February 10, 2016

Food Politics at Play: the Case of Tall Chief

Aiden IrishEcoAgriculture Partners

Most lists of the hot-button political issues of the day do not include food.

Contrasted with Machiavellian political maneuverings, food seems to be the antithesis. Wars have ended over the proverbial breaking of bread. Yet, before you savor that heartwarming image, imagine the groups that are involved in food.

Many stakeholders, many viewpoints

It is influenced by a overflowing list of entities including city councils, local, state, and national legislators, corporations, grocery stores, state and federal agencies, and banks and investors. Practically speaking, it is impossible to have this many groups engaged in constant negotiation over an absolute necessity without initiating political power dynamics.

Furthermore, over time, political interactions among these groups produce established norms, which manifest in embedded political cultures that are frustratingly resistant to change. Political cultures motivate decisions that are based less on calculated chess moves than old habits. As with all old habits, they are difficult to break. Case in point is Seattle’s food action plan.

Under this political umbrella, the city of Seattle, Washington adopted its food action plan in 2012, and in 2014, King County (which contains Seattle) launched the Local Food Initiative. The goals were to facilitate better distribution and nutrition, strengthen the local economy, and build resilience. The plans went further than many others by reaching beyond urban boundaries to the farming communities surrounding Seattle to protect farming land from urban sprawl and development. Almost immediately, however, the plan ran into political barriers.

The Tall Chief property

One of the early actions was to purchase the Tall Chief Property in the Snoqualmie Valley east of Seattle, in order to preserve that prime farmland from development and to support local agriculture. In 2013, the City purchased the 190-acre property for $4.5 million, rezoned it for agriculture, and issued a request for proposals (RFP) with the plan to re-sell the property for $700,0000. Among the list of objectives of the RFP were objectives to increase “opportunities for new and beginning farmers” and strengthen “the local food economy in [King] county through more production and development of farm support businesses.” Of the three proposals received, two garnered serious consideration.

The Snoqualmie Valley is a farming and timber-producing region located along the Snoqualmie River in Western Washington, United States. Photo by Eric Frommer on Flickr.

The Snoqualmie Valley is a farming and timber-producing region located along the Snoqualmie River in Western Washington, United States. Photo by Eric Frommer on Flickr.

Wide gap between proposals

The first was from one of the oldest and largest dairy farms in the valley, which proposed to use the land mainly to grow feed corn and thereby reduce feed purchasing costs by five percent. Despite the emphasis of the RFP on education and agricultural support for county, the dairy farm proposal only hinted at possibilities for how it might provide educational opportunities, none of which were supported by past work in agricultural education by the dairy owners.

The second proposal came from Seattle Tilth, a long-standing agricultural non-profit that intended to use the land as an incubation facility for local agriculture, providing technical support, training, storage facilities, and growing space for new and established farmers throughout the Snoqualmie Valley. Compared to the proposal from the dairy farm, Tilth’s proposal met all eight points on Seattle’s RFP. Furthermore, the proposed plan was supported by years of experience by Tilth on similar projects and programs. Given the two options, the choice seemed clearly in favor of Seattle Tilth’s proposal.

Seattle’s choice

To the surprise and consternation of many, the land was awarded to the dairy. The decision was made without consultation with Snoqualmie Valley farmers who had previously served as advisors to the Council and sparked a vehement debate about whether the City should reissue the RFP.

Despite months of constant pressure from community food and agriculture groups and concerned citizens lobbying the City to change its decision, the City of Seattle remained steadfast in its refusal to reissue the RFP. Instead it stood by a decision that seemed to directly contradict the stated goals of its own food action plan and the objectives of the RFP. While the Tall Chief Property remained an agricultural property, awarding it to the dairy missed an opportunity to strengthen and foster local agriculture on a scale that exceeds the production of a single farm. This begs the question; why would the city make a decision that appears to rationally contradict its own objectives?

The irrationality and silver lining of local politics

Why did the Seattle city council decide to award the Tall Chief property the way it did? The answer lies in the politics. Political decisions are rarely the result of rational consideration. If they were, the Tall Chief Property would have been awarded to Seattle Tilth. Decisions in political environments, rather, are the products of under-examined institutional norms and operations, manifesting in an established culture. Political cultures develop a kind of inertia – what political theorists refer to as “path dependency” – that can overrun singular policies that contradict the established culture. It is this cultural inertia that makes changing political systems so difficult.

The strongest tool for changing culture is the proximity of local politics. In the United States’ current national political environment, poor decisions based on outdated political norms occur at a level where decision makers are far removed from those impacted by their policies. On the local level, however, political decision makers cannot avoid personal interactions. The farmers impacted by Seattle’s choice on the Tall Chief property know council members personally. In this context, frustration is not buffered by physical or metaphorical distance, but immediately palpable. While this close personal context can make local politics more difficult, it also has the ability to more quickly motivate the kind of political culture transformation that is needed to truly affect change.

Despite the bold, transformative proclamations of Seattle’s food plan, the decision on Tall Chief very likely came down to the comfort of old habits. Seattle’s political culture was more comfortable with awarding the property to an established, production-oriented farm rather than to a more innovative, small-scale, education-focused manager. This choice sheds light on the importance of changing not just policies but the cultural contexts in which decisions are made. In doing so, the greatest tool available to change-makers is the physical and metaphorical closeness of decision makers to constituents. Changing political culture will be the most difficult step in transforming our existing food system, but ultimately it will have the greatest impact.

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