Seattle yards become farms: Business grows from the ground up
Edible gardening and urban farms are thriving throughout Seattle, but the idea of urban farming for profit is another matter. As the once-common practice returns to cities across the country, at least two efforts in Seattle — Harvest Collective and Magic Bean Farm — aim to show that it can be done.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Even as the idea of buying local finds eager audiences at the area's many farmers markets, few might imagine that "local" means anything closer than a swath of farmland somewhere in Carnation, Mount Vernon or Monroe. That's where produce comes from, right?
But in Seattle's North Beach neighborhood, the radishes already are appearing for Noelani Alexander, who spent a recent morning planning an irrigation system for her 1,200-square-foot plot behind a home on Northwest 91st Street.
By summer's end, on the five Seattle plots that comprise the urban farm operation she calls City Grown, she expects to see carrots, leeks, lettuce, spinach, squash and cucumbers and more — all destined for local sale, mostly online.
While many more people are growing their food, either to go green or save money, the notion of growing for profit — a Depression-era activity briefly revived in the 1960s — is another, more challenging matter.
"It's kind of new for America to be going back to urban farming on a commercial scale," said Josh Parkinson, of similarly minded Magic Bean Farm in West Seattle. "This is about as local as you can get."
The practice has been rapidly resurrected over the past few years in cities such as San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo., seeded by economic need, the sustainability movement and national groups such as SPIN-Farming (Small Plot Intensive Farming), which works with farms in the United States and Canada.
In recession-ravaged Detroit, for example, efforts are under way to convert 40 acres of the Michigan State Fairgrounds into what organizers say would be the world's largest commercial urban farm.
Alexander, a 32-year-old former farm employee who had gone into landscaping, figured she eventually would leave her Wallingford home for a rural spread where she could return to food production, "but things weren't going that way," she said. Now, "getting food into the city is more important to me."
While some of City Grown's produce is grown at her Wallingford home, the bulk of the operation's nearly 4,000 square feet of growing space — about one-tenth of an acre — is divided among four other residential properties in North Beach, Ballard, Wallingford and the Central District.
Those homeowners will receive weekly produce, and besides, "they get their yard developed. Most are lawns they weren't using — and now it's productive space."
Commercial urban farming "makes the most of underused urban natural resources, and provides fresh food to people right where they can see it growing from seed to harvest," Nicole Jain Capizzi, former director of a for-profit urban farm in Milwaukee, wrote on the Seattle-based website UrbanFarmHub.org.
But Capizzi, who since has moved to the Seattle area, noted challenges — untested business models, unpredictable weather and the difficulty of cultivating non-arable land. Throw in pests and the cost of real estate, and one wonders: Are urban farms really possible?
Seattle already has Seattle Market Gardens, a year-old program in which consumers can purchase carrots, peas and other produce grown by immigrant farmers throughout the city's South End. Proceeds from the program, sponsored by nonprofit P-Patch Trust and Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, go mostly to the farmers.
While it's still tough going, people like Alexander and Parkinson hope to show that, despite the challenges, they can handle everything from the ground up — including production, marketing and managing. Both hope their efforts ultimately will reap long-term benefits, an experiment driven more by principles than profits.
"This is a question I ask myself quite frequently: Is this something I expect to make a livable wage from?" Alexander said. "At this point, it seems difficult."
"It's not something you're going to get rich on," Parkinson said. "... You have to be able to suffer through the mundanity of a lot of repetitive tasks. You have to look at the big picture.
"... It's not like I'm just tired of a desk job and want to be in the garden all day."
Early last year, urban-farming enthusiast Ryan Hawkes pitched the idea of a worker-owned farm cooperative to others in the local agriculture community. By last summer, nearly a dozen people — including Alexander — had coordinated efforts, lending each other equipment, helping develop each other's land and sharing the fruits of their labor.
"We ate really well last summer," Alexander said.
This year, the seven who remain are re-creating themselves as a producers' cooperative called Harvest Collective, aiming to sell their produce online and through their individual farm operations, which comprise about 7,000 square feet in all.
"Together, we can make more of a complete-sized farm," Alexander said.
The collective's vision, pushed by Hawkes, is to see a farm in every neighborhood — not only for the sake of production but as a source of empowerment as residents learn new skills and self-reliance.
The group takes its inspiration from others like it, such as Milwaukee-based Growing Power, which promotes the notion of community food systems.
Urban farming, Alexander said, also promotes green space, which benefits communities socially and psychologically. Both the collective and Magic Bean are hoping to recruit additional homeowners and urban farmers to the cause.
Parkinson's Magic Bean Farm is about half an acre in all, or some 20,000 square feet, spread out among seven homes mostly clustered near his home near South Seattle Community College. As with City Grown, the homeowners will receive a portion of the harvest in exchange.
Parkinson, 29, who had tinkered with ecological gardening methods for some time, finally decided to put research into practice. He aims to create a robust, interconnected ecosystem of plants, rich soil and nutrient-rich food. "There's a lot of biology going on," he said.
He's purchased so many seed types that they fill four pages of an Excel spreadsheet, and he is hoping to pair with local chefs to create recipes built around his often-unusual varieties, things such as dragon's tongue beans and purple asparagus. He plans to sell mostly at farmers markets.
In Seattle, anyone can grow and sell food on site or at a farmers market as long as no plot exceeds 4,000 square feet, said Bryan Stevens of the city's Department of Planning and Development. The seller requires a business license if the food is turned into a product — for example, syrups or prepared salads.
Proposed legislation would create more opportunities for farmers markets, urban gardens and farms; it also would raise the per-lot limit on urban chickens to eight rather than three.
Urban-farming advocates say they're glad to see the city encourage such efforts.
"We would love to see sustainable agriculture in the city be something people could make a living off," Alexander said.
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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