Recognizing a community leader: Josh Monaghan reflects on over twenty years of supporting the local food system

After decades of working tirelessly supporting the local food and farm system, Josh Monaghan will be leaving his position as Director of Stewardship Programs at King Conservation District (KCD). The Local Food Team would like to thank Josh for his many years of service and dedication.

We recently spoke with Monaghan about his efforts to support and grow the farm sector, food system challenges, and his optimism about the future of agriculture. Monaghan is an experienced conservation planner and works with partners to balance natural resource protection with economic viability of local, working lands. He has been with KCD for over twenty years.

Local Food Team (LFT): What are you most proud of in your efforts to support and grow the farm sector in King County? 

Josh Monaghan (JM): Three efforts stand out to me: our food system work, farm conservation services, and leadership roles in Snoqualmie Fish, Farm, Flood.

Over the last decade, KCD has gained a much clearer and deeper understanding of our role and fit in the larger food system. We now have a strong program with a second 5-year commitment to strategic investments in the local food system, in partnership with King County’s Local Food Initiative

About a decade ago, KCD’s work was more narrowly focused on natural resource conservation.  Over the last ten years, we partnered with other stakeholders, thought more strategically about the food system and KCD’s role in it, and really clarified how our natural resource work is interdependent with the economic viability of the local agriculture sector.

This strategic planning led to the foundation of KCD’s current Regional Food Program, which is a $1 million/year program seeking to improve the health of the local food system and build stronger local farms that can look toward the future and make longer term conservation investments.

Monaghan at a KCD stakeholder meeting

KCD’s expanded role in the larger food system came through participation in regional planning efforts and through strategic planning and reflection.  Efforts include work on the King County Farms and Food Roundtable, Local Food Initiative Kitchen Cabinet, and KCD Advisory Committee, which helped us build out and secure funding for KCD’s Regional Food System program. This is a unique program for a Conservation District to partner with local county and other food system groups to make sustained investments in food access and local farm economy.

At first, this program was a grant system seeking creative solutions from the community. It has recently evolved into listening to community to clarify the key barriers to a healthier local food system, what actions are needed, and how we can work to scope and invest in strategic investments in priority areas, including farmland access, scaling up farm businesses, and investing in food system infrastructure.

Along the way, we have supported and strengthened partner collaborations across the food system, where in the beginning, we would see individual groups. Now, NGOs and agencies are working in partnerships, like the Working Farmland Partnership, and increasing support for getting new farmers on farmland and ensuring equity and inclusion are core principles in program design.

I also mentioned farm conservation services as work that I am proud of. Farm plans have long been a foundational service of Conservation Districts.  While at KCD, I am proud that we focused on these three key goals:

  1. Increasing conservation knowledge of our cooperators
  2. Increasing adoption and implementation of conservation best management practices
  3. Greater understanding of the natural resource outcomes from these efforts

Our work towards these goals have led us to focus on staff training and certifications to ensure our people are highly skilled in the art and science of conservation planning. These goals have also led us to increased coordination with partners, allowing us to:

  • Get clear on KCDs role in the larger food system
  • Strengthen role-appropriate partnerships with other agencies serving farms
  • Pursue collaborative governance approaches to wicked problems, such Snoqualmie Fish, Farm, Flood
King County Executive Dow Constantine with Snoqualmie Fish, Farm, Flood stakeholders, including Monaghan (kneeling, bottom right, in the fun hat).

Lastly, I am proud of my leadership role in Snoqualmie Fish, Farm, Flood (FFF).  As an early member, I was focused on mapping agricultural viability in the Snoqualmie Valley, which led to outreach work with member farmers where we met with and learned from community members. This work allowed farm members to have faith in their role representing their community and engage in making agreements.

In the second phase of FFF work, I served as co-chair and Farm Caucus lead to ensure that we are all working towards a collective win-win, honoring the original agreement, and building trust into the future.

LFI: What do you view as the greatest challenges facing the farm sector over the next decade? 

JM: The first challenge would be land access. This is an international issue for farming. Farmland prices anywhere near urban markets are set not by the farm value but by the residential real estate market, which means that most farmers are priced out, especially beginning and low-resourced farmers. Issues of land access is why efforts like the Working Farmland Partnership are so vital.

The second challenge is farmer training and peer support. Farming is complex, and for typical King County farms, farmers need to be experts of numerous skills, including soil management, growing multiple crops or raising livestock, navigating development regulations designed for suburban sprawl, marketing in an ever evolving urban marketplace, not to mention, dealing with issues related to floods, drainage, and irrigation, which continue to change as our climate changes. A lifetime would be needed to master all these skills, which is why knowledge sharing and peer support is vital for farmers.

Monaghan (on the left) discussing agricultural drainage work with Councilmember Lambert

The third major challenge facing the farm sector is volatile business outlooks. The business of farming is complex, and for many farmers, can feel volatile and, at times, unstable.  From a conservation perspective, our society looks to farmers to make conservation commitments, such as planting salmon habitat along creeks, following best farming practices to minimize pollution from farming activities, and making significant infrastructure investments to protect water quality.

Farmers who see a long-term path for economic viability for their farm are more likely to make these long-term conservation commitments. Every time a farmer considers expanding, the farmer’s skills are further challenged related to farming practices, marketing channels, and business planning and financing.

Lastly, water is a major concern, specifically drainage, irrigation, and farm pads. The future climate predictions include changes in our water cycle that will increase flooding in the shoulder seasons and cause drier summer growing seasons.  This reality means that farmer and community efforts around water will likely need to be expanded. 

Drainage maintenance efforts of groups, such as KCD and King County, need ongoing stable investments, including more strategic work in Enumclaw. In addition, water rights for irrigation are a major limiting factor for the farm sector and may impact crop choices and farmer innovations.

Lastly, recent restrictions from FEMA make farming in the flood plain more difficult at a time when farms will likely need more flood sanctuary.  In the past, King County had a reasonable solution to allowing farm pads if they did not measurably change flood elevations.  I think more creativity needs to be brought to the issue of farm pads so that farms can safely survive the floods of today and the future.

LFT: Why are you optimistic about the long-term viability of agriculture in King County? 

JM: In the past decade or so, more consumers have been seeking to connect with the land and with farmers who are growing their food. This demand is not going away because we all eat, and nowadays, human connections are more important than ever.

In addition, there are many local farmers and food system actors with highly creative minds who we’ve seen adapt to seemingly impossible circumstances. I have faith in our farmers, consumers, and folks working on food system issues, and all of them make me optimistic for our future.

Monaghan (on the right) with Brandy Reed, both recognized with 20 year service with KCD

LFT: What are some life lessons you would give a student or colleague who is inspired to take a path like yours?

JM: First, be humble. No one person can know all the answers, and the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know.

Second, listen. Farmers and food system partners are our teachers. We can all learn from each other.  We should talk about and learn different interests and listen to understand the complexity of our work and our world.

Third, build trust. Share personal goals and stories to build trust and deeper connections. This is important for both personal development and the work in food systems.

Lastly, be team minded. As we move toward an increasingly uncertain future, food system work will require greater teamwork and collaboration. I think if everyone studies and practices collaboration, teamwork, and collective decision-making skills in their everyday life and work, we can make challenging work a lot easier.

LFT: How has working for KCD impacted you moving forward?

JM: Working for KCD has shown me that individuals and groups can make enduring positive change over time, especially when we have faith in each other and consistently focus on the goals. There is power in strong teamwork and collaboration, and combined with strong leadership and a clear vision, the potential to make positive change in our work is high.

I’ve also learned that we need to refine the practice of collaborative governance for collective impact in the food and farm sector to tackle “wicked” problems that have seemed impossible to overcome in the past.

LFT: What is next for you personally and/or professionally?

JM: Next, I plan on pausing my work to look for new challenges and opportunities. This pause will include talking with colleagues, listening, and ultimately discovering my next path to adventure.

I have a passion for great teamwork, refining collaboration and collective impact skills, and helping individuals and communities thrive and deepen their natural resource stewardship efforts, especially farming communities.

I am excited to continue learning more about how we as people can learn and change together to improve our world for ourselves, each other, and our children in the future.

All images courtesy of Josh Monaghan and King County DNRP.

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