Pierce County staffer innovatively aims to save rural farming

Rapid population increase has positive and negative impacts. In Pierce County the loss of farmland is a downside of urbanization and a concern to county leaders who created a “farmbudsman” position, which was recently filled by the hiring of Carrie Sikorski.

Sikorski, whose background includes communications, marketing and regulatory experience, said her bottom line is to save farms. “The most challenging part is the race against time, because lands that are suitable for agriculture are being paved and forever lost to development at an alarming rate. The economics of business-as-usual work against farmland preservation. It will take strong public policy and key shifts in consumer behavior to hold on to agricultural assets,” she said.

She will be working as part of a team that includes members of the Pierce County FARM Board. The county created the Farming Assistance, Revitalization and Marketing program in response to the local agriculture industry downturn. The board is comprised of commercial farmers and other agriculture experts as well as key representatives of Pierce Conservation District and Pierce County’s Economic Development Division, Planning and Land Services Department and WSU Extension. She reports day to day to Olga Fuste, WSU Pierce County Extension chair.

“My mission is to motivate policy makers, consumers and farmers to make choices that allow agriculture to have a viable place to exist and to flourish in our increasingly urban/suburban landscape,” Sikorski said. “The market for our agricultural products in changing from big wholesalers and processors to a growing number of specialty markets. We have to enhance the systems that deliver farm products to consumers. Urban growth brings sophisticated consumer criteria for freshness, flavor, appearance and cultural values to the marketplace. If we don’t step up to meet that demand, growers in the counties around us will. We have leaders in many sectors working toward this goal. It is my job to facilitate these activities and increase the effectiveness of the programs and markets we collectively develop.”

Council members Shawn Bunney and Calvin Goings, whose districts include agricultural areas, were instrumental in creating the position. “Farmers are a dying breed, and this is our last chance to throw them a life ring,” said Bunney. “Our ultimate goal is to once again make farming an economically viable occupation in Pierce County.” Goings said: “County government has never had a full-time advocate for the family farmer. The farmbudsman will be a one-stop resource for farmers, so they can focus on their business instead of how to stay in business.”

Sikorski’s work with the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle following graduation from the University of Washington (BA, environmental geography) provides regulatory interpretation and communication background. “This will be helpful in assisting farmers with confusing and sometimes economically painful requirements,” she said. “I spent many years deciphering and applying a complicated set of new regulations, working directly with businesses and as a team member with other governmental entities. I feel I learned how to reach for creative solutions and find agreement among parties of diverse interests in a variety of political contexts.”

She spent 16 years at EPA – her last position was program manager for hazardous waste permitting and cleanup – and left when her second daughter was born. She then worked part time from her Vashon Island home as marketing director for a regional retail business that specialized in home furnishings made on Amish farms. She wrote ad copy, directed photo shoots, purchased media, designed graphics, led a re-branding effort and launched the company’s Web site. “I think I bring a point of view that will help facilitate the marketing component of the job,” she said.

“The very best thing is that I am being paid to help create opportunities for shoppers to buy local food. I am concerned about global climate change, and the one thing we can do on a daily basis to decrease greenhouse gas is choose foods with the lowest mileage to market on the odometer. I love that I can spend a large portion of my time talking and thinking marketing with farmers and local supporters of agriculture who have good intentions and creative ideas that build community.”

The FARM Board meets the fourth Monday evening of the month and meetings are open to the public. More information is available at (253) 798-FARM (3276).