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Mary Lou Peterson is the first female county commissioner in Okanogan, and runs orchards with her husband, Dan. Photo by Geraldine Warner

Mary Lou Peterson is the first female county commissioner in Okanogan, and runs orchards with her husband, Dan. Photo by Geraldine Warner

Farm women are strong women, and they need to draw on that strength to help ensure that the family farm survives, Mary Lou Peterson told participants at the Washington Women in Agriculture conference this spring.

“You women are the foundation of the family farms,” she said. “We’re strong people, all of us, because being a farmer makes you strong.”

Peterson grew up on a family orchard in Oroville, near Washington’s border with Canada, where she and her husband, Dan, grow cherries and peaches today. As a farm wife, she’s swamped out lugs of cherries, written the paychecks, and then figured out what the family would have for dinner. “I’m proud to be a food supplier in America,” she said.

She hopes her children and grandchildren will have the opportunity to farm, but she’s concerned about the future of family farms as they face increasing challenges. A constant barrage of rules and regulations not only threatens the farmer’s way of life, but also jeopardizes America’s ability to produce its own food supply, she said.

Her determination to protect agriculture led her to work with a number of grassroots organizations in Okanogan County over the years. In 2002, she was asked to consider running for county commissioner. “I thought you should either jump in and really work at it or keep your mouth shut, basically,” she recalled. She took the plunge, and became the first female commissioner in the history of Okanogan County.

Peterson encouraged women at the conference to speak out about their values and their rights.

“We need to be heard,” she said. “We need to speak about the positive issues and health aspects of what we raise to feed America. Farmers are the backbone of America, and you are the glue that holds the family together.”

Issues

Housing developments in rural areas are just one of the challenges facing farmers. Okanogan County has lost more than 10,000 acres of orchard in the last decade. Some of the acreage has been replanted, but much has gone into housing. “We’ve been discovered,” Peterson said.

“We have to let people know we’re an agricultural state, and we have a right to farm. There are going to be cherry boom guns. There’s going to be spray. There are going to be cows over the fence. There are going to be all kinds of workers out and about at 6 a.m.

People who move into the counties have to know these kinds of activities are happening and have a right to happen, and if they move to our counties, they have to accept that we have a right to farm.”

Okanogan County has a Farm Operations Ordinance that states that the county will not consider the inconveniences or discomforts arising from agricultural operations to be a nuisance if such operations are legal, consistent with accepted customs and standards, and operated in a nonnegligent manner. As part of the permit process, before property is developed close to agricultural lands, the purchaser must sign an acknowledgement that they have been notified of farm operations.

Other challenges face farmers, also:

Water: Farmers must have sufficient irrigation water to grow the crops, Peterson said. Last fall, the Washington State Department of Ecology hired a company called West Water Research LLC to find water rights to buy in Okanogan County to mitigate for municipal water rights issued in the Tri-Cities area in southeast Washington.

The department dropped the plan after opposition from Okanogan County Commissioners who were concerned about the potential economic impacts of permanently transferring water rights out of the county.

“Don’t sell water rights,” Peterson urged the women at the conference. “Once they’re gone, you will never get them back.”

Marketing: “What benefit is it for our farm to produce a quality, healthy product if we can’t sell it or make some kind of a profit from it,” Peterson asked.

Labor: Proposed legislation concerning immigration reform could have a major impact, and farmers need to let their opinions be known before it’s too late, she said.

Unified

Peterson is cochair of the rural issues committee of the Washington State Association of Counties and helped establish a Council of Governments involving eight northeast rural counties in Washington State.

“We have come to realize that we have to take an active, participatory role in turning things around for rural counties. One county alone cannot stand by itself any longer. We need to be unified and help one another.”

Many at Washington’s capital in Olympia don’t appreciate the benefit that agriculture brings to the state, though it contributes almost $16 billion to the state economy, she said.

“We do count, and we must speak up. We have a lot at stake—our future existence and our right to farm. We can join our grassroots groups, build coalitions of women in agriculture, and go to Olympia.

She urged participants to write letters or call their legislators and join organizations such as the Farm Bureau or Washington State Horticultural Association.

“Have courage in the face of adversity,” she said. “Stand together. Make a difference, and become one unified, strong voice as farmers in protecting what we have a right to do—and that’s to be a farmer.”