government may be to remove agriculture from the entire valley.
This country has a wide variety of soil types and climates and each has an advantage in producing specific crops. Certain crops are produced better in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else in the world. Each region within our country adds to the stability of a consistent food supply. A few months ago over half of our nation was in a serious drought resulting in a significant yield reduction in many crops. Food security includes both a safe and a consistent supply of food.
The current policy of protecting the environment certainly has validity and should remain a high priority for all of us, but it should and can be accomplished without jeopardizing the food supply. The soils within the river valleys and tidal flats are the most fertile and productive. The environment and society may be better served by leaving agriculture in the valley and focusing on conservation practices in the foothills and mountains. I hope we are not looking at the ‘final chapter’ of agriculture in the Snohomish Valley.
Dan Bartelheimer is the first vice president of the Snohomish County Farm Bureau.