The year was 1990…

Photo by Martha T via Flickr

**PAID EDITORIAL**  Submitted by guest author Glen Johnson

Yeah, the floods were followed by a deep freeze that froze the floodwaters deep enough for cars to drive on.  When the levee dissolved, and the subsequent flood covered our Fir Island, there was no place for the water to go.  You see, Fir Island is mostly below sea level, river levees and dry dikes surround the 15,000 acres of prime ag land.  Pumps and tide gates aren’t built to handle this much water, especially when a river is filling it with 150,000 cubic feet per second!  This filled our Island within a few hours, which caused massive damage to homes and farm buildings.  Several dairy farms had to move thousands of animals, and the authorities had to blast holes in the bay dikes to let the water out as the tide receded.  Of course, this allowed the next high tide to flood back in again, not to mention the river still flowing into our bathtub island.  It was devastating, but we were lucky in other ways too.  Our roads and bridges and power grid, largely stayed in tack.  We could focus on the repairs without being encumbered by downed power lines and dysfunctional infrastructure.  It was interesting watching and feeling the trucks full of large rocks drive by our house.  Yeah, about 1 minute between trucks, day and night for weeks and weeks.  My wife and I felt 3.5 level earthquakes every time.  Lots of construction companies bought new dump trucks with the federal disaster funds that were made available.  These funds also bought the rock, paid the engineers, fixed the houses, and purchased the diesel that kept the project moving forward.

My farm was inundated like everyone else’s, so there went my multi-year stash of the best compost I could muster, and some of my late crops were drowned.  All sorts of logs and debris were needing to be removed from my land, not to mention moving most of my equipment to a friend’s farm up on the hill south of town.  I was already exhausted from struggling through the summer floods, so I could only wonder why they were just rebuilding the levee to the same standard and design as what had just failed.  I had to prepare for my next farming season, so I could only move forward as best as I could, but I kept it in my mind that they may need a different design.  The year of 1991 was somewhat better for us, but still less than ideal, so I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and the years passed quickly.  We went years without so much as a minor flooding event.  However, as surely as the rain doth fall, we had another precarious precipitation event, and the thought of a new design started to percolate just above my pituitary gland.

Our diverse little farm was becoming more resilient, as the perennial crops came to fruition, yet it was still a bit like a glass menagerie, I was running ragged.  Making a reasonable living from a small parcel of land was thought to be one of the greatest art forms by President Lincoln, but it is still not easy to achieve.  Help is hard to find, and housing them affordably is no easy task, but necessity is the mother of invention, so it wasn’t all bad.  I used some of my creativity to move a housing that was otherwise destined for the landfill.  I started to groom some of my inventive tendencies.  I devised some multi-cropping strategies, and a new composting system, and ultimately a new dike design.  I’ve been blessed with being around some very inventive farmers, and engineers, and fishermen, and teachers, and people that worked for me.  I’ve read the writings of some of the most innovative people who have lived, I’m constantly being inspired.  Being half Dutch helped, my ancestors, were real estate developers nearby, largely built Oak Harbor, after the Defense Department bought their farm.  One uncle pounded lime rock to powder for buffering our acidic soils that help the peas grow better.  My dad was a pipe insulator at the oil refinery and helped his brother-in-law at the rock crushing plant on the weekends, where I would tag along like a dirty sponge, sucking up knowledge and memories like a vacuum.  Little did I know that these events would lead to my deep understanding of physics.  I studied soils in college, which led me to more than 60 years of a career in many aspects of agriculture.  I was a picker and a grinner, so I stashed cash in my childhood savings account.  I became a wheel and tracked vehicle mechanic in the Army in Germany, which gave me the opportunity to observe Dutch dikes up close and personal, not to mention the ability to diagnose mechanisms that fail (like dikes).  I was a pesticide applicator for a few years, a cow miler for a couple more, and then a vegetable seed producer, and a processing plant worker, peas and corn and strawberries mostly.  Then more than a quarter-century of growing more than 50 different crops for farmers’ markets, restaurants, and wholesale.  Sometimes we did quite alright, but then my sister-in-law came down with Parkinson’s, and then my wife became unwell.  They both took lots of time and energy to care to give; they both died before their time, leaving me to cry and whine.    I was drained and strained, so I felt forced to sell my farm, and find another way to earn my pay.  It had been a tough way to make a living, but it had been rewarding too.  We knew that we were doing good work, teaching many young folks how to feed the future.  I’d become a permaculturalist extraordinaire, composter, soil steward, communicator, writer, and yes, an inventor.  A new compost-based weed barrier fabric mat, a small-scale thermophilic compost system, a small-scale potato digger….and a new dike design, the main subject of this writing.

When I sold my farm, I had enough equity to take a sabbatical and travel and write, a memoir of my wife and mines time together.  I’d acquired many friends over the years, so I went to visit many of them.  I lived in my truck and ate at the cafés and diners of the west, where I met new friends and wrote about them, and the history of the world!  I drew diagrams of my thoughts, dreams, and desires.  I explained what I’d observed, and heard, and been unnerved by.  The lack of vision by our leaders makes them a misnomer.  Leaders are supposed to have the ability to create new concepts for voters to consider.  Yeah, ideas that stretch our imaginations.  Ideas are not mandates, nor are they supposed to be unrealistic, and difficult to be explained.  Really good ideas are supposed to solve several problems at the same time, thus the following description of my new dike design, which is both innovative and realistic, or a least that’s what my hired engineers thought.  We even went to a patent attorney, who found no “prior art”.  Of course, the time and cost of seeking a patent, made me put it on the back burner.  Instead, I pursued other channels, like contractors, bankers, port authorities, county commissioners, planning and permit people, farmland protectionists, mayors, town councils, and planners.  These leaders are supposed to be able to see further than burning garbage as a waste management system.  I found a banker that would finance it, but then she got sick and died before I could get the letters of support.

Most dikes are piled up clay and rock, pounded and packed by heavy equipment.  Since they are designed to hold saltwater back from flooding farms only, they aren’t thought of as income producers.  Historically they have been built to just barely hold back a high tide and storm surge.  They are mowed for weed control, not a dime of income from the dikes themselves, just expenses, taxpayer-funded liability is all they are.  As an inventive leader type person, I spend lots of time contemplating creative ways to create income, from what hasn’t in the past.  Our dikes need to be more than just an expensive pile of dirt and rock.  So, I put my engineering mind into motion, soothed it with some fluid lotion, and came up with a really cool notion.  In some places, dikes, and levees leak, whence “keyways” are dug and packed tightly with the finest of clay.  This is an expensive procedure, with again, no income produced.

As my mind-melded with my imagination, along came the idea to cheapen their construction, at the same time creating several income streams.  Hauling less dirt and rock is a cost-saving that can be considered as income.  Using hempcrete and rebar, 3-D printed construction methods, and a bit of creative ingenuity, the dike has housing built into the design.  Not the sort of housing that’s sticking out of the top of the dike like what’s seen on Channel Drive, but built into the top of the dike, such that it helps with strengthening the overall integrity of the dike.  Low-cost housing is created with worldwide marketing in mind.  This “Genuine Skagit” design helps add value to all low-lying food-producing lands on the planet.

My design adds enough height to the dike to be able to hold the bulk of the tsunami tidal swell.  No other plan exists that is as comprehensive.  Not every detail will be revealed in this writing, of course, suffice it to say that I have put a massive amount of time and money into vetting my concept.  I have future retrofits and maintenance calculated.  This innovative creation is the work of a “Genuine Skagit” farmer.  The dikes not only help prevent saltwater flooding, but they produce low-cost housing, food production, and fish habitat at the same time, not to mention enough new income to fund La Conner’s water and sewer needs, flood insurance premiums, and the costs associated with the dike’s construction.  Otherwise, we must try to outcompete other small towns that are grabbing grants from finite funds.  Remember, I’ve lived here almost all of my 66 years, made my living from right behind these dikes.  I’ve been thinking about them intensely since the sixties, not many questions that I haven’t asked myself.  I’ve asked myself questions from a tribal perspective, farmland protection, planning, and permitting, climate change, economic, ag value-added, and tourist perspective also.  Agritourism has been a part of our past, and it will be more so in the future.  If we don’t think creatively about how to self-fund our projects, we will flounder and fail to be the cool little town that Buzzfeed said we were, just a few short months ago.

Glen Johnson

You are invited to meet Glen and hear more about his ideas



photo from Flickr: Martha T





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