Last summer, Margaret Morales from Sightline Institute visited the farm to learn more about our trial agroforestry plots.  Below is a nice article she wrote for PCC Market’s, Sound Consumer, a local, grocery coop’s newsletter.

Sound Consumer January 2020 | By Margaret Morales, guest contributor

Nick Pate agroforestry pioneer

Nick Pate can look across the street from his farm into Washington’s Snohomish River, where five salmon species swim to their spawning beds. The salmon are fighting a losing battle with habitat loss, declining water quality and rising water temperatures. Chinook are among the hardest hit—less than 10% of their historic numbers now swim in the river.

When Pate bought his farm a little over a decade ago, he found a small creek running through it, flowing straight to the Snohomish. Its banks had been nearly stripped of vegetation. Riparian habitats—the diverse and delicate ecosystems along waterways—protect water quality and have an enormous impact on aquatic life, yet they are vanishing from Washington’s landscape. Since its statehood in 1889, Washington has lost over 50% of its riparian habitat. That loss is a key obstacle to salmon recovery.

Three years ago, Pate began experimenting with agroforestry—a farming technique in which producers include trees and shrubs throughout crops and pastures to boost both resilience and yields. Agroforestry is not new. Generations of indigenous people all over the world have practiced agroforestry, and it remained common on Cascadian farms and elsewhere through the early 20th century. Today, however, most commercial farmers in Cascadia ignore it. Pate believes agroforestry could hold the key to protecting the creek water and keeping his farm competitive.


Thriving riparian buffers cool stream temperatures by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cut erosion, and filter fertilizer runoff and pesticide drift before those toxins enter the water. Those services make them critical for salmon survival, yet these ecosystems continue to degrade and disappear in Washington.

Over a third of Washington’s salmon streams on private land pass through agricultural zones but state programs to aid farmers like Pate in protecting streamside habitat aren’t working. The programs rely on voluntary enrollment, offering farmers financial incentives to participate. In exchange, almost all programs require farmers to take the riparian acres entirely out of production. For most producers, the benefits of enrolling aren’t enough to offset the financial loss. In 2007 Pate enrolled some of his creekside acres in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federally funded program for conserving environmentally sensitive areas on agricultural land. The program covered the cost of planting native trees and shrubs along the creek and pays an annual rent for the land that he’s taken out of production. The payments amount to less than $400 per acre each year. In exchange, Pate agreed not to graze his animals or harvest anything in the buffer, nor grow anything other than CREP-approved native plants. Nick says the money doesn’t cover the cost of his lost production.

Pate isn’t alone in his disappointment with CREP. Farmers across Washington have enrolled fewer than 6% of the state’s total qualifying stream miles in the program. Carrie Brausieck, a resource planner at the Snohomish Conservation District, believes the program’s rigid “no touch” rules—which prohibit farmers from using the enrolled acres in any way—discourage enrollment because payments are too low to make participation pencil out. The financial loss from taking riparian acres out of production may be hardest on smaller farms, like Pate’s, where the program’s minimum buffer widths—which range from 35 to 100 feet—can eat a large portion of total farmable land, including many of the most productive acres.

As Pate’s frustrations grew, the Snohomish Conservation District approached him with an alternative to the no-touch model. Instead of paying Pate to keep his land out of production, the district wanted to help him create a working riparian buffer, using agroforestry practices to produce revenue while still protecting the water and fish habitat. The district gave Pate a small grant, coupled with technical design assistance, to plan and plant three agroforestry trials near the creek.

In one area he planted a food forest, intermingling aronia berries, currants and huckleberries with hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts. He planted rows of cider apples in his hayfield to create an alley cropping system. The land produces two distinct yet symbiotic crops—the hay keeps orchard weeds down, and the trees shade the grass to extend the growing season. In a third area, he installed a silvopasture—a combination of trees and pasture—for his Scottish Highland cattle, adding alder, willow, walnut and locust trees to a grazing field. The trees reduce heat stress for the cattle, the locust provides a second forage source, and the walnuts will produce nuts to sell commercially as well as income from timber.

None of the trials come right up to the creekside. Rather, Pate situated them like a second line of defense, behind thinner strips of native plants that directly border the waterway. The combined width of the native plant alleys plus the agroforestry swaths is larger than CREP’s buffer requirements, creating more opportunity to filter fertilizer and pesticide runoff before it reaches the creek.

The intermingling of plant species above ground supports a more diverse microbial world below. That complex web underpins soil health, nutrient availability and pollinator abundance. Together these benefits can reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, saving farmers money and reducing toxic loads in nearby waterways. When designed well, working buffers can still achieve the water quality and cooling benefits of no-touch native riparian buffers.

Pate’s three agroforestry trials could add nearly a dozen new income sources to his farm—from currants to timber to hazelnuts. That’s been one of the most important benefits of agroforestry for him, as it’s made his farm more resilient to market and weather volatility.


Farmers face enough risks from the weather and markets; adopting new farming practices adds the risk of the unknown. Orchard trees can take up to a decade to reach peak production, and farmers on tight budgets may not have the reserves to wait out those lean years. A smart agroforestry plan can ease startup by including fast-growing species that provide more immediate returns. Conservation programs could also provide bridge funds to help farmers make up lost income during the initial years.

Polycrop systems also complicate harvesting as many crops require specialized processing before they are ready for market. When those facilities aren’t nearby, the added supply chain complexity can cut into profits. And finally, there’s the wildlife. Beavers have now moved into Pate’s creek, drawn by the newly inviting surroundings. Though beavers are important for restoring salmon habitat, they can also destroy nearby crops, making them not only a nuisance but also a liability. Similarly, as it’s become harder to mow the hay with the new cider apple trees in the way, enterprising voles have moved in to feast on the trees. When Pate does mow, deer are all too happy to munch on the young trees. These challenges are often greatest during the startup years, making bridge funds and technical support particularly important.


Though agroforestry is garnering national attention for its climate, ecological and economic benefits, support for implementation in Cascadia remains meager. Pate’s grant was a one-off, not a sustained program.

The lack of investment means most farmers in the region don’t know about agroforestry, and most conservation districts don’t have technicians like Brausieck with the expertise to design high-functioning systems. Pate is willing to wrestle with the startup challenges of agroforestry in the hope of long-term benefits for the salmon and his farm, but he’s a rarity. State and federal conservation funding programs will need to prioritize agroforestry as a viable tool for riparian restoration before more Cascadian producers consider it.

All this comes in the midst of a larger conversation about the failings of riparian habitat restoration in Washington. Many Northwest tribes are concerned that existing voluntary incentive programs aren’t enough to save the salmon. Though agroforestry could help make voluntary programs more attractive to farmers, it won’t address the broader question of whether the state should more strictly regulate streamside restoration. Still, these techniques may offer a place to start bridging the stakeholder divide.

More extreme droughts and floods loom on the horizon for Cascadia’s farmers. As these weather events become more common, resilient and multimodal farming methods like agroforestry may become necessary for continued stable food production in the region. As Brausieck emphasizes, farming must adapt to a changing climate before the crops fail and the salmon disappear.


Margaret Morales is the lead researcher for the Farms and Forests program of the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to making the Northwest a global model of sustainability. This article was originally presented in longer form at

A Speech

This speech was presented at the Snohomish County roll-out of the Snohomish Conservation District’s Agricultural Resilience Plan.  I was asked to give a small talk about myself, my farm, and issues involving agricultural resilience to future pressure of sea level rise, climate, population, and economics.


Good evening, my name is Nick Pate.  

I am the owner/operator of Raising Cane Ranch. A small, organic, 40 acre farm located on the Snohomish River.  We grow berries, apples, hay, and raise a small herd of beef cattle.  My family and I have worked with the Conservation District since we moved here in 2008.  With their help, we have diversified our hay acreage by installing about three acres of riparian habitat and started 3 (experimental) agroforestry plots.

I got involved with the Ag Resilience steering committee after contributing to PhotoVoice.  That photographic project connected me with the challenges facing my community and environment.  Themes such as hillside housing and river valley flooding, made me all too aware that upland developments, with their gutters, street sewers, and impervious surfaces, inadvertently treat precious valley cropland like drain fields.   

Unlike Dan, I am a first generation farmer.  I did not grow up on a farm, and I am unsure when any of my ancestors was last a farmer.  

So it’s no surprise that I never intended or wanted to be a farmer.  Growing up in the Mississippi River valley, I wanted to fish and hunt.  Agricultural land was game land, and in my youthful ignorance I assumed farming was a lowly, dirty job that harmed rather than helped the environment.     

So I went to college to become a Wildlife Biologist.  During my studies at the University of MN and finally FL, I continued to learn and believe that farmers were a significant cause of wetland, forest, and habitat loss.  What’s more, they were major contributors to land, air, and water pollution.

Loving Nature, loving wild spaces and the outdoors, it was difficult THEN to see farming in a positive light.  In my youthful ignorance, it was near impossible to understand or relate with the ideals of farming.  To me, it was a problem, and an impediment to a healthy planet.  

Obviously, I was out of touch with a few things.  Most importantly, that glaring, yet detached reality that farmers FEED US. . . . and the simple truth that farmers are generally GOOD PEOPLE.  Amazing in fact.  They work hard—long hours for little pay.  Often they run a business alone where all tasks and success fall on one person’s shoulders.  They care about their animals and crops, their family and community, and they care about the land.

And all this effort and dedication under rain or shine, flood or fair weather.  Farmers keep working to protect their property, profession and livelihood while producing FOOD FOR PEOPLE.

THIS IS AGRICULTURAL RESILIENCE.  It is already underway and implemented, but it needs our help to remain viable in the future.  As we all know, Snohomish County is one of the fastest growing counties in the Washington State.  Developments, houses, and shopping centers are sprouting up like weeds.  Farmland and Forestland is lost everyday.  Meanwhile food producers and land stewards are being pushed out to the fringes of the county or out of state because of rising property costs, taxes, and increased bureaucracy.

Snohomish County needs to retain and enrich these farmlands and green spaces. We need to protect them as a buffer and balance to suburban sprawl.  We need to preserve the cultural heritage OF families that still grow food, and FOR families who wish to come out and enjoy it.  

We need to support the Conservation District and causes like the Agricultural Resilience Plan in order to implement thoughtful land use and policy for the future. 

I mentioned earlier that I never I wanted or intended to be a farmer, so you may rightly wonder what I’m doing here.  Well, it’s Cindy’s fault. 

Honestly, I owe great deal of gratitude to Cindy, Carrie, and Bobbi, along with farmers like Ben, Spencer, Libby, and Dan for keeping me in agriculture and, in turn, Conservation.  With their help, we have created a unique landscape where beaver, voles, and deer chew up my trees and crops, while I chase them off my fields and ask: What was I thinking?

Despite THIS irony, I continue to support and assist the conservation district and their efforts, like the Ag Resilience Plan, which genuinely STRIVE to make possible the BEST FOR BOTH WORLDS.




I took a long break from writing.  Good weather and more work kept me outdoors trying to catch up on pruning, mowing, planting, and infrastructure maintenance.   Even today, a Friday morning in early November, the day is clear and cool, while I, with a guilty conscience, dribble out what shallow thoughts I can conjure.

Yes, the dry sky beckons me to work, but instead, I waste precious time at a high table (it hurts to sit) typing . . . slowly–a lazy farmer neglecting his duties–slowly searching for expression.  In my defense, and more to inform and not come across as a whiner, my body can’t handle much more.  Farming is hard work.

“Psst, well, yeah.”

Perhaps, (I type only as rhetorical nonsense.) I am stubborn and I don’t readily accept conventional wisdom, or it’s my nature to think I can do anything, and for ten years I have pushed through injury and pain with this keep-on-going-this-sucks attitude, but the reckoning years of my mid-forties are telling me I’m an idiot and farming is hard work.

Perhaps there is something to that whole rural-urban migration where people can get paid more and work less physically hard.  It sounds tempting.  I lived that life and honestly left it for no good reason other than I bought a farm and needed to farm it.  Now, as my shoulder pings with pains of past pruning, digging, raking, or loading hay I realize farming is hard work.

Perhaps I credit my amazing neighbors.  Who, from my pin-whole view of their lives, it seems they are made of sterner stuff than me.  From my vantage across grass, rye, corn, and Christmas trees I believe they have it figured out and work is as easy walking.  If only I tried harder, grew more, sold more, and worked more I’d be successful like them.  Instead, I waste hours trying to heal body and spirit by running-resting, work-resting, swimming-resting, work-resting, walking-resting, work-resting, and writing-resting.  It should just be work; there is always more work; for farming is hard work.

Perhaps if I started with raw land, or forest land, or a farm with finished buildings, the work would be easier and I’d have a clearer direction and purpose.  Maybe a new tractor, or a different implement would save time and labor so I’d have more with the family or for myself.  Or is it the animals?  Get rid of the cows.  No more sheep!  Damn horses.  The dogs are so needy.  Then again, what if I grew a different crop?   Or better yet, just one crop.  The land would be more manageable, profitable, and easier to maintain.  No, I think the best solution is to hire a farmhand to do the pruning, mowing, and weed-whipping.  A little more help around here is the answer because farming is hard work.


Perhaps we should sell this place.  Find a small parcel with a small garden and a small house.  Somewhere quiet, and far from all the people.  No hunters, pumpkin traffic, barking dogs, jet boats, airplanes, or mooing cows, but instead, bird song, a gentle breeze, light rain, and occasional car down a nearby road.  That’s it, let’s sell this place. . . Although I’ll miss seeing the sunset over the river, or a crisp morning sunrise over the mountains.  What will become of all the trees?  It would be fulfilling to see those saplings become a forest.  And then there’s all those families who love coming to the farm for apples . . .  What about my kids?  Or their kids?  Think of what they’d be missing. . .  What I’d be missing?

Just a lot of work.

Perhaps farming is hard work.  But so are most things that matter.


Felis domesticus

I love my cats.  Kitty Coal and Storm are an essential part of the farm.  Why?  Because they’re our pets and we enjoy their company, personalities, presence, but most of all . . .

I hate rats.

Otherwise, domestic cats are the scourge of wildlife.  Unfortunately, they are amazing hunters who don’t distinguish between a Townsend Vole and a Norway Rat (official name of rat).  Furthermore, they don’t take the time to see if the bird is a House Sparrow or a Song Sparrow before they ambush the unsuspecting brown bird.  They just go for it.

So, in a way, they’re a necessary evil.  However, there are a few practices people can adopt to keep the felines from killing every little critter.  For instance, we feed them.  Sounds crazy, I know, but some landowners I’ve known actually thought not feeding their cats would make them better hunters.  Sure, desperation is a motivating force, but it’s cruel to the animal and it drives them further afield after the easy prey is gone.  This pushing away has two negative impacts.  One, it means more native wildlife are killed on the fringes of the farm as cats roam outside their home range.  Two, you’re more likely to lose your cat.  Coyotes, bear, raptors, and cars prey on cats, and if you’re starving them to the point of desperation, they are going to risk predation in search of a meal.  Keep your animals fed and taken care of so they will stay close to the property where rat removal is needed most.  Besides, cats often hunt because of instinct, irregardless of hunger, and a healthy cat could arguably hunt better than a starving one.

Another obvious practice to reduce unwanted feline predation is by spaying and neutering your animals.  After all, it’s a pet.  If we neglect to control the breeding of any animal the concern we intended to solve becomes a bigger issue (and eventually everyone else’s).  Cat numbers should stay in proportion to the farm size and rodent problem and enjoy a family pet not a pest.

With that in mind, give love and make them feel welcome.  If you’re goal is like mine, and you don’t want rats getting into your house and barns, then they shouldn’t be feral and afraid of people.  Personally, I like my outdoor cats perusing the house foundation or even peeking into the garage or mudroom once in a while.  If there’s something hiding, they’ll find it.

Lastly, inside cats are the best for preserving wildlife and keeping the pet alive.  As a conservationist, I struggle with the contradiction of having domestic cats around the farm.  I can only imagine what diversity we would have if it weren’t for these little predators scaring things away.  Just yesterday I watched a California Quail roam the yard  until Storm chased it away.  This is a loss, but until our 100+ year old house is rat proof or we don’t have chicken grain and seed around, Felis domesticus is my answer.


Snow! days . . .

The Pacific Northwest receives snow about every year.  Most of the time, we in the coastal lowlands get maybe an inch or two, which lasts a day or two.  However, further inland, as you rise in elevation and climb the Cascade Mountains, snow packs are measured in feet and can last until summer.  Overall, it’s a wonderful combination.  You can have your snow and leave it too.

Then came February 2019 and everything changed.  Snow fell and stayed.  Snow fell again, and again, and what was inches nearly approached a foot.  Businesses closed, school closed, and for a few days, the world around us was a lot quieter.

At first we were all giddy with “No school!”  Days were spent frolicking in the fresh powder.  Sledding, snowman building, walks, and general appreciation of the winter beauty (It’s as if snow seems to changed our point of view, it adds a layer of exotic to an otherwise mundane scene).  Yet the novelty is short lived; especially for adults, who are accustomed to kids in school, routine, and clear roads.  We say, “enough is enough,” and surprisingly long for a day at work and things “back to normal.”  Eventually it does, and what seemed like forever is but a wisp of time, and later, a story of “remember when . . .”

We are fortunate.

Now, as a disclaimer, I do not make light of the hardships this weather, or of  any extreme weather affecting humans on the planet.  Rather, I wish to exhibit how this snow shocked some of the wild things around the farm, and how that change is a life or death situation.

Specifically, the inches of snow was traumatic for small, ground birds like the Spotted Towhee, the Song, Golden-Crowned, and White-Crowned Sparrows, Oregon Junco, Western Meadowlark, American Woodcock, and American Robin.  These critters had their world erased.  Literally overnight, the all-you-can-eat-buffet closed, their homes were buried, and they were black spotted in a white world where every creature who wanted to eat them had a much easier time doing it.

Due to this constriction of habitat, the birds of my yard were restricted to the bare patches of ground or concrete that exist underneath barns, sheds, or trailers.  They tried scratching and pecking at the bare earth or manure pile in hopes of finding some sustenance.  This, in turn, concentrated their numbers in small spaces making them more vulnerable to predators like barn cats, coyotes, and hawks.  Moreover, birds like the Western Meadowlark that visited the manure barn were completely out of their element and thus, less likely to forage and perceive danger.


We take for granted the idea that animals have adapted to nature and they know how to survive, yet longevity in songbirds isn’t that long.  Given that the average backyard bird lives between 2-5 years, it is very likely that most of the birds I observed this winter had never seen a snow fall like this one.  Frankly, they were not prepared.  This fact dawned on me, or landed on me, as I stood in the yard and had a Junco alight on my head.  I was Snow White for a second!  Surprisingly, it wasn’t my charm that drew it, but the complete disorientation it felt in the snow.

To be fair, the snow cover wasn’t complete chaos for all living things.  Ground dwelling mammals, like mice, voles, moles, and shrews probably cherished the extra protection afforded by a layer of snow.  They were able to explore, scavenge, and range about in the shrubs and grasses under a protective roof of white while hungry eyes above could not see them.  Coyotes, owls, and hawks can hear their goings-on, but the signature pounce takes practice, and rarely do these predators have to work through a medium like snow.


Notice how this rodent was able to tunnel into open grass.  Normally, such exposure would be folly and equal a quick end.  It will be interesting to see if a couple of weeks of reduced winter predation will translate into more voles this summer?

It is mid March now, the only snow left is where I piled a bunch with the tractor.  It too will dissolve–probably today, yet other signs of February’s snow remain.  As I walked the fields this morning, it was evident that a great iron had smoothed out the wrinkles and compressed the dry grasses into a mat.  Everything looks depressed and broken from winter’s weight.

Alas, spring is here.  I unplugged the livestock trough heater this past week and a new calf was born Monday.  Also, the white foot hills in the distance are returning to green as the snow at lower elevations melts with the coming warmth.  By the beginning of next week, where temperatures may reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the river might run high with the sudden surge of runoff.  Hopefully, it stays put and we can get to work on the garden, the fields, and the barns (Where all those blasted Starlings and House Sparrow survivors are trying to make nests!).  Until next time.