Progress Edition

Eastern Washington Family Farmers: Group forming to provide a unified public voice to help preserve the future of family farming

Jason Sheehan, of J&K Dairy near Sunnyside, is one of the farmers leading the formation of Eastern Washington Family Farmers, an affiliate of Save Family Farming.
Jason Sheehan, of J&K Dairy near Sunnyside, is one of the farmers leading the formation of Eastern Washington Family Farmers, an affiliate of Save Family Farming. Courtesy photo

Farmers throughout Eastern Washington have been meeting since last November to form a new farm advocacy nonprofit to speak out publicly on important farm issues. Eastern Washington Family Farmers will affiliate with Save Family Farming and two other regional farm advocacy groups, Whatcom Family Farmers and Skagit Family Farmers. The new group will replace the Yakima Family Farmers affiliate that has operated as part of Save Family Farming for about two years.

“We are very encouraged by the level of support being offered for this new organization,” said Jason Sheehan, one of the family owners of J&K Dairy in Sunnyside. “Watching the success enjoyed by the groups in Whatcom and Skagit has caused farmers on the east side to come together to unify and speak out together.”

Sheehan, along with dairy farmers Markus Rollinger and Austin Allred, is heading up the formation of the new group, which includes a number of influential farmers from farming areas across Eastern Washington.

Dairy farmers have been facing repeated lawsuits from an Oregon-based environmental attorney supported by a few individuals and groups in Washington.

“These activists and their lawyers falsely accuse dairy farms of pollution and their actions have diminished the trust the public has in our farmers,” said Dan DeGroot, also a family dairy farmer near Sunnyside and a member of the formation group. “We are starting to work together as a community to reach out to the media and the public to make sure they get the facts about our farms and our progress and success in protecting water and the environment.”

Case VanderMeulen, a dairy farmer from Mesa, is also part of the formation group. He commented: “Working together with our partners in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, we can address policy issues affecting our east-side farmers, while together through Save Family Farming we can be much more effective in dealing with critical issues that affect all farmers across the state.”

One of those issues is labor. Domestic labor is increasingly difficult to find and many fruit growers have turned to the H-2A or guest worker program. Union activists in Whatcom County have fought this program, calling it “slave labor.” Save Family Farming launched an effort to counter the false information promoted by the activists on a website called ProtectFarmworkersNow.org.

“These activists think they can spread false information and people will believe them,” said Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming. “The public will believe them if there is no one to stand up and tell the truth. That’s where we come in. Their credibility is hurt and their impact on policy decisions diminished when our representatives and the voters know who is telling the truth about farm workers and how they are treated. Farm workers are hurt more than anyone else by these union attacks on our farmers.”

Another issue affecting farmers across the state is the Governor’s Orca Task Force and its recommendations, which include studying the removal of the Snake River dams.

“Voters in Seattle have the political clout in this state but have very little knowledge or information about the realities of farming, the environment and even the facts about fish recovery,” said Larry Stap, co-owner of TwinBrook Creamery, a small dairy farm and processor in Lynden and president of Save Family Farming. “We’re reaching out through videos, social media, and the media to set the record straight about these issues.”

Stap pointed to the video on Save Family Farming’s website that addresses the science of orca and fish recovery and shows that removing dams would do virtually nothing to help salmon or whales but cause massive environmental and economic harm.

“Water issues, labor issues, litigation, regulations, farm competitiveness in a global market, fish recovery and habitat –– all these and more affect the ability of our farmers to stay in business and pass our farms to the next generation,” Sheehan said. “We have some great people lobbying our representatives on these issues, but what has been missing is taking our case directly to the people of Washington, particularly those in our cities who are far from farms but who hold the political power here.” Sheehan expects the new group to be up and running and fully operational early this spring.

Whatcom Family Farmers was formed in mid-2015 following erroneous media reports about farm pollution and growing public activism against dairies led by the litigation industry. Save Family Farming began in early 2016 in response to the What’s Upstream campaign, which used EPA funds to run a campaign of false information about farms and pollution aimed at passing legislation harmful to farms.

  Comments