By Lorraine Nay, Alliance for Puget Sound Natural Resources. Photos by Courtney Baxter, Nature Conservancy’s Puget Sound Conservation Coordinator
It’s a wet and muddy day when we arrive at the Kowalczyk farm. The wet weather and its effect on the grazing pastures is just one of the challenges that Tory Kowalczyk faces on his farm. Tory recently worked with Skagit County Public Works to tackle the challenge of keeping his cows away from a creek that runs through his property and is part of the Nookachamps watershed.
Tory is a third generation farmer. His grandparents, farmers from Poland, settled in the area shortly after World War II and started a new generation of farmers in Skagit County. As Tory’s parents entered retirement, they were at a crossroads about what to do with the farm. That’s when Tory, who also works in construction, decided to step in and take over the 40-acre farm.
Growing up on a farm, Tory was used to having a direct relationship with the food he ate. He missed that relationship and was becoming concerned with food security. He found that other people in the community had this interest too. “There’s a lot of people that are hungry for it but don't have the opportunity or can't do it for themselves.” So he thought “I need to get back in it because there really aren’t many people doing this anymore.”
Working with a local butcher, Tory sells beef directly to customers in the community. With the current demand for locally sourced food, his business runs on “word-of-mouth” marketing, providing beef to people he knows through work, family and friends. “People really want to know where there food is coming from and how it was raised,” Tory explained.
As Tory spent more time on the farm and building relationships with his customers, he wanted to align his farming practices with the values of his business. His cows had access to the wetland areas of his property and he wanted to change that. “I don't want to produce a product that is having a negative effect on the environment,” he said. “We see the fish spawn in the creek and I don't want to be part of hindering that.”
He talked to his father about finding some money to do some planting or fencing to protect the creek. Around that time, his father saw an advertisement about the Puget Sound Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) posted by the Skagit County Public Works and Tory decided to look into it. “That’s how we got the ball rolling, talking about options and how we could do the fencing and the right things to do with the animals.”
Tory was initially hesitant about the program. “There was a lot of people who tried to talk me out of it.” They are afraid that farmers will lose their land to buffers and won’t have say in the implementation.” But Tory took the first steps and found that Skagit County Public Works was “respectful about everything.” He said, “We had inputs on fencing. There were some things we wanted to do differently and they worked it out.”
Tory found that the improvements to the farm are helpful for his business too. “When I’m talking to potential customers, they feel good about the product so it helps sell stuff too. Customers want to be part of something good, even if they can't be a farmer themselves. Yeah, definitely it is good for business if you can share that story.”