Board Spotlight: Rick Vanderknyff

Meet our new Board President, Rick Vanderknyff.  Rick has been on the PCC Farmland Trust Board since 2008, and has served as chairperson of the strategic planning and board development committees.

Please tell us about yourself.
I am a journalist by training, and worked as a writer and editor in daily newspapers for 15 years, primarily the L.A. Times, before moving to online media. I work for Microsoft now, as a senior content publisher. I’ve been in the Northwest for a decade, and I live with my wife and two teenage sons in unincorporated Woodinville, right between the Sammamish and Snoqualmie valleys.

Why is organic farming and food of interest to you?
I’ve been interested in land conservation and environmental issues all my life. I became active in high school, as a congressional district coordinator for a coalition that helped push Congress to protect tens of millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska, and I’ve had a hand in it in one way or another ever since, including some environmental reporting. The interest in farms and farming came later in life, probably first through buying shares in CSAs and slowly learning what was happening to our food system and food security under large-scale, industrialized agriculture. I’m passionate now about the farming side, but I also deeply appreciate the way the Trust’s work is protecting and enhancing habitat even as it supports and enables organic, sustainable agriculture.

Do you have a fun farm story or experience you’d like to share?
Honestly, most of my time actually setting foot on farms has been since I joined the Trust board, and now I do it every chance I get. I learn so much every time I get to interact with one of the amazing farmers on the properties we protect. As for fun stories, there was one hay ride between farms outside Walla Walla on one of our public tours that was fun in retrospect but a little harrowing at the time. And I’m a fan of the pumpkin trebuchet that Erick Haakenson has out at Jubilee Farm in Carnation.

What is your hope for farming and food production in the state of Washington?
The two halves of the state, divided by the Cascades, are so different in scale and type when it comes to farming. In Eastern Washington, where we preserve two large tracts, ag is robust but I hope we can move the needle toward practices that are better at preserving soil and more efficient at using water, and less dependent on GMO seed and other industrial inputs. I think that will be a slow but necessary evolution, and there are some signs of hope. In the western half of the state, we’re lucky to live in an economically thriving area but of course that puts all kind of development pressure on the land. My hope is that we can work with our partners in the government and nonprofit spheres to preserve as much rich farmland as possible before it’s paved over, and to ensure that it’s affordable for the next generation of farmers to come and build viable farm businesses on. I’d like to see thriving agricultural areas with diverse, organic, family-scale farms that can help to rebuild some of the market infrastructure that we’ve lost in the last several decades. So first it’s about slowing or outright halting the rapid loss of farmland we’ve experienced since 1950 or so, and then it’s about promoting the kind of farming that will still be feeding us and our descendants into the next century and beyond, after the cheap oil era is over. I want to see practices that work with the land, and not against it.

If money were no object, what would you most like to see the Farmland Trust accomplish?
We did a lot of stakeholder interviews a couple years ago and the message was very clear: You’re doing the right thing. Just do more of it, and do it faster. So, we’ve been picking up the pace, but to really scale out to meet the need and really change the game means more money and more creative ways to fund our acquisitions. And we’re working on that.

But you said money’s no object, so here goes. The thing we’re uniquely positioned to do, and the most urgent need, is preserving as much land as possible and as quickly as possible. And we’re learning how to do that strategically, in areas of concentration where numerous small farms in close proximity can benefit from some economy of scale and build more durable, economically viable agricultural areas. Small, isolated farms just have a harder go of it, and farming is a hard enough business as it is. The second and almost equally important thing is making sure that the land we save is affordable and available to the next generation of farmers. We don’t want to preserve fallow fields – we want working organic farms on all our properties. And we’re at this really critical inflection point in American agriculture, where the average age of existing farmers is approaching 60 and many of them don’t have succession plans that keep their lands in agricultural production. At the same time, there’s a whole generation of young potential farmers who often don’t have the capital to get onto the land and build their own businesses. So we’re working to build smart partnerships that can help address this issue, and get farmers on the land to build the next agricultural boom in Western Washington.

My interest in organic and sustainable farming is not some nostalgia trip. There is overwhelming evidence that our current conventional farming system is not reliable for the long haul. It’s predicated on cheap oil and other inputs, and it’s wasteful of soil of water, and I believe it will prove brittle in the face of climate change. I see the small farms we support as laboratories. They’re producing food today, but they’re also rebuilding a deep knowledge of the land and inventing ways to keep farming viable into the future. For me, this is all a deep investment in the future of our region.