Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The man where the road ends

A portion of the historic 78th St Heritage Farm, housing WSU Extension offices

On his previous jobsite “out beyond where the road ends,” they spoke only Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba, three of more than 150 dialects spoken in sub-Saharan West Africa.  Before coming to Vancouver, local WSU Extension Director, Doug Stienbarger, helped reforest Togo and Cameroon. Stienbarger was there as an agro forestry field manager. Swahili, which  he had learned in Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer, was useless in West Africa, so he employed native-speaking students and children to explain land saving measures to landowners. In Washington, we have different obstacles.
In Washington, “Water,” Stienbarger explains, “is at the bottom of almost any farm issue. When Africans buy a piece of land, they get what they call ‘customary ‘tenure’. They can farm, but the state owns the resources, and someone planting trees can claim that land.” But in Washington, water rights present an almost similar challenge.  For one thing, he explains, water rights in Washington were doled out in the state’s early days. Those who were landowners then, got them. But if a property was parceled out, the water rights stayed with the piece where the well was originally located. Owners of other parcels can drill domestic wells, but they are allowed only 5,000 gallons per day; and that’s not enough to water crops. So people use domestic wells for their farms and hope nobody complains. Stienbarger serves on the board for the Conservation District, and “they help influence water decisions. But,” he says, “The issue is far from resolved.”
Stienbarger’s passion with water issues is only indirectly linked to his WSU Extension job.  A ruddy-complected man, prone to head thrown back laughter, Stienbarger can tell you volumes about farming and resource stewardship in one breath, and an equal amount about green biomass in the next. But you’ll have a hard time finding him in the spotlight. Instead, coordinators Jen Naas, Watershed Stewardship Program, and Eric Lambert, Small Acreage Program, present WSU Extension workshops and answer day-to-day concerns. They are the face and Facebook of the Extension on their Watershed Stewards and Small Acreage pages and on the Extension website.  These county funded programs offer the public farm-related education. Stienbarger is the axle behind their hubs, and he is the can-do guy, helping farm start-ups learn to manage their natural resources efficiently and profitably. But when I asked to video him, doing what he does, he guffawed, “Only if I have a bag over my head!”
Some of Stienbarger’s reluctance to stand in the limelight might be well founded. According to Rob Guttridge, Waste Reduction Specialist at Clark County Environmental Services, “Some people steer clear of anything they think is related to government. They think we’re looking for infractions, and of course, a program director, Stienbarger in this case, would represent that. But the county’s role in funding programs like the Small Farms and Watershed Stewardship programs is only meant to improve the landowners’ quality of life. We aren’t regulatory at all, but people perceive us that way anyway. So we stay in the background.”
Neither is Stienbarger’s directorship always easy. When asked for a comment about the influence Stienbarger had in her life, one woman said, “No. I won’t say. Go ask his wife.” Stienbarger’s wife, Cindy Stienbarger, Residential Sustainability and Outreach Supervisor at Clark County Environmental Services, was unavailable for comment. But, according to Guttridge, there are people still angry over his firing of three heads of the Master Gardener program seven years ago. According to reports, there had been serious in-fighting that Stienbarger settled by rebuilding the program with an all-new staff and location.

 Click here to view the 2012 Small Farm Expo

Today we’re lined up for workshops at the Small Farms Expo. It’s taking place at the 78th St. Heritage Farm, whose buildings also house Extension offices. Whether it’s Lorrie Conway’s “Hands on Cheese Making,” Tony Migas’ “Mushroom Cultivation” or Denise Smee’s “Conquering Mount Manure, “we drift quietly from place to place, taking in what we want from the array of land management offerings. We’re young, we have our nursing babies with us; we’re 80 years old, farming trees now that we’re widowed and too stiff to bale hay; we’re professionals, looking for ways to avoid chemical weed control methods; we’re farmers, trying to make our farms yield enough that we can quit our day jobs. We’re all benefitting from Doug Stienbarger’s directorship at WSU Extension.
Clark County Environmental Services, Water Conservation District, 4-H, Juvenile Justice, Partners in Careers, the National Weather Service as well as WSU have shared interests in the Heritage farm. Some programs are privately funded, some non-profit funded, and some get governmental money. Doug explained that funding for various programs can come from anywhere, and that programs and funding changes all the time. He said, “We WSU staff-members are actually tenants here. In 1989, the county agreed to supply office space, utilities and whatnot, and the university supplies the faculty.” There’s a kind of beauty in the arrangement, and a sense that important ground is being broken here. Again.
Again, because, until 70 years ago, the 78th St. Heritage Farm was the county poor farm. In a program dating back to 1898, the farm housed and fed the homeless in exchange for work at farm duties. The 78th St. property was given to the county by the Anderson family in 1871. After the original building burned down in 1922, the county replaced it with one that looked more like an Italian villa than a poor farm. Those were the years when Washington cities were establishing their first radio transmissions, Time magazine published its first issue, J Edgar Hoover took over the FBI and the poor farm provided a setting where impoverished people could work, live and eat.
When you walk along the thick walled halls of Stienbarger’s building today, you can almost hear the tread of a hundred years of people inching toward a new start in life. It’s because they’re coming back.  The same acres that fed the homeless in 1912 are stocking the county food bank in 2012. This time the crops are grown by juvenile offenders doing restorative community service, by displaced veterans who are putting their lives back together and by volunteers wanting to reconnect with community, “working together like we used to do.”
As folks around town line up for a shared seasonal garden plot and a renewed community experience at the 78th St. gardens, others are moving back to the country, and acre by acre, hoping to turn their land into money.  After a farm acreage low in 2003, USDA statistics from 2007 showed that figure increasing. Today there are more than 2,000 farms in Clark County, the average farm cultivating less than 40 acres, and these are the kinds of people Stienbarger is there to serve..  Instead of major farm businesses growing hundreds of acres of one or two crops, many farmers in Clark County today come from urban or non-farm backgrounds. For quite a few, their farm businesses started out as a hobby or a second income. Some of them knew little or nothing about farming or even marketing when they started. That’s why Stienbarger runs annual 12-week Living on the Land and AG Business seminars and that’s where his Farm Finder database comes in. Product information for any farm in Washington or Oregon is on the WSU Extension website, and people can get the information using the tool. “It’s not 100 percent accurate,” Stienbarger admits. “There are farms on there that are gone, because I only hear about needed updates if somebody tells me. Plus, a lot of what we have is happenstance. There are 1,700 farms in that data-base, so there’s no way I can check on each one regularly.” Yet, Stienbarger is the man who pores over Farm Finder visitor stats gleaning IP addresses as if they were baby chicks, and acts like a man who would check and update every contact himself, given the time.

Doug Stienbarger says farms and farmers are as varied as tomato strains, each farmer unique and each farm producing its own special harvests according to its own business plan. CSA’s, roadside stands, restaurant supply farms, commercial nurseries, dairies, poultry farms or what-have-you, they all have one thing in common.  They all have a better chance of success because of the programs Stienbarger runs. According to him, they are Clark County’s stars, but if that’s true, he must be the sun.

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