MOUNT VERNON — From family farms established in the late 1800s to habitat restoration efforts to the complex network of dikes and ditches that support agriculture in the delta, Skagit County’s fields are home to a rich tapestry of culture, history, agriculture and wildlife.
Looking to shed light into these storied aspects for residents and tourists, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland has prepared a tech-savvy driving tour called Talking Fields.
“The goal was to help the community better understand what’s going on in the agricultural landscape,” said Skagitonians director Allen Rozema.
The tour’s eight initial sites went live in December, marked by large signs adorned with big black and white QR squares — those squiggly-dotted codes that your smartphone can read — situated in pullouts overlooking gorgeous Skagit scenery.
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The sites focus on a handful of heritage farms in Skagit County, the history and necessity of diking on Fir Island, competing interests in the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Goose Reserve and the role agricultural researchers play in modern agriculture, among other points.
But Rozema has bigger plans for the tour that include targeted marketing, expansion to include up to 30 physical sites and a host of interactive ways to learn about the people and issues that define Skagit’s fields.
How it works
The tour starts by either finding the Talking Fields website (talkingfields.org
) or by biking or driving to one of the signs with a smartphone or tablet. Scanning the QR code (while connected to the Internet) with a smart device brings up an audio player with a track that corresponds to the site, and playing it will launch an audio explanation of the area.
The website features an interactive map that pinpoints each stop and a page with a list of audio tracks that correspond to each site.
Rozema said interactive directions to take tourists from point to point are in the works.
Points of interest
At the Dike and Drainage District 3 Headquarters in Conway, listeners can hear how early settlers endured ridicule and years of hard work to develop a diking system that turned wetlands into some of the world’s finest agricultural soil.
Current struggles for farmers are noted as well. Though Interstate 5 is an efficient means of getting crops to market, it brings pressure to develop farmland into commercial and residential areas.
Those who visit La Conner Flats Farm can hear a brief history of a farm founded in 1884. The crops have changed, but the same family works the land.
“I think a lot of people have driven by a lot of local farms, especially if they live here,” said Jen Hart, a fifth-generation farmer at La Conner Flats. “But they don’t really know anything about (the farms’) history, or what they grow.”
Rozema said each point of the tour was designed to touch the site’s human, cultural, agricultural and natural makeup.
“This is a great opportunity to showcase the interconnectedness of built, agricultural and ecological climates over the delta,” he said.
Along with letting locals in on what’s happening in the fields, Rozema said he plans to market the tour as a Skagit County destination.
Every QR code snapped at a sign records information about where the phone is registered, helping to direct marketing efforts, Rozema said.
Depending on funding, the tour could include up to 30 sites — some with points of view to explain complex and controversial issues — and additional interviews with key personalities.
“It’s an opportunity to have a dialogue with the public, share the full story,” Rozema said.
Elisa Minerich, development assistant at Skagitonians, said the content could be updated annually as well, providing an online archive of information on each site.
Rozema said although conflicts between farmers, environmentalists and conservationists have garnered headlines over the years, the tour is intended to celebrate what has been preserved in the valley.
“The fact is that Skagit County, since the 1960s, we’ve been working really progressively to protect these natural resources. We have the healthiest watershed in the Puget Sound and the healthiest agriculture economy in the Puget Sound. That’s what this is intended to celebrate,” he said.