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Originally published February 28, 2010 at 9:00 PM | Page modified February 28, 2010 at 9:02 PM

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Breaking ground on an urban farm for the needy on Beacon Hill

Alleycat Acres, a new urban-farming collective that ultimately hopes to turn bits of unused land into food sources for needy Seattle residents, kicked off its efforts on a plot across from Beacon Hill's Jefferson Golf Course.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Urban farming

Bringing local food

to those in need

ALLEYCAT ACRES, among a handful of urban-farming efforts in the Seattle area, hopes to turn bits of unused land into food sources for low-income residents.

More information at: www.alleycatacres.com/

Source: Alleycat Acress

Compiled by Marc Ramirez

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The seeds were planted with enthusiasm, sweat and bright-eyed optimism. Task by task on a sunny springlike Sunday, volunteers stepped up on a plot of land across from Beacon Hill's Jefferson Golf Course.

Someone to help build a retaining wall? Check. Someone to smooth over beds of composted soil? Check.

"Who wants to man the rototiller?" asked Scott MacGowan of Alleycat Acres, a fledgling urban farm collective with a simple mission: to turn unused city spaces into gardens providing nourishment for needy local residents.

More hands shot up, and before long, the mostly 20-something crew members were in the mud, preparing this rectangular knoll overlooking Lake Washington in the distance for its eventual rebirth as an urban farm.

"If we can find vacant lots, why not put urban gardens in them and get food to people?" said Sean Conroe, coordinator, or "lead alleycat," of the 11-member, nonprofit collective brought together by green-minded professional interests.

The Beacon Hill site is the first of what Alleycat Acres hopes will be many such volunteer-run gardens throughout Seattle, mostly in areas whose residents lack access to healthy produce. The effort is among a growing urban-farming movement nationwide, including Seattle, where city officials have named 2010 "the year of urban agriculture."

Ultimately, Alleycat envisions running such gardens as community-supported agriculture outfits — known as CSAs — in which low-income residents would pay not on a traditional monthly basis but on a more affordable weekly, sliding-scale basis. The group hopes to take its green efforts one step further by using bicycles to deliver the fruits and vegetables of its labor to those residents — hence the name Alleycat, a term used by bike messengers.

About two dozen volunteers showed up on Sunday to turn soil, mix in compost and otherwise prepare the beds for greens and other vegetables that would soon be planted here. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, they took shovels, picks and wheelbarrows in hand, a symphony of movement in dirt-smudged jeans, T-shirts, work boots and Converse high-tops.

"Efforts like this are rallying urban gardeners," said volunteer Ashley DeForest, who runs Urban Farm Hub, a local clearinghouse of urban-agriculture information, ranging from policy initiatives to how to grow peas in your backyard. "You don't really need that much land to do intensive farming."

Farming, with its historic use of pesticides, was once seen as incompatible with urban landscapes, but organic efforts are bringing it back, not only as a food source but as an opportunity for community building. Around the city, efforts such as City Fruit and Solid Ground's Lettuce Link are helping to get locally grown food to those in need.

It was their commitment to action that brought the members of Alleycat Acres together. "I wanted to get out there and do it," said Conroe, who conceived the project last fall as a student at Seattle Central Community College. "It's easy to get caught up in talk."

The group's energy is infectious: Early this year, Conroe advertised the project on a local blog, and within two weeks longtime Beacon Hill homeowner Garry Breitstein had offered this plot of land, sandwiched between two homes across from the golf course.

"I was impressed by the fact that some of the Alleycat people have degrees in landscape architecture and soil engineering," said Breitstein, a retired public-school teacher. "I just told them I wanted things to be quiet and neat."

Then, last week, after seeing the group's inaugural efforts, neighbors down the street offered another plot of land for Alleycat's use, while another couple dropped in during Sunday's work session to donate strawberry plants.

Even as it plants its initial seeds, Alleycat hopes to expand into neighborhoods such as South Park or Georgetown, seeking land and financial donations.

Said the group's MacGowan, who runs a landscaping business: "We're trying to combine our passions, the things we want to see in the world, with our professions."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

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