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Farmers lend a hand to wildlife

Published on July 21, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on August 18, 2011 7:38AM

Wheat will feed snow geese; ag group maintains freshwater access for salmon


Capital Press

FIR ISLAND, Wash. -- Under an arrangement with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, a Skagit County farmer is growing food for market and for wildlife.

Mike Shelby, of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, described the setup to a tour group sponsored by the Washington State Commission on Pesticide Registration.

Agritourism is a big part of the ag scene on Fir Island, west of Conway, Wash.

The Skagit Wildlife Area comprises 300 acres of the island, which is about 4 feet above sea level, Shelby said.

Riverine and marine dikes protect the land from high river flows and high tides.

Farmer Robert Hayton planted potatoes this year on the 300 acres, plus 200 of his own that he includes in the project.

Like everything else in this corner of the country, the cool, wet spring has slowed maturing of the crop, Shelby said.

Still, he said, the crop will be harvested before it's time to plant wheat, which will feed the tens of thousands of snow geese that regularly overwinter there.

Another cooperative effort in the nearby 70,000-acre Skagit Delta has the agricultural community working with state agencies to address the needs of Chinook salmon that spawn in the Skagit River. The Skagit provides 30 percent of the fresh water that flows into Puget Sound.

Because so much of the fertile land is below high tides in the sound, pioneer farmers in the mid-1800s established dike and drainage districts to maximize production.

As the salt water was drained from the delta, crops flourished in the rich soil.

Economic drivers now include seed crops, potatoes, berries, dairy and bulbs, Shelby said.

To maintain the salmon's access to their freshwater habitat, an initiative between farmers and the state led to the installation of tidegates and floodgates.

The tidegates are one-way check valves at the end of a drainage system that allow drainage water to flow to a marine watercourse during a low tide cycle, then close to prevent salt water from re-entering as the tide rises.


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