P-Patch farmers in a pickle over disappearing produce
Something was strange about the tomatoes in Russ Welti's P-Patch. "Every time we came — three times a week — it appeared as...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Something was strange about the tomatoes in Russ Welti's P-Patch.
"Every time we came — three times a week — it appeared as if the tomatoes were almost ripe, and we wondered why they were not ripening," said Welti, 45.
Eventually, he realized that as soon as his tomatoes turned plump and red, they were being stolen. He never saw the culprit, but he ended up with just a small fraction of the tomatoes from the 10 plants in his Cascade neighborhood plot.
"Had I known the extent of the pilfering, I might not have bothered," said Welti, a first-time P-Patch gardener.
Harvest-season thefts have been challenging the good will, optimism and sense of harmony in the city's 50-plus P-Patches. Tomatoes vanish. Peppers disappear. Even tools, hoses and paving stones have wandered away.
No one knows just how much food has been taken, but this year's thefts have sparked a spirited online discussion among P-Patch gardeners, whose outlooks range from a get-tough stance to a philosophical acceptance.
"I think the time for being nice is over," wrote Elizabeth Rothman, 51, in one posting. "Let's not watch mutely as things are taken."
Brooklyn-born Rothman, acknowledging she's not "of this Northwest culture originally," urged gardeners to confront people who appear to be stealing produce. Accepting thievery, she wrote, "seems like being 'wimpy'; seems like choosing victimhood."
In contrast, Vade Donaldson, 37, wrote that theft is an unavoidable part of P-Patch life. "This sounds crass, but I think we all, as gardeners, just need to get over it."
Veteran P-Patch gardeners already knew what Welti is finding out. "Some people come in and see that it's a 'community garden,' therefore they think they can just harvest things," said Sandy Pernitz, community garden coordinator.
Pernitz said she has no indication this year's thefts are worse than usual, but she said the subject is triggering more discussion because this is the first fall gardeners have been linked by an electronic mailing list.
Among the hot topics: Who's taking the goods? Some gardeners say they might be less upset if the produce was going to truly needy people. But stories circulate about apparently middle-class people helping themselves to the crops.
"People have seen a lady in a well-kept Mercedes drive up, get out with her shopping bags and go out into the gardens and just start filling them up," said Ray Schutte, president of the P-Patch Trust, a nonprofit group that supports community gardens.
As some gardeners note, P-Patch pilferers are actually taking food away from the hungry, because the gardens annually donate more than 10 tons of excess produce to local food banks.
Donaldson was angry and frustrated when every bell pepper was stolen from his first P-Patch in 2002.
But his wife, Stephanie Kellner, 36, helped him focus on why people participate in the community garden. "I hope it's because they enjoy the activity itself, of putting their hands in the soil, connecting with the earth and our food, and because of the community," he said. "Gardening is the end in itself."
To discourage thieves, some gardeners grow orange or yellow tomatoes that look unripe, or shift to potatoes and carrots that mature out of view. Some put small fences around their plots.
Pernitz said she thinks the level of theft and vandalism is relatively low, considering that the plots, nearly all on public land, are open to the public.
Some East Coast cities have fenced and locked community gardens, on land owned by private, nonprofit organizations.
But Seattle's different, Pernitz said. Here, P-Patch gardeners want to feel they're part of a neighborhood, not barricaded away from it.
But even in laid-back Seattle, urban farmers don't relish having carefully tended crops go astray. The official line from police is that anyone seeing a theft occurring should call 911, and if the goods are already gone, call the nonemergency line, 206-625-5011.
Sonja Richter, crime-prevention coordinator for the police department's East Precinct, suggests gardeners contact the community-policing team in their particular precinct. Just having patrol officers cruise by the gardens, she said, would discourage some thieves.
Richter, a former P-Patch gardener, knows people are reluctant to report small losses. "If you want a well-ordered society, you have to call the cops. ... First, it's your tomatoes and then it's your bicycle and then it's your lawnmower. If you let it go, it creates a contempt for the law."
What bothers Welti most is the suggestion he's heard that having produce stolen is a way of giving to the community. "I hate to sound hard-nosed," he said. "I give money to charities. But I never thought this was a charitable endeavor."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.