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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Seattle-based Urban Farm along with Community Grows 4,000 pounds on 1/4 Acre, Serves Those in Need

January 24, 2013 |

On a brisk Saturday morning at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, 10 volunteers are laying cardboard and wood chips over an area recently choked with invasive plant species of reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry. The creation of this urban farm, which according to the organization’s website has the potential to produce over 20,000 pounds of fresh food for families struggling with food security, is an example of what happens when city government, nonprofits, and the public come together.

“My two passions are growing community and growing food,” says Sue Gibbs, one of the board members of the Friends of the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands. She became involved early on in the discussion of what to do with the land that would be available as a result of the closing of the Seattle Parks Department’s Atlantic City Nursery in 2009. The community wanted the site to become an urban farm, and in collaboration with Seattle Tilth, a nonprofit organization that has been teaching urban agriculture and resource conservation for 35 years in the Seattle area, an agreement was reached with the city. According to Katie Pencke of Seattle Tilth and also the Program Manager at Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, “Seattle Tilth manages the physical site, programs, and day-to-day operations, and the [Friends of Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands] group provides help with community outreach, fundraising, and volunteer support.”

Last year, over 600 volunteers worked at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm. Maren Neldam, Seattle Tilth’s program coordinator for Southeast Seattle Programs, says it is “surprising how dedicated people are; despite rain and snow, they come out and work hard.” People from all walks of life volunteer on the farm reflecting the diversity of the Rainier Beach neighborhood. Volunteers include students earning service-learning credit from the Rainier Beach High School, local community members joining in regular work parties, and even elders originally from Ethiopia participating in the elder farming program, a partnership with Seattle’s Horn of Africa Services.

As a result volunteer participation on the farm over 4,000 pounds of food were grown on only a quarter of an acre in 2012. Though the farm is 10 acres, roughly five acres is classified as a permanent natural wetland area. Most of the crops are grown in greenhouses and a small garden area in the ground. Produce grown at the farm last year included mixed greens, such as chard, kale, lettuce, bok choy, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, blueberries, and watermelons.

The Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is Certified Naturally Grown. Pencke says sustainable agricultural practices used on the farm include composting of organic waste materials, “planting a diversity of flowering plants to attract beneficial insects and pollinators, and improving the wetlands to increase the “biofiltration of water entering the farm from the surrounding city and of water entering the lake [Lake Washington] after passing through the farm.” No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are applied to the plants as the farm utilizes hand weeding, crop rotation, compost tea, and floating row covers to combat weeds and pests.

In the future the farm hopes to expand its offering to the public to include eggs, fish, honey, vermicompost and plant starts. Seattle Tilth is also looking to expand berry production; during the removal of invasive species at the Rainier Beach site, mature blueberry plants (remnants of the old nursery) were uncovered that this past year produced so many berries the branches were bending over, Neldam says. The organization says that blueberry plants could also be planted in the buffers around sensitive wetland areas where annual produce crops and the soil disturbance that their cultivation requires are not permitted. With this expansion of enterprises, it is envisioned the farm will become partially self-sustaining with diverse revenue streams, Sue explains. Currently the farm is supported by grants received from organizations such as United Way.

Seattle Tilth also coordinates programs that link the community to the sustainable produce grown at Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands. For example, Seattle Tilth’s Good Food Bag program, which distributes freshly-grown produce to low-income families, saw the delivery of 400 bags to residents of southeast Seattle in 2012. The organization’s cooking and nutrition program, Community Kitchens Northwest, also used the produce grown on the farm in more than 5,000 meals that it prepared. The purpose for Seattle Tilth’s programs in Rainier Beach, explains Neldam is “to get people out and realize they can cook healthy, tasty meals and grow their own food.”

Summer 2013 continues the process of turning the farm into the “vibrant hub” that Gibbs and Seattle Tilth envision it can become. Pencke describes the long-term vision of the farm as an urban agricultural education center that will provide fresh produce, green jobs training for youth and adults, and small business incubation.

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