Yesterday, on a frigid December day, 21 people attended a tour of the Smith & Morrison Potato Processing Facility, south of Mount Vernon. This was one of an ongoing series of tours organized by RE Sources to exchange information about stormwater best management practices and water pollution issues. Why a potato washing facility? Because potato and bulb washing and processing are big business in the Skagit delta, and most of the time, the sediment-laden wash water is not recycled or treated, and has the potential to harm our streams and rivers. Sediment is a pollutant under state law – it clogs fish gills, blocks sunlight, traps heat, smothers fish eggs, and causes other problems. Potato process water can also add solids to water, causing more problems.
There are ten potato processing facilities in the Skagit Delta: Smith & Morrison is the only one to have an NPDES permit (that’s National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System). Two others are in the process of applying, and the rest don’t have permits. We like these permits because they require the facility to collect regular samples of their discharge water, and follow best management practices.
Enter Keith Morrison and his brother Darrin, who are fourth generation Skagit delta farmers. Their grandfather homesteaded the land the processing plant occupies in 1884. Instead of processing potatoes the old way and risking water quality problems, the Morrisons decided to build a new facility with clean water in mind. Their system collects, recycles, removes solids, and treats all the water used for potato washing. Treatment and solids removal is crucial, because the facility drains to a waterway called Big Ditch. Big Ditch is a fish bearing stream, home to juvenile coho salmon and cutthroat trout.
Towards the end of the tour, Keith took us inside one of the huge potato storage sheds, complete with sophisticated temperature and humidity controls, and an enormous fan system. He told us “we’re creating the same conditions as underground, so the potatoes think they’re still underground.” He went on to say “potatoes have brains, and they’ll continue to think they’re underground until about April.” I never thought about potatoes with brains before, but I know one thing for sure: Keith Morrison is in the right business, and he’s setting an example that I hope the rest of the farmers follow.