One student has been wading into Padilla Bay to look at eelgrass, another hikes into spinach fields to see if lime can protect the plant from fusarium wilt, and a third is studying the dynamics of conflict among farmers, landowners, environmentalists, and the local Indian tribe.

Jessica Gigot, a WSU graduate student in Plant Pathology, while busy with her research with raspberry plants, was wondering how her work fit in with work done by the students around her—from WSU as well as other graduate programs in Washington. They were in different fields and sometimes from different schools, but they were all looking at Skagit Valley.

Skagit Valley tulips
Skagit Valley tulips (Photo Abhinaba Basu/Wikimedia Commons)

That’s when she hit upon the idea of getting them together for a one-day symposium last November to share their work. “I wanted to provide students from different disciplines the opportunity to interact,” she says. She also hit on the idea of inviting farmers and other members of the community, “to allow students to engage community members in conversation.”

Gigot looked beyond students to round out the day, inviting eco-toxicologist John Stark from WSU Puyallup, and David Dicks, the head of the Puget Sound Partnership, to speak on their research and efforts, as well. Stark talked about the pollutants—from both agriculture and urban communities—that were pouring through the region’s waterways into the sound. Dicks discussed how the Puget Sound region is a growing priority for the federal government and that efforts to protect and restore areas around the sound may be more successful here than on waterways like Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.

“It was interesting to hear all the issues about water management and overall habitat concerns for the area,” says Gigot. And invaluable to hear how the students’ work might fit in with other projects.

Tyler Breum, one of Gigot’s classmates, grew up on a farm in Skagit Valley. He used the day to talk about his research as well as his efforts growing five acres of organic potatoes on his family’s land. A conference like this is a good step forward, he says. “Hopefully we can come up with some new ideas on how to make agriculture in this valley more sustainable.”