This year hasn’t been kind to farmers. Between the extreme weather and the soaring prices of fuel and fertilizer, farmers could use some good.
Farmers in Washington State have a major cheerleader on their side: a sheep farmer named Linda Neunzig. From writing policy to listening to a farmer who has shown up on her porch for help, Linda is there.
She knows community support is the only way out of a tough place.
That’s how she’s survived many “hundred year floods” – floods so severe they have a 1% chance of happening in a given year. And unfortunately, due to climate change, these floods are happening more often. In dark times, farmers need to lean on each other to survive.
Hear what it’s like to evacuate hundreds of sheep off of a flooding farm and listen to Linda’s flood evacuation love story on this episode of Rooted: Where We Stand.
Rooted’s host and executive producer is Kyle Norris. Our editor is Mary Heisey. You can find out more at forterra.org/rooted. And you can contact us at email@example.com
Find additional episodes here.
Music in this episode:
Theme: Ghost Beatz: Beauty in the Struggle
JAYA (Raise): Slurple
Fleece Mob: Time Is Up
Dresden, The Flamingo: Dessert for Dinner
KN: You’re listening to Rooted: Where We Stand, a podcast from Forterra. I’m Kyle Norris.
There’s a family farm in Arlington, Washington, about 50 miles north of Seattle. Where Linda Neunzig raises sheep.
It’s early summer (2022) and we’re sitting on her elevated deck in the sunshine. The farm is deep green along with hayfields and barns. And beyond that, the foothills of the Cascades. And even farther, Mt Baker.
The Stillaguamish River horseshoes the land. Her property is in a valley and surrounded by the river on 3 sides.
With us are Linda’s dogs. Some working dogs, others, not so much.
(Scene and sounds of Linda & Kyle on the farm)
LN: And I always say Tabby is a phenomenal working dog in her mind. It doesn’t go beyond her mind.
KN: She thinks she’s a great worker?
LN: In her mind. She’s phenomenal!
KN: But in practice?
LN: Not at all. She’s always in the wrong spot, in the way. She’ll be the one who stands in front of the gate you want the sheep to go into.
LN: Hi Ella!
KN: Then there’s Ella, a one year old Central Asian Shepherd with big, happy, energy.
LN: She’s gonna keep the coyotes out, cause coyotes will come in and they will kill a lot of sheep every year. They’ll kill lambs, they’ll adult yews. They’re really bad. One year I lost almost 30 lambs to bald eagles. So she will chase them off before they get near.
[Sounds of LN & KN walking in the field]
KN: Linda, a few of the dogs, and I head out back behind the barn to move a flock of sheep to a new area of grass.
It’s called “rotational grazing” or “strip grazing.”
Here’s the basic idea: we’re in a big pasture.
And a smaller area–about the size of a skinny soccer field–is roped off, with some netting.
It reminds me of volleyball netting.
The sheep have eaten most of the grass in this particular area, so Linda will relocate them to a new patch nearby.
LN: So we’ve got, this one is eaten down to 4-6 inches. So they’ll come off of this field now and go to the next one, which is probably 18 inches tall. So they’ll graze that one down. Then they’ll go to the next one. So these fields that they’ve been on… it’ll rest & it’ll grow back. And once it’s at this height they come back in. So it’s the best way to manage your forage so you don’t waste it. And it’s as healthy as possible. The more intense grazing will fertilize your fields naturally more. So it works out really good.
Linda manually moves the netting to create a brand new skinny soccer field.
[Linda calls to the sheep] C’mon girls, cmon girls (baaa). Go around. (Baaaa.) Cmon girls!
KN: You can barely see the tops of them–because they’re in a sea of beautiful green grass with lots to eat.
Linda says that’s been one good thing about this year’s weather–it’s been good pasture weather.
Because overall, it’s been a hell of a year for farmers.
In fact, Linda says farmers have been hit hard with extreme weather– it’s been very wet and cold.
And let’s zoom out and look at the big picture: climate change is affecting agriculture in big ways, and it’s projected to get worse. In Washington State, the EPA says temperatures are projected to increase by about 3 to 10°F by the end of the century, especially in the summer. Summer precipitation is projected to decline, with fewer but heavier downpours. Farmers like Linda have already felt the effects of climate change on their farms – and globally this includes extreme floods to heatwaves, droughts and wildfires. Especially this year.
LN: This is by far the worst…I wanna say year, but definitely spring. There’s a lot more year to go, so we’re hopeful that, ya know we’re farmers we’re optimistic. We’re hopeful the rest of the year will get better. We’ve got hay that should have been cut a month ago and we haven’t been able to, because we haven’t had the dry, the warm, the ability to cut it & dry it to be able to bale it. And that is absolutely everybody. Putting things in the ground, everyone’s a month behind, there are still fields they can’t get into which means stuff’s not going to get planted.
KN: Linda says farmers have also been hurt by the skyrocketing prices of fertilizer and fuel. She says everything farmers do depends on their tractors.
LN: And buying fuel for that tractor is insane. Fertilizer costs–through the roof, we’ve never paid fertilizer costs like they are today. But most farmers are diversified so they’re not relying on one crop, they’re relying on multiple crops. They’re all gonna get hurt this year, ya know no matter what the crop is. But you hope as the year goes on you they balance out, and you survive this year, if you can survive the year, then next year will be a better year.
KN: And as farmers survive the year, Linda says what she can do, is to be there for them.
[Music: Time Is Up – Fleece Mob]
Now I haven’t said this yet, but Linda is a big deal.
She’s the agricultural coordinator for Snohomish County. It’s a one person office. She’s worked there for 15 years. And she invented the job!!
LN: That job is so important to me because I work with the people I care about, and that’s the farmers. And any way that I can help them is what’s important.
KN: Her job covers a LOT of bases. Some days, she does farming and agriculture education. Hosts farming conferences and attends fairs. Other days, she works on policies to support farmers. But if you asked Linda what she does in this role, she’d say she “creates stuff.”
One of her biggest projects she’s been working on for 15 years is a giant food and farming center. It’ll have a processing and distribution center for farmers, a commercial kitchen, and a year round indoor farmers market. It’s expected to be built in 2023 in Everett, Washington.
Linda also helps create things like the Darrington Wood Innovation Center–a place that will make a product called cross laminated timber. Used to build on-site modular homes, in the small town of Darrington, Washington.
LN: But probably the most important part of the job is being there for our agriculture community. Whenever they need help on, maybe it’s policy work, maybe it’s permitting, maybe it’s can I do this? Or how do we change things so farmers can do this? Being there to be that person for them and to make those connections for them and to be able to work on policy that will help our farmers. So those are opportunities that I have to be able to help a community that I care a lot about.
[Music fades out]
KN: This is all her official job. But she’s a beacon of support in a more casual way, too. Farmers call her, text her, and sometimes show up on her porch for support.
During my visit to her farm, one farmer texted Linda for advice on buying a livestock guardian dog. And Linda told me, farmers texting each other is a whole thing. And sometimes it’s just about sharing the ups and downs of your day. Like this:
LN: What are we gonna do, it sucks out here?! It’s raining again. Or ok, you guys can laugh at me my tractor is stuck, ya know, I tried! (laughs)
KN: Linda says sometimes those simple one-liners hit home and you can relate to them and laugh.
It works the other way, too. Farmers support Linda. In fact, that’s how she found love – thanks to a flood evacuation.
Remember how I said Linda lives in a valley? And her farm is surrounded by the Stillaguamish River on 3 sides? Well, the entire valley floods when the river gets too high.
And Linda’s dealt with “100 year floods.” That means they’re so severe, they have a 1% chance of happening any given year. And yes, they can happen every year.
In fact, these floods are happening so often, the term may change. Research from Princeton and MIT show that 100 year floods will happen every one to 30 years because of climate change.
Which means these floods can be intense and fast. When the Stillaguamish River floods, Linda has a few hours to relocate all of her animals. That’s before her property is submerged in 15-20 feet of water in the back area. And 3-4 feet near the house and barns. It’s actually why her house is elevated. And she says keep in mind–that’s bad if you’re a sheep that’s a few feet tall.
LN: In the 20 years that I’ve lived here I’ve had I think 5, maybe 6…100-year floods. It’s climate change, it’s development, it’s all the different things that affect us. Everytime I hear Pineapple Express or Atmospheric Trough on the news it’s like oh crap here we go again. And we evacuate every single animal off of this farm.
KN: These days, that includes Linda’s 200 sheep and 6 horses and all the dogs. And there’s only one way in and one way out of the property. To relocate the animals to higher ground, it’s a whole production that involves friends, neighbors, and an entire caravan of trailers. Everyone involved takes care to be as gentle as possible so as to not stress the animals.
And this is another impact from these floods caused by climate change: Linda’s sheep can get stressed in these evacuations. And some of the pregnant ones can even end up losing their embryos. Which means, Linda’s losing animals and money and time because of these evacuations.
Now you also need to know about this guy:
Todd: I have some good news!…Diesel dropped 40 cents!
KN: That’s Todd Macomber. He’s a farmer who was raised on his family’s farm, 12 miles from Linda’s farm, in Granite Falls.
Linda and Todd’s mom are friends through the farming community. So Todd & Linda had met a few times over the years. And Linda ended up helping Todd’s parents take care of their cattle in a year when Todd’s dad got sick. Then, during one of the coldest winters in decades…Linda’s well pump exploded in a freezing storm. And Linda says…
LN: And his mother sent him over–you go fix that for Linda.
KN: And then the river flooded Linda’s valley quickly. This was back when Linda hadn’t owned the farm long, and she wasn’t prepared.
TM: My mom sent me over to help her evacuate the sheep and the cows from the flood.
LN: And we were not expecting the floods like we had–we didn’t know that was going to happen. Obviously watching the flood gauges but we didn’t know that things were gonna change that they did and in the river behavior. We had 1 hundred year flood before that–but it’s 100 years, it won’t happen again. Little did I know, it’s gonna happen a lot more times.
KN: Little did Todd know, he’d be evacuating Linda, too.
LN: He had to carry me across the water at one point… it was fast.
They ended up evacuating the sheep to Todd’s farm. Get this: The pregnant sheep got stressed and had their babies early. And they had a lot of babies.
LN: And that’s the year we left with 3 lambs and came home with 44. So the fact he still speaks to me is pretty amazing. That’s love I guess. Right? (Laughs.)
TM: Anyway, the relationship just kind of evolved into the shoe fit. I mean, that’s how simple it was.
LM: Yeah, no. There was never, hey you wanna go get dinner?! Ya know, probably stopped to get a burger on the way to the hardware store.
KN: Todd says the next thing you know, they’ve been a couple for 11 years.
TM: We still have a hard time figuring out, let’s say maybe an anniversary date. We don’t really know when we actually became a couple (laughs) it just kind of fell in.
KN: Todd’s telling this story over morning coffee at the farmhouse of his neighbor, Ron Chew. Every morning at 7 am, you can find farmers drinking coffee around the Chew’s kitchen table.
And Ron is loving this story.
[Scene at the kitchen table]
KN: I have to say Ron is laughing over here. What’s the…
Ron: Oh… that’s cute because I (laugh), yeah, it’s cute because he said it just right. It seems like it’s always, Linda’s always been there, so.
KN: Morning coffee time is guy time. But Gayle Chew, Ron’s wife, makes the coffee. She makes 14 cups and usually 4 or 5 guys show up. Right now, she stands at the sink, washing strawberries.
[Scene at the sink]
KN: Um I have to say these strawberries smell delicious.
GC: Don’t they? Yeah they’re beautiful. I’m really pleased with the slow spring. We weren’t sure what we would get but they’re good.
KN: Describe the colors of these.
GC: Oh, they’re a deep, deep red. They’re beautiful berries.
KN: Gayle says, when the guys are here in the morning, she stays in the background.
GC: I leave ‘em to their chit chat, I go about my business. Sometimes I’m outside, sometimes in the back of the house, doing whatever. Sometimes I’m in here but not always. That’s their thing.
KN: Yeah what do you observe?
GC: I just like the friendship, that’s what I observe. I observe guys that get along, who enjoy talking about farming or what’s going on in the world or in sports. It’s all done in friendship, and I love that.
KN: Ya know, I spent an hour hanging out at the kitchen table with the farmers. So not a lot of time. But it became clear these folks work their butts off from sunrise to sunset. And they rely on each other. Ron is retired from farming but he spends a ton of time helping Todd farm. And I got the feeling, that morning coffee means something more than just coffee.
TM: this check-in is really, it’s, it’s, it’s more about family. I mean, Ron and Gayle are like a second father and mother to me. Um, I’ve known them since I was a little child. And, uh, it’s just part of what I need to do every day to start my day off right.
KN: So in a tough year, farmers have relied on each other for support. And a big part of that support is to be there for each other, and listen and blow off steam and tease and talk with each other.
And Linda said, that part about helping people, it’s how life should be.
LN: Ya know it really should. We should know who our neighbors are, we should know our community, we should know the people around us, and we should be helping them.
In a hard year, Linda grounds herself in what she knows works.
Sometimes you need to send that text when your tractor stops working so you can laugh instead of scream. Maybe you’re like Todd and need that morning cup of coffee with people who are now family to get through another day of a rough year.
I’ve been thinking about rotational grazing. How Linda will move her sheep to a new part of the field so the land can rest. And the grass can grow back in a healthy way.
Land needs time to rest. And breathe. And be. We need moments to pause and connect. Especially during rough times.
Thanks for listening to Rooted: Where We Stand.
Rooted’s Host and Executive Producer is me, Kyle Norris. Our editor is Mary Heisey.
“Rooted” was created by Forterra. A land trust that envisions people and nature thriving together in a place where everyone belongs.
Linda Neunzig is a member of Forterra’s board. Where she shares her expertise from an agricultural perspective. And helps Forterra work to conserve farmland throughout Washington State.
You can find out more at forterra dot org.