Harts Lake – When you get right down to it, Jim Wilcox says, he doesn’t really know whether the 600,000 chickens his family keeps in cages are any less happy than the 100,000 that get to go outside every day and stretch their wings in open courtyards.
“If I were a chicken, I know where I’d want to be,” he said, “but who’s to say, really? Chickens are not the most intelligent animals on Earth.”
What Wilcox does know is that more and more U.S. shoppers believe eggs from free-range, organic birds are healthier. And he knows that when they see the words “free-range” and “organic” on a carton of eggs, they will pay a dollar or two more per dozen.
That goes a long way toward explaining why Wilcox Family Farms, the giant Pierce County egg producer celebrating its 100th anniversary this week, finds itself on the cusp of a revolution in corporate food production and the darling of environmentalists trying to save Puget Sound.
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Scientists say the Puget Sound ecosystem is nearing collapse, battered by pollution and loss of habitat. Agriculture is by no means the main culprit, but in certain critical areas, primarily along rivers and at their deltas, farmers face heavy pressure to change practices ecologists say contribute to the death spiral.
Environmentalists and government regulators are doing their best to convince farmers that sustainable agriculture and a healthy Puget Sound can make good economic sense.
The Wilcoxes have become Exhibit A in that effort.
Not only has Wilcox Farms lately become nicer to its birds, but it also has moved a herd of 2,500 Holstein cattle off its mile-long stretch of Nisqually riverbank and planted hundreds of trees in order to shade salmon-bearing creeks. Wastes the cows produced overwhelmed the capacity of vegetation on the riverbank to absorb nutrients, and temperatures in unprotected streams was too high for salmon.
It also now removes 100,000 tons of chicken manure from its 1,500-acre property each year, trucking it away from the river to organic farms throughout Washington and Oregon. The chicken manure had been too much of a good thing on the riverbank. Organic farmers elsewhere can put it to good use and are willing to pay for it.
Wilcox, whose grandparents started the farm a century ago, does not pretend that the changes were inspired solely by a sense of environmental responsibility, though he says that’s part of it.
“We’re changing for two reasons,” he said. “One, it’s good business, and, two, it’s the right thing to do.”
“Twenty to 30 years ago, we weren’t very good stewards of the land,” he said. “We’ve kind of seen the light.”
“The Wilcoxes saw the light very early,” said Monty Mahan, director of the Pierce Conservation District. In 1998, Mahan said, when Washington passed the Dairy Nutrient Management Act requiring dairies to contain their manure runoff, most local farmers did nothing.
“The Wilcoxes stepped right in and went to full compliance really quickly,” Mahan said. “The containment lagoon they built is a pretty majestic structure. You can seen it on Google Earth.
“To spend a few hundred thousand dollars on the containment of manure, we see that as a pretty significant act. That’s the sign of a responsible business owner.”
PROBLEM AND SOLUTION
The word “family” in Wilcox Family Farms is no marketing ploy. Despite its size, the company is a true family operation, as it has been since Jim’s Grandpa Judson discovered the idyllic setting on a trip down from Seattle in 1909.
Jim and his brother Barrie are now the older generation. Day-to-day management has pretty much been turned over to the fourth generation: Jim’s son Chris and Barrie’s son, Andrew.
In 1962, when the family moved into the dairy business, they saw the exploding population in the Puget Sound basin as a business opportunity. Under Jim Wilcox’s guidance, the family ramped up the farm’s dairy production to a peak of 1 million gallons of milk a week.
At the time, Wilcox said, few suspected the effect of growth on the environment.
As the population rises, so does the percentage of land covered with roads, parking lots and buildings.
That interrupts natural filtering processes and sends a toxic mix of pollutants into the Sound.
Since the 1960s, the number of people who live in the Puget Sound basin has doubled, to about 4 million. By 2020, the population is expected to have increased by another 1.1 million, the equivalent of five more Tacomas.
The population growth, with its accompanying pollution, urban sprawl and loss of habitat for fish and wildlife, has put the Sound in dire straits.
Every day, 154,000 pounds of pollutants enter the Sound, says David Dicks, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency tasked with halting the decline
Three years ago, the southern resident orcas joined Chinook salmon on the federal endangered species list. Orcas, a Puget Sound icon, are the most PCB- contaminated marine mammals on Earth. When they die, their bodies are so toxic they need to be disposed of in hazardous waste dumps.
In the struggle to save Puget Sound, farmers find themselves in the odd position of being regarded as part of the problem and also part of the solution.
Compared with urban sprawl, farming’s offenses are relatively minor.
On balance, farming is good for the Puget Sound, scientists say, because it keeps land in open space, provides wildlife corridors and keeps developers from laying down impervious barriers of asphalt and concrete.
Environmentalists want to keep farms intact and healthy, a difficult challenge because the price of agricultural land sold for development often is many times its market value for farming.
In Pierce County, as elsewhere, the agricultural land base is disappearing as residential and commercial expansion marches through Fife, Puyallup, Milton, Orting and beyond.
According to the Pierce County Agriculture Strategic Plan, one quarter of highly productive farmland in the Puyallup River Valley was committed for urban development by 2006, with asking prices as high as $1 million an acre.
Still, farms have issues, particularly on land thought to be critical for habitat recovery. Unfortunately for the industry, the best farmland also is the most critical habitat.
“One of the problems with farming in Western Washington is most of the good land is in river valleys,” Jim Wilcox said.
Livestock too close to streams, herbicides, pesticides, dikes and levees, the taking of water for irrigation are damaging the six major river systems that feed into the Sound.
The need to protect both farms and habitat has left environmentalists, conservation districts and government regulators struggling to find ways to encourage farmers to change their operations without endangering their economic survival.
The working theory, and the one the Wilcoxes have grasped for support, is that good environmental stewardship also can be good business.
Jim Wilcox freely admits he was skeptical at first.
In 1985, when he first heard of a new group called the Nisqually River Task Force, which was looking at ways to protect the Nisqually watershed, Wilcox rushed to get involved.
It wasn’t because he was particularly concerned about saving the watershed, he says, but because he wanted to keep the environmentalists in the group from making rules he feared would put his family out of business.
“I didn’t have the purest motives,” he said. “There were people talking about turning the entire riverbank into a national park, from Mount Rainier all the way down to the Nisqually Delta. That would have absolutely ruined us.”
Wilcox says he joined forces with other big landowners, including the Weyerhaeuser Co., with an implicit agreement to thwart whatever the group came up with.
Instead, Wilcox gradually became a convert, a change he attributes to the passionate yet reasonable approach of Billy Frank, the Nisqually tribal elder and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
In recent years, Frank and Wilcox have described Wilcox’s conversion so many times, before so many different groups, they have begun referring to it as “our dog and pony show.”
“Water is life for all of us,” Frank said. “It’s not just the Indians. We all need to work together on this. Jim understands that.”
The Wilcoxes have essentially given the Nisqually tribe open access to their property to work on restoration projects.
In cooperation with the state Department of Ecology, they’ve built a 40 million-gallon lagoon to isolate wash water from the chicken houses. Rather than overwhelming the land with the nitrogen-rich mix, they parcel it out widely and gradually, a process referred to as “fertigation.”
Visitors to the farm during its centennial celebration through Saturday will have the opportunity to hike on a three-quarter-mile interpretive salmon trail, to see the some of the results of their efforts.
BACK TO THE OLD WAYS
“We really kind of came full circle from my great-grandfather’s methods to today’s,” said Chris Wilcox. “We were running an organic farm in 1909 because nobody knew anything different.”
Now, he said, they’re doing it because it’s necessary and because they identified it as a business niche.
Increasing environmental awareness and local enthusiasm for the “slow food” movement, which emphasizes locally grown food and ethical, sustainable farming methods, has created a significant market, he said.
“What we’ve been seeing in commodity farming here and in the rest of the United States is that the only people who survive are the cheapest suppliers,” Chris Wilcox said.
“They just provide a product and try to be as efficient as possible. The commodity business has become the bane of every farmer in America.
“What we did is we sat back and tried to look for a different niche. We looked at our strengths and saw that they really are husbandry of the environment and our animals and being a local sustainable family farm.
“We’re really embracing kind of the new wave,” he said. “I’m excited, energized by it. The commodity world is depressing.”
The Wilcoxes have a ways to go. Out of the 700,000 chickens on the farm, only 100,000 so far are in new quarters and certified as organic.
The pace might seem slow, Chris Wilcox said, but he notes that retrofitting a single chicken house costs $500,000. They’ve done three of them in the past 21/2 years at a cost of $1.5 million and are trying to continue re-outfitting about 20 percent of their birds a year.
“You can’t just one day demolish all the old houses and replace them,” Jim Wilcox said. “We’re trying to be as aggressive as we can without just shutting down the business.”
The changes have been painful, Jim Wilcox says.
At the height of its dairy operations, Wilcox Farms was producing $300 million in annual sales and had more than 600 employees.
“Now we’re about one-fourth that big,” he said.
Last year, when they sold out of the dairy business, they were forced to lay off 130 of 365 employees.
Often, he said, what looks like free choice amounts to submitting to the inevitable.
“The thing you have to realize is that they (government regulators) have all the power,” he said, steering a company pickup along the perimeter of a hay field on his family’s riverbank.
“If somebody from the Department of Ecology comes out and says, ‘You might want to think about planting some trees along that creek,’ what you say back is, ‘When do you want me to start?’
“If you get into an adversarial position with them, you’re going to lose.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693