The Unstable Pyramid of Needs

What are the “must-haves” in life versus the “want-to-haves?” What are the most basic needs? “Must-haves” are something critical for survival. Without them, life would cease. Food and drinking water are “must-haves.” With no food or water, nothing else matters. Life isn’t even possible. Granted there are a few other things such as clothing and shelter that are almost as necessary, but don’t reach the “must-haves” category. Without food and potable water, survival chances are nil.

Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, first published in the 1940’s, illustrates five steps of transformation beginning with the foundational layer being the “must-haves.” The needs of the triangle hierarchy increase four additional levels with the pinnacle being much more ethereal. Originally the theory intended completion of each step individually on the Hierarchy of Needs before moving to the next level. It is now generally accepted that a human may be at different levels of needs in varying aspects of one’s life.

The first layer of the Hierarchy of Needs are the most important basic human needs, the physiological essentials of food, drinking water, and shelter. These requirements for human existence are the foundational layer or perhaps the primal layer. The second tier of safety and security is important to developing a healthy, engaged, and functioning adult. Granted, a human can exist without safety and security, but will not likely function as well within societal expectations and norms. The first two layers could be consider the most basic needs. The third tier is psychological needs of emotional and well-being, encompassing relations and friendship. Knowing one belongs and dwells in community is important to one’s happiness. Ascending the hierarchy, the fourth step is a sense of esteem, respect, and admiration. The fifth tier, which is also the pinnacle of Maslow’s theory, is self-actualization or reaching one’s highest potential.

Moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs each tier is more enlightened, aspirational and comforting. Being a college educated white woman with advantage, I’ve seen Maslow’s tiered steps of needs as an objective or something to attain. Throughout my life, I’ve set a goal or intention on something to achieve and I’ve succeeded. Reaching goals and pinnacles are just part of my DNA. I graduated cum laude with civil engineering degree from a school that only six years before had started admitting women. As a mountaineer or more aptly a “peak-bagger,” I have climbed over 100 different Washington state mountain peaks. But now, the Hierarchy of Needs seems less stable and perhaps more uncertain now than it did earlier in my life.

Hierarchy of Needs with WiFi

When I googled Hierarchy of Needs, I gasped to see where popular culture has taken Maslow’s triangle. WiFi is now considered a foundational need below and supporting the physiological essentials of drinking water and food! WiFi, the ability to connect to anybody and everything worldwide and beyond, has become the most fundamental need! What are we becoming? A slave to our personal electronic device? Attached at birth from never missing the Tweet, the Snap, the Book or maybe even the beat of news? Are we so disconnected from our most primal needs of food and water, that we can’t fathom they could ever be threatened? Granted I’ve seen enough adults and teenagers panic when arriving at a remote mountain cabin in the Cascade Mountains or tent camp on the Serengeti Plain when there is no WiFi access. Has there ever been a consideration that lack of food or water would be even more devastating?

The plight of our basic human needs is ever more pressing. With the help of longevity, I am now an elder and an influencer–not an influencer of Instagram fame–but one with wisdom. In my lifetime, short by geological standards, still too young for Medicare but old enough for senior discounts, the disregard for our most basic needs of food and water is literally killing us. I see the urgency and the potential fragility of our destiny.

The Pyramid of Needs

The Pyramid of Needs

Rearranging the two lowest tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and adding a dose of engineering pragmatism, I created The Pyramid of Needs which are tangible services and goods that build a civilized, stable society. Food and drinking water are the most important needs in our lives. If we don’t have food and potable water, we don’t have human life or for that matter any life at all. Water is the most basic building block of life and is the foundational need. Freshwater is only 2.5% of the earth’s total water supply! Less than 1% of the total freshwater is available and accessible to drink, flush a toilet, take a shower, or water crops. (Some folks say we shouldn’t even be flushing toilets with potable water. We need more compost toilets or gray water systems!) The rest of the non-saline freshwater is frozen in glaciers and snowfields.

Making it more personal, the human body is about 60% water with our muscles being about 80% water and our bones just over a 30% water. Water nourishes our cells, carries nutrients through the body, flushes out toxins, keeps our joints moving and is the “shock absorber for our brain and spinal cord.” Without water, we would very uncomfortable within a short 24 hours and dead in a couple days. Water is essential to our well-being.

While not quite as critical as water, food as the second tier in the Pyramid of Needs is almost just as important to one’s well-being. Living on water alone is impossible, as we are reliant on food, too, but we can live longer without food. Mahatma Gandhi, a leader who advocated for India’s independence using non-violent means, survived three weeks with no food and only sips of water to sustain his body. Hence, food and water are the basic building blocks of life and the first two layers of The Pyramid of Needs.

Shelter and transportation, as third and fourth tier requirements, are still basic needs in today’s economy, but still less essential than food and water. Shelter is necessary to keep us warm, dry, fed, and cleansed. Transportation, whether by foot, bike, bus, rail, car, boat, or air, is vital to create a thriving economy. Putting WiFi and the personal cellular computer device at the pyramid’s apex, just makes sense, as they are needed the least for one’s well-being. Yes, it is a huge disadvantage to potential employment opportunities and even happiness in the United States to live without a personal mobile computing device. However, it is doable to live without it!

So why does our U.S. culture focus so much of our finances and attention on WiFi and the newest cellular product? Why is scant attention directed to where our food comes from food or the cleanliness of the water we put in our bodies? The best cellphone, car or perhaps the most expensive handbag or sneaker seem so much more important than quality food and water. The body that lives with each one of us 24-hours every day of every week and every year, our most sacred temple, needs fresh, clean, healthy food and water to survive and thrive!

Instead, U.S. culture fills our body with junk food and sugary drinks while simultaneously taking a robust healthy food and water supply for granted. We swiftly dismiss our most basic needs, when our food and water systems genuinely need our attention and focus to ensure the long term viability of these systems. Instead of a robust, secure, and healthy drinking water and food systems, I see fragility. Hence, my hierarchy is aptly called The Unstable Pyramid of Needs.

The Unstable Pyramid of Needs

The Unstable Pyramid of Needs

Trust and confidence that the United States has the most reliable, clean, safest water systems in the world is expected. However, our drinking water systems are fragile and unstable as depicted by the holes in the foundational tier of The Unstable Pyramid of Needs. It is a house of cards ready and waiting to fail. The Flint, Michigan water supply fiasco is emblematic of this fragility. To reduce costs, because of the City of Flint’s financial hardship, the drinking water supply source was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to a cheaper but more corrosive supply the Flint River. The Flint River water supply serving the City caused lead corrosion from the aging water pipe infrastructure. Consequently, between 6,000 to 12,000 Flint’s children were exposed to high levels of lead which can cause long term developmental delays and learning disabilities. Children never recover from lead poisoning! Hazards of lead poisoning in young children has been known for more than 50 years, triggering regulation and elimination of lead in paint and children’s toys. This Flint crisis is just one example why the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Drinking Water Report Card, gave a “D” letter grade for below average conditions of the United States’ drinking water systems. Our country’s drinking water systems are vulnerable and need attention and investment to maintain high quality, reliable potable water!

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

The second tier on The Unstable Pyramid of Needs is our food supply. Elimination of farmlands and replacement with housing, roads and warehouses is all too common. We sacrifice food growing lands for soccer fields and parks, too! Farmland, once lost, does not return to food production. Between 1992 and 2012, in a short 20 years, about 31 million acres of farmland, about the size of Mississippi, was lost to real estate development in the United States per the American Farmland Trust. About 10 million of the 31 million acres lost were considered premier agricultural lands with the best soils, weather, and growing conditions for food production. This is equivalent of losing 175 acres per hour or 9 acres per minute. According to the same source, 91% of the fruit trees, tree nuts, and berries are in the path of development in the counties and metropolitan areas most threatened by suburbanization and urbanization. Think orange groves in Florida. In 2015, 50,000 acres of farmland were lost in Florida alone! The food tier, too, is fragile, riddled with holes and unstable.

Our food and drinking water resources are being ignored and being taken for granted. They are “must-haves” for our survival and well-being. We must not short-shrift these important needs. When farmland is proposed for conversion to non-food production uses or drinking water supplies are threatened or budgeting decisions are being made on how to spend public dollars, it is imperative to prioritize our food and water supply infrastructure.

The Unstable Needs Pyramid are tangible needs one can hold, touch, feel and use. The bottom two layers are our most basic needs: water and food. Investment and political will-power is needed to enhance and protect our country’s food supply and water infrastructure. Our lives depend on it. Really.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Is a Vibrant Agricultural Community Important?

“There is a shellfish farmer, sheep farmer and a vegetable farmer in a room of real estate development professionals.”

Samish Bay and Taylor Shellfish Farms

It’s the start of the classic “groan” joke. And, Yes!, it really happened! The sunny last day of February was a great day of learning with ULI- Northwest’s Center for Leadership class. The Salish Sea was shimmering, the tide was up at Taylor Shellfish Farms on Chuckunut Drive and the raw oyster shellfish lunch was delectable. Taylor Shellfish, the 120-year old family-owned business and shellfish operation on Chuckanut Drive, is a 45-minute drive south of Bellingham, Washington and home to a 1,900-acre farm hidden by high tides two times every day. Linda Neunzig, Snohomish County Agricultural Coordinator and owner of Ninety Farms outside of Arlington, Amy Moreno-Sills, PCC Farmland Trust’s Farm to Farmer Coordinator and co-owner of Four Element Farm in Pierce County, and Bill Dewey, Director of Public Relations for Taylor Shellfish and owner of Chuckunut Shellfish, imparted their wisdom on the perils and pleasures of farming. Each farmer further instilled a sense of urgency on remembering where our food comes from and why local farmland and farming is important. Farmland is not just open space.

Food is something we need every day to be vibrant, healthy, and at our peak performance. We expect it to be there whether at the grocery store, at an all you-can-eat buffet, at a local coffee shop, or just in the refrigerator when we wake up in the morning. We don’t think about where food comes from. We just take our food for granted.

Where Does Your Food Come From?

Linda set the stage both as a farmer and an agricultural advocate for Snohomish County. Right after the 9/11 tragedy she was in an elementary classroom outside of Everett, Washington, the next big city north of Seattle.

“Where does your food come from?” she asked the students.

The students shrugged their shoulders and scoffingly said, “The grocery store.” (Like, of course, isn’t that where all food comes from?)

Linda pursued the questioning further, “No, really, where does your food come from?”

With a shrug and disinterest, the students were silent.

With emphasis, Linda said, “A farm.”   

The students nodded their heads, silently acknowledging and realizing, that yes, their food did come from a farm.

Linda drilled down further and asked, “There are only three to five days of food available in a grocery store. What if we can’t get food shipped in from Mexico and California? Is there enough farmland to feed the people in Snohomish County, if food can’t get here?”

The students halfheartedly nodded yes.  

“If you think we can feed the people in Snohomish County, how will we feed the folks in King County? There are a lot more people with a lot more money in Seattle. How are we going to feed them them?”

The students got it. Locally grown food is a necessity for healthy, resilient, sustainable communities.

The Seattle area had just lived through Snowmageddon 2019 in February where grocery stores were stripped of produce and essentials, so the experience of not enough food at a grocery store was very real. Just as the elementary kids realized their food came from farms, the adults, too, had a gut reaction that food just doesn’t come from a grocery store, it comes from farms.

Cooking Paella

Food has been part of my life forever. Yes, I eat! I have deep roots in food. As a teenager, my first vegetable garden was filled with green beans and tomatoes, which continue to be “green thumb” mainstays. In the 1990’s, my livelihood depended on food. I secured real estate sites and permitted Haggen’s grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest. For five years I served as a PCC Community Markets board member approving new grocery sites, developing policy to reward co-op members, and ensuring the co-op’s financial stability. Beginning in 2006, I started a four-year stint as PCC Farmland Trust’s Executive Director, placing conservation easements on vulnerable farmland, raising (at the height of the recession) significant capital to save at-risk farmland, and doubling the number of donors committed to preserving valuable, productive farmland. I developed a fuller understanding of the joys and more importantly the challenges of farming. I, too, humbly realized, I had taken my food for granted. I vowed to continue to work to protect and respect farmland and the farmers that grow our food.

All food, whether at the grocery store, restaurants, sporting events, you name it, comes from farmers. Farmers grow the food on which we are so dependent and we probably never think of thanking them for their work. Farmers are dependent on farmable land and clean, adequate quantities of water to grow the food we eat. Oh, and sun helps, too!

Real estate professionals are dependent on the same resources–land and water–in their business to build communities and cities. Hence putting three farmers in the same room with a group of real estate professionals is an amazing opportunity to cross pollinate understandings and information.

The Farmers’ Livelihoods

Linda, Amy, and Bill all have two jobs-they run their farm and have a “day” job. Linda Neunzig works a full-time “day job” for Snohomish County advocating for the preservation of farmland and the farming economy. If a farmer goes out of business or sells property to a developer, the farmland is lost forever. It impacts the farm economy and the strength of the food growing profession. For a vibrant farm economy, farmers need support infrastructure and enough farms to support a thriving farm economy. Think about it, the dairy economy needs large-animal veterinarians, feed and supply stores, large machinery suppliers, and processing facilities for milk. If there is not enough commerce for the dairy agricultural support businesses, they go out of business. While advocating for the farm economy, Linda also runs Ninety Farms, a purebred Katahdin sheep and lambing business that just birthed its 2,600th lamb! She butchers animals for fine restaurants and discerning customers and sells breeding lambs to other farmers worldwide. Both professions keep her quite busy. 

Amy Moreno-Sills, with her husband Augustin, farm Four Elements Farm on 56 acres in the fertile Puyallup Valley in Pierce County on property that was conserved by PCC Farmland Trust. Four Elements Farm specializes in bringing healthy, wholesome food to the community and their loyal Community Supported Agricultural (“CSA”) customers. The farm is blessed with 70-year old blueberry bushes where customers can U-pick in season. The farm store is set in the middle of the fields and the business is centrally located between the bustling communities of Puyallup and Orting. Not that she doesn’t have enough to do, Amy’s “day job” is to link farms to farmers and visa versus. She ensures new and expanding farmers have access to available land and retiring farmers have an financially rewarding way to sell their land to a farmer. 

Bill Dewey’s almost 30-year “day job” as Director of Public Relations for Taylor Shellfish Farms keeps him hopping to ensure that Samish Bay continues to be a healthy, productive shellfish environment. His other job, a manila clam and geoduck farm business is also located in Samish Bay. During our haven for the day at Taylor Shellfish, Bill emphasized the importance of clean, healthy, cool seawater as critical to growing the best mussels, clams, and oysters.

Oyster Farm at Taylor Shellfish Farms

Bill said that usually only 700 acres of the 1,900 acres of tidelands owned Taylor are farmed at one time. Shellfish delicacies are “planted” regularly at lower tides and harvested as demanded by markets in Seattle and worldwide. Despite what appears to be a large operation on Chuckanut Drive, Taylor’s main office and farm are in Shelton, Washington. With expanding markets and changing seawater conditions, Taylor has had adapt and change their business model. Ocean acidification from a changing climate has impacted how Taylor runs their $68 million worldwide business. Rather than growing seed in the ocean, they are now grown in a laboratory environment in Hawaii to ensure that the seed reaches a large enough mature size to withstand the more challenging natural now slightly more acid seawater home. Stormwater discharge from the built environment, agriculture or other land-based activities greatly impacts seawater health for shellfish or any sea-based food. Fertilizers, car emissions and oils, and inadequate stormwater control facilities can all compound to tip the balance towards inferior water quality to grow healthy sea crops.

Once out of the laboratory, oysters begin their lives as mere specks eventually attaching themselves to old oyster shells. The fertilized shells are bagged and hung on cords that are stretched between posts in the shallow Samish Bay aqua farm. The Samish Sea tides flow in and out twice a day bringing fresh seawater and nutrients to nurture the fledgling bivalves. Once the oysters have grown to full size, they are harvested and shipped to discerning customers. To educate and bring the good seafood story and delicacies to urbanites, Taylor Shellfish has opened multiple oyster and shellfish bars not only on Chuckanut Drive but also in Seattle and Bellevue!

The Follow-up Chatter

After the panel discussion, Linda spoke with a developer on how his firm purchased King County Regional Development Credits for their upzone in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood to build more housings units than originally allowed by the zoning code. Linda explained, “This is the classic Transfer of Development Rights land use tool that is used to protect farmland and forestland from development.”

Sprouting Oysters

Transfer of Development Rights (“TDR”) programs were created more than 20 years, but only now are becoming useful and powerful tools to bring density into the cities, while preserving rural lands for farming and forests. How does a TDR program work? A rural land owner sells the rights to develop her property to a government entity such as a County. For example, a farm owner has 100 acres and has a zoning code right to divide the property into ten lots at ten acres each, consequently creating 10 development rights or building lots. Often a landowner will keep at least one development right for an existing home on the property. The County buys the appraised value of the remaining nine development rights from the landowner. The value of each development right is the appraised cost that a landowner would garner for selling the property to a real estate developer. The County holds the development right in a “bank,” until a developer purchases the development right from the County to increase a building’s density or height in a city. These TDRs or in the City of Seattle parlance Regional Development Credits have been used to create more density in the South Lake Union neighborhood and other places in western Washington. 

And what was exciting to hear was the spontaneous chatter after the panel presentation. Two or three guys in the back of the room were bantering and one said, “Wow, that presentation blew my mind.” The energy was high in their conversation about their realization of agriculture’s vital importance in the Seattle region, for cities, for people, and our quality of life. The health of agriculture is challenged in our region. Ultimately our own health and the region’s health and prosperity is vulnerable and inextricably linked to the health and vibrancy of agriculture. 

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Tanzanian Coffee Experience–Yum!

Mt. Meru at almost 15,000 feet, the fifth highest mountain in Africa, capped in wispy clouds, towers over the Tanzanian village at the end of the paved road at the entrance to Arusha National Park. Meru’s taller and more well-known “mountain cousin”, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent, bursts from the African plain only 216 miles as the crow flies east of Mt. Meru.

We stationed ourselves at Meru View Lodge, just one-half mile south of the Arusha National Park entrance to rest and recuperate in late January after a 24-hour travel day and 11-hour time zone difference from our Seattle home. Not wanting to miss any opportunity to learn more about Tanzania, I signed up for a walking tour with Abraham Mkope of Riziki Tours for a coffee tasting, Tanzanian lunch, and a walk in a neighboring forest preserve established to protect the local water supply. Trained as a civil engineer and being a lover of land and how it is used, curiosity drives me to experience how different cultures and countries build their communities. Touring the village at the end of the paved section of Momela Road opened my eyes to how differently people can live across the continents.

Leaving the Meru View Lodge with Abraham, we literally jumped across a two foot deep by 2-1/2 foot wide storm drainage swale lined with cemented in paving stones. Thankfully, January and February are typically drier months in Tanzania with the “long rains” or the rainy season beginning in March and lasting until May or June every year. With no rain in sight, these storm drains appeared excessively large, so I could only imagine the rushing water in the wet season. There must be a reason there is so much drainage capacity!

A Farm near Arusha, Tanzania

On an early Sunday morning, when many Tanzanians are in church, Abraham and I sauntered on the dusty dirt pathway adjacent to the paved road for a few minutes until crossing the weekend-quiet two-lane road. Our jaunt into the neighborhood on a rutted dirt road quickly changed to a dirt path. Sometimes we were caverned between concrete block walls and other times, surrounded by small farms, homes, and views of the countryside. In the hour walk to our destination, the terrain varied regularly between dirt roadway to narrow dirt pathways depending on the jigs and jags in our journey. Occasionally a motor cycle would scoot past, but mostly we walked alone in peace. Even the children were at church! Different land uses abounded. Small farms were tucked between homes, little wood and mud homes stood next to newer, larger half-finished brick homes. Occasionally we passed a completed home with a metal roof slathered with a white finishing material to conceal the brick building materials and a car parked out front. From a Seattle strict zoning code perspective, no sense of a land use plan was evident other than that there were no cul-de-sacs and always a path to follow. Some homes were only half finished and even looked forgotten or abandoned with a full grown banana tree in the foyer. Abraham said, “Villagers build their homes bit by bit as they earn extra money. Bank loans and mortgages are rare because reliable family income is not common.”

Small Farms in the Mt. Meru Region

Ripening Coffee Berries

Small farms, really almost large country garden plots, farmed by the neighboring homeowner dotted the landscape. Most families grow corn, more commonly known as maize, bananas and perhaps, Arabica coffee. Maize and bananas are the Meru region’s major crops as they are easy to grow and sell in local markets. Banana roots spread so easily, likely similar to the America’s raspberry bushes, and new banana trees just show up, hence the banana tree growing in the middle of an unfinished house. Despite being challenging to grow and sell, Arabica coffee is still an important export crop for the 400,000 family farmers that grow it. Tanzania is the 3rd largest coffee producer in Africa, but far below Brazil and Vietnam as the world’s biggest coffee producers. The Meru/Kiliminjaro region has the ideal Arabica coffee growing conditions between 4,500 and 6,000 feet above sea level with the rich volcanic soils. Despite this, Tanzanian coffee production has been significantly challenged by pests, climate change induced erratic weather conditions and just getting the crop to market. 

After weaving our way between houses and farm plots, we arrived at our coffee stop where Sonia was waiting for us outside her parents’ home. The small, adobe finished home was compact and stout with the television dish on top. The home could have been easily found in an older American neighborhood! Sonia did not speak English, so Abraham led me through the 30-foot square family farm plot. Even though most of the ripe red beans had been harvested, there was still one stray white coffee flower and several handfuls of ripening berries on the bushes. The entire farm was protected from the equatorial sun with a smattering of banana trees and several taller trees providing shade for the coffee.

Producing a great cup of coffee takes time. After pollination, coffee berries grow into an oval shape about ½ inch in their longest dimension on chest high bushes. The berries start their life green and turn red when they are ready to be harvested by hand between July and December. All berries are air dried by Mother Nature on drying trays and rotated and turned to remove the fleshy portion of the bean leaving a thin almost fascia-like fibrous tissue covering on each bean. Each berry contains two beans unless there is only one bean, which happens only about 10% of the time, creating an extra special peaberry coffee and a premium price.

Grinding Coffee

Back in Sonia’s front yard, she brought out a couple cups of dried beans that still had the second covering or thin shell on them. Our first task was to remove the second shell. The beans were dropped into a huge mortar, an 8-inch diameter hollowed-out tree that stood about hip height. A 3-inch wide piece of aluminum flashing was secured to keep the “tree mortar” from splitting. The pestle was almost four feet tall and rounded on the bottom and made from another tree piece. Sonia pounded the beans loosening and shedding the second cover from the coffee bean. As the guest, I milled the beans for a few minutes until the pestle weight exhausted my arms! 

The beans were dumped from the mortar and spread out on a woven platter. Abraham shook the platter lightly allowing the fibrous flakes to drift away with the breeze. Meanwhile Sonia started a small fire with dried twigs and branches. Perched on top of the flames was a small cast iron vessel into which she dropped the freshly cleaned beans. Stirring the beans regularly to prevent burning allowed the waft of freshly roasted beans to permeate the air.

Abraham Mkope removing the second shell from the bean.

Next step was putting the freshly roasted beans back into the mortar. The same pestle was used to grind the beans. We sang, “Saga, Saga–Saga” (Grinding, Grinding–Grinding) as the rhythmic song to ease the pain and monotony of a very physical method of coffee grinding! The ground coffee was sifted to separate the fine ground from the medium ground allowing an extra chance to grind all the coffee to a fine texture!

Now, the coffee is ground and the water is boiling. The grounds and the water are mixed to infuse flavor and caffeine. Sonia knew the optimal time to brew and poured it into my mug. I was offered sugar and put in a pinch since no milk available, to ward off any anticipated bitterness I was expecting. Wow! Was I amazed! No bitterness. My second cup was sugar free. The complexity of the flavor was stupendous!

Making a great cup of coffee took about 30 minutes. It is not a process for the caffeine craving morning wake-up routine but rather for enjoying a special time with good friends and family. No wonder my Ethiopian friend once said, “Being invited for coffee you know you are a true friend. Being invited for tea, not necessarily so.”  

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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So you wanna be a farmer?

Have you ever thought how a farmer decides what to grow? My guess is probably not. So many of us never think where our food comes from, so why would we spend any time asking this question. Wondering where our food comes from is a long standing blind spot in our United States culture. We just expect food to show up. As with any business, a farmer has to make a decision on how to run the business and therefore, on what to grow.

Round Barn in Eastern Washington

So, how do farmers decide what to grow? A successful farmer is a multi-faceted business person.  A farmer must know how and where to grow food, how to market the food directly to consumers and institutions or through wholesalers, how to be a bookkeeper (or hire one), to understand land use regulations and water law, how to make sure the food raised is safe from harmful pathogens, and so many more skills and talents that a non-farmer cannot even begin to fathom. Farming can be the ultimate entrepreneurial success story or nightmare, depending on the outcome.

Have you Ever Thought of Being a Farmer?

I grow food. Thirty square feet of garden area in two raised beds on the south and west side of my 5,000 square foot city lot. Rhubarb, green beans, arugula, garlic, a few trellised cucumber plants, a zucchini plant or two, and of course, several types of tomatoes are my main crops. Three hedge-like blueberry bushes, one 8-foot tall Italian prune plum tree, and a pot of basil complete my yard’s agricultural abundance. Not being dependent on my farming acumen is key for my survival. I just get to enjoy whatever I grow. There is no fretting on whether it grows! Tomato and basil bruschetta from my yard is yummy. Bruschetta with red cherry, yellow grape, and green zebra tomatoes mixed together–oh my! Tantalizing my senses with awesome food flavors!

Even with these awesome food flavors, I will never be a farmer–someone who has to make a living from farming. Thankfully, there are men and women who want to farm! So, how does a farmer decide what to grow?

The Commodity Farmer

There are so many different kinds of farmers–farmers that grow commodity crops for corporations, farmers that sell at farmers markets, farmers that sell to packing houses, juicers, or canners, farmers that sell on-site, grain farmers, meat farmers, egg farmers, dairy farmers, grape farmers, wool farmers, and more. There are so many different types of farmers, because there are so many different types of food and food products! There is no one size fits all farmer!

Old Fashioned Round Barn in New York

To keep it simple, perhaps there are two umbrella categories of farmers: the inertia farmer and the entrepreneurial diversified farmer. Inertia farming is the way it’s been done for the past 50 years. Farmers were lulled into inertia farming as the profession was made easier during the 1950’s to 60’s with the Green Revolution by adoption of new technologies in agriculture. Hybridized high-yielding crop varieties, mechanized irrigation, and the creation of fruits and vegetables for long distance refrigerated truck transport rather than taste became the norm. Packaged, processed, predictable food products became the standard. The benefit, guaranteed and commoditized markets for farmers to sell their products to the corporation often through a middleman. It made farming easier as the farmer had guaranteed purchasers and could concentrate on just food growing.

Even so as it became easier, it also became harder because power was taken away from the farmer. Running a farm business became a lot more difficult as corporate behemoths began dictating pricing, pitting one farmer against another to lower commodity prices and consequently farmer livelihoods. This is not the farm story we are taught as children. Urbanites never think about commodity farming as it is not the bucolic farming of childhood story books! It’s important to know that large scale, multi-acreage, single crop commodity farming is the main farm paradigm in this country.

The commodity farmer grows the crop that is always grown. If corn is grown, you are a corn farmer. If soybeans are grown, you are a soybean farmer. There is no variety or change, maybe some rotation between two or three crops, but not anymore diversification.

The Entrepreneurial Diversified Farmer

The entrepreneurial diversified farmer has been the typical farmer since the dawn of the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago. This farmer would experiment and expand or change the produce grown or animals husbanded based on rainfall, soil type, seed robustness, taste, pests, plant diseases, and a myriad of other reasons. With 12,000 years of farming experience we now know that if we grow the same product in the same soil all the time, that eventually the soil gets tired because all of the soil’s nutrients have been expended. Further, if you never rotate crops, the bad bugs learn where you grow your carrots and set up house. Commodity farmers address these issues with artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Organic farmers know a different way. According to Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Product in Sequim, Washington, “I rotate where I grow my carrots every year and they are never in the same dirt for seven years.” If you have never had Nash’s carrots, give them a try. They are off the charts sweet, crispy, and delicious.

Stokesberry Sustainable Farm moving the chicken tractor

For eons, the diversified farmer was the only type of farmer. Now it is the exception. Many diversified farmers grow produce and fruits and combine their farm business with raising animals whether chickens, pigs, cows, or goats. Chickens are easy to add to a produce farm, as the chickens can be housed in chicken tractors, two foot high structures with ample space to move around and peck for seeds or bugs. The structure and chickens are moved as needed to fresh ground. The chickens leave almost, clean bare ground behind has they move along but it is filled with nutrients from their eating and excrement activity. The chicken tractor can be slid between produce rows or placed on fallow ground all while recycling the nutrients of the circle of life of agriculture.

Not being a farmer, but a gardener, my draw to agriculture is strong even though my ancestors were coppersmiths, ship captains, engineers, house painters, bankers, and ministers. There is not one farmer in my known familial history. Even so, the desire to grow food and to eat good, locally- grown, in-season food is visceral from my ancestral heritage. As a child, my Dad helped cultivate my own 5-foot square vegetable garden with green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. June-bearing strawberry picking with my Grandpa and then jam making with my Grandma are memorable. June-bearing strawberries are so much sweeter than the more common ever-bearing berries. Picking lush high bush blueberries in the soggy mosquito infested wetlands was a yearly excursion with my Opa and Oma.

Purchasing food whether at a restaurant, store or farmers market, I do ponder where the food comes from. Eating ethically produced, pesticide free, and organically grown is the best for my health and the planet.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Terroir and the Family Farm

Spring grass was just poking its head through the crusty soil at Pure Eire Dairy when we visited earlier this year. Jill Smith, dairywoman extraordinaire, was expecting our visit at her family farm near Othello, Washington. My fellow adventurer Robbie and I had spent several days in eastern Washington exploring the hidden gems where Seattleites don’t often venture.

Monteillet Formagerie

Dayton’s “Jolly” Green Giant

Our travel day had started with breakfast crafted with our own ingenuity from the farm fresh eggs, a slab of bacon, specially prepared sausages, crusty heirloom grain bread, and purple potatoes deposited by our hosts at Monteillet Formagerie located just outside of Dayton, Washington. Two glorious days had been spent exploring the former home of the greatest asparagus production region in Washington State supported by the “Jolly” Green Giant until all its operations, food processing jobs, and asparagus farmer livelihoods were shipped to South America about a decade ago. The Giant, etched into the landscape, still peers down from its hill-top perch as a reminder of the town’s former claim to fame.

When making our reservations at Monteillet Formagerie, we knew they specialized in goat and sheep cheeses sold at specialty shops and farmers’ markets in the region. Imagine our surprise to have a fully stocked refrigerator and cabinet of local, in-season artisan foods to nourish our travel-worn bodies. We are blessed in the Pacific Northwest with an almost never-ending supply of foods throughout the year, enabling one to eat easily with the seasons. Even so, with the intercontinental flow of fresh food products, we added grapefruit and kale from the local IGA just to get all the food groups in our meal.

On to Big Farm Country

The Farmer

Leaving Dayton, the drive across our vast state took us through the rolling hills of wheat country, by the stoic grain elevator on the bluff above Pataha Creek, through the tiny town of Starbuck (with no Starbucks), over the stellar Snake River, to the land of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. The Grand Coulee Dam on the mighty Columbia, a public works project of Roosevelt Administration in the 1930’s, electrified and irrigated significant portions of Eastern Washington changing the landscape forever. Central Washington’s deep, fertile, loess soils benefited the then nascent now robust agricultural economy with significant help from a consistent, reliable water supply.

Pure Eire Dairy, located outside of Othello, Washington, is in the middle of big farm country in the heart of the Columbia Irrigation Project. Dairying is a small part of the agricultural economy of Adams County, the home of Pure Eire, with only seven dairy farms according to the 2012 USDA Agricultural Census. Even so, milk and milk products are the No. 2 commodity with $1.1 billion in Washington sales in 2012 with many other counties being big players in the commodity. Milk is only behind the celebrated Washington State apple in agricultural sales. Even though small, Pure Eire is raising the bar and setting a new standard for what discerning consumers can expect in their milk products.

Pure Eire Dairy

Sadly the dairy industry’s product, milk, is a commodity where the typical farmer is in a race to produce quantity over quality. Dairy farms have grown bigger and bigger, while many smaller farms have gone out of business. Thankfully, there are exceptions such as Pure Eire Dairy that have innovated a niche business that serves a unique market making exceptional products! Pure Eire has gone beyond the industry standard of Organic Valley Cooperative. Organic milk standards prohibit hormone use to stimulate milk production, limits antibiotic use only for animal illness, and sets standards for pasturing and outdoor access, while providing third-party verification that standards are met. Pure Eire has exceeded these standards by feeding their Jersey herd only grass–the food that cows are designed to eat.

Pure Eire Dairy Cow

Visiting in March, the cows were just beginning the first foray into the spring sprouting fields. During the winter months the herd is fed harvested hay from the previous season. Cows are designed by nature to eat grasses and hay as their ruminant digestive system ferments the food producing multiple benefits to them and us as milk drinkers. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) a beneficial fatty acid and a vital energy source for the cow as well as amino acids, B vitamins and vitamin K are also produced benefiting us.

Pure Eire is so committed to a healthy herd and superior milk products that they are Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project verified, and Animal Welfare Approved. These certifying organizations along with the care of the Smiths ensure a healthy herd from the milking females to the newborn calves, thereby ensuring the finest milk products for human consumption.

Wowed by their milk products, I am thankful PCC Community Markets, my local food cooperative, has an exclusive agreement with Pure Eire to produce their private label thick Greek yogurt. Yum! My favorite–the peach.

Gratefully, farmers are reconnecting with the eating public whether through farmers’ markets or grocery stores to provide us with the best possible food choices. Next time you taste a locally grown product, whether a Pure Eire yogurt or farmers’ market cheese, see if you can taste its terroir–its taste based on its special place. It’s authentic.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Why I Support Small Family Farms

Farming seems so idyllic. Old McDonald, the proverbial song, is my first recollection of the quintessential farming dream. A happy song with joyful animals. Seared in my memory are daytrips to my Grandmother’s house to find the choicest Halloween pumpkin; the tallest, greenest, Christmas tree, or to pick the most succulent, prized bucket of strawberries.

My Grandparents’ Farm

My grandparents are now long gone, but their idyllic 90-acre farm still straddles the Niagara Escarpment–the geological formation that created Niagara Falls. Half the farm, on the downhill side of the Escarpment, has poor drainage but is classified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “prime farmland, if drained”. The uphill side, also “prime farmland,” is much drier and home to the house, barn, and garage. The wooded, steep Escarpment separating the two farming areas shelters an old quarry that was excavated beginning in the 1830’s to build the main house. As a kid, the nooks and crannies and hiding places of the huge barn, the big house, and acres and acres of land were the things that make childhood memories special.

Several miles west of my grandparents’ place, on the edge of the Escarpment, was their Christian country church. The wood-framed, two story white church with a squat steeple stood at a crossroads in the middle of farm country. There was and still is no 7-11 or gas station next door. From its perch on the Escarpment, congregants could take in the view of the flatlands to the north–all farmland. The church was a haven and a mainstay for the farming community drawing churchgoers from miles around for a weekly day of rest.

Family photo at Grandma’s memorial service

Grandma was a church regular. She was pragmatically spiritual and very community-minded. She definitely lived the mantra of how she could contribute to make people’s lives better, not just her own or her family’s, but the greater good. When we visited, our Sunday School ritual was being read a Bible verse with an accompanying lesson on being good, accepting and helping others, and finding love in our hearts. Of course there was always cutting and pasting to keep us kids occupied, too! Grandma often taught the adult class, which unfortunately, I never attended. Even so our many conversations delved into the realm of pragmatic spirituality.

Grandpa was an aeronautical engineer, entering the profession in its burgeoning days as a young techie in the 1930’s when the creative opportunities in the nascent industry were boundless. Being on the forefront of a brand new industry energized him. It tapped his creative and problem solving genes. He was a classic introvert, needing acres of space to recharge daily. He owned a tractor to mow the large acreage lawn sparsely dotted with fruit and nut trees. A hobby apiary was tucked behind the barn on the edge of the Escarpment. Grandpa would don his white uniform and bee hat regularly to tend his hives. We were never asked to help tend the bees.

The majority of Grandpa’s farmable ground was leased to a hay and corn farmer. Crops were rotated between the different fields. Since the land was Grandpa’s refuge, any crops that required daily tending by a tenant farmer were not grown. The energy to interact with other people was saved for Grandpa’s day job as an airplane wing engineer.  

As with my grandparents, the neighbors and fellow churchgoers all had a relationship to the land. One memory really stands out.

The Small Family Farmer in the ’60’s

Grandma’s House & Grandpa’s Barn

The Nelsons were fellow churchgoers–a family of six, two parents and four children–just like my family. Our whole family was invited to their house for lunch after church. The Nelsons were small-scale dairy farmers with maybe a 30 to 50-head herd. Honestly, I don’t really remember the exact herd size, but the feeling of their house, the farm, and size of the operation is vivid. I know it was not a large farm. The standard clapboard house at one time blue had faded to a blue-gray and was flaking. The inside was minimally furnished with old furniture but comfortable. The property was dank and muddy and the barn looked dilapidated. As with many farmers then and now, the Nelsons were dependent on selling their product to a wholesaler at a set price. There was no ability to negotiate a higher price to cover costs, upgrade equipment, or maintain a reasonable standard of living. Even so, I do remember family being cheerful and welcoming. Still, even as a nine years old, I knew the Nelsons were poor.

In the late 1960’s our family was living frugally as my Dad was a full-time mechanical engineering PhD student. My mom stayed home with four kids. I was oldest and my only brother a toddler. My small wardrobe was mostly hand-me-downs from my younger sister, as she was already bigger than I, and a special dress sewn by Grandma. After me, the hand-me-downs were given to the Nelson girls as my youngest sister was five years younger than I. There was no reason to keep used clothing for five years until my sister grew into them. At that young age, I just knew we would never be as poor as the Nelsons. I lived in a family of possibility and opportunity. Every year my great-grandparents and later my grandparents sent birthday and holiday checks, to be put dutifully in the bank for my college education. I was expected to go to college, as both my parents and my Mom’s parents had. I knew I had options and the possibility of being comfortable and always having enough.

Supporting Small Family Farmers

Selecting the Christmas Tree

How do these memories fit into my life now? In my political, food and farming, and justice work, I often think of the Nelsons. They were living their lives like many ordinary families. Striving to raise good, healthy children, endeavoring to make a living and working with the land and their other children–the cows. These are the basic human attributes that sustain and enhance life. Raising food and nurturing children. Remembering the Nelsons, I can’t help but see the stark disparities in life, lives, and livelihoods, that unfortunately continue to this day.

As I prepare my holiday meals, I am very intentional on sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local farmers to fill my table and my holiday home. I know that every dollar I spend directly with a local farmer, generates the highest value for that farmer. The food tastes the best, is clean with no worries of pathogens or errant E.coli, and keeps local lands in agriculture. The Nelsons never could sell directly to the consumer. It just wasn’t an option to sell milk and milk products in a farmstand on the side of the road or at a farmers’ market. Even now it is difficult to get locally sourced dairy products, but there are options such as Pure Eire Dairy, Grace Harbor Dairy, and Ellenos, all Washington based businesses and found at PCC Community Markets, Metropolitan Markets, and other stores that stock locally grown and processed agricultural products. I am blessed to know how important my food choices and Christmas tree decisions are to the local economy and happy to support the families that grow and nurture these products.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

Note: The Grandma’s House & Grandpa’s Barn photo was taken by Donna Quinn and used by Gardow Consulting with permission. 

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Chestnut Bonanza!

During the early days of autumn, for about three weeks, chestnut trees bear their fruit. Every October walking through Laurelhurst Park, I see about a half-dozen Asian-American elders standing below the majestic chestnut trees–waiting. It never appears to be the same elders, but there are usually about 6 and never more than 10. Some come alone. Others come in twos.  Each carry a plastic sack or basket to carry their bounty.

Majestic Chestnut Tree

One gentleman is framed in the sunshine with his head tilted back scanning the treetop–waiting. Two women, one my age and the other surprisingly much younger bat a wiffle ball with plastic racquets filling the time with friendly competition–waiting. Each day the chestnut foragers wander between the two clumps of about ten nut producing trees, waiting for the rewards to drop. Below each trees’ huge dripline, the lawn is littered with empty burrs, the sheath that encapsulates anywhere from one to seven chestnuts. In all the years I’ve walked the park during harvest, I had never seen anyone get a burr. I figured they must or they wouldn’t come. But, why don’t I ever see burrs falling?

Chestnut History

Harvested Chestnuts

Across the United States at the turn of the 20th century American chestnut trees were prolific.  In 1904 a blight, most likely triggered by the import of an Asian chestnut variety, quickly began the demise of four billion trees. The loss of the trees was horrific, as the wood was used for everything from furniture to railroad ties and of course, the nuts for sustenance. In earlier times, chestnuts were an important food that often substituted for potatoes in the American diet. Now, it is mostly a culturally significant holiday treat roasted by a Uwajimaya grocery store vendor and sung about in a Christmas carol. There have been efforts to cross the Chinese and American chestnut to create a resilient American breed but alas, it has not happened.

Sleuthing Seattle tree databases and lore, I couldn’t find out what type of chestnut tree live in Laurelhurst Park. These trees don’t warrant the Google reference of Queen Anne Hill’s majestic rows of edible chestnut producing  trees nor the University of Washington’s sorority row inedible horse chestnut tree canopy.

My Chestnut Reward

Chestnut Foraging

On my last sunny day park walk, imagine my surprise when  a chestnut burr literally dropped in front of me. The bright green burr practically sparkled in the autumn sun. I grabbed it with my naked hand and was surprised by the prickly intensity of the quill-like surface. I tucked the burr gently under my arm protected by the polar fleece of my jacket, wondering what I would do with this treasure. I had no idea how to open it. Fortunately, there were still a couple elders waiting for chestnuts to drop. I showed my burr to an older woman. Her eyes glistened with excitement.  I asked her how to open it. Rather than giving me verbal instructions, she put my precious burr under her foot. She squished it and rolled it back and forth until two chestnuts emerged. I held them briefly- their shiny smooth surface cradled in my hand. I had no idea what to do with two nuts!  I gave them to her. She dropped them in her plastic tote. She left with a satisfied grin on her face.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Do Organics Get the Respect They Deserve?

“I get no respect!” Are organics the Rodney Dangerfield of food? Organics should be celebrated and touted as the best food for all. Instead organics are like Rodney Dangerfield, the iconic stand-up comedian, who never got the recognition he deserved until he played the self-deprecating respect card.  Do organic foods and growing methods get the respect they deserve?

Organic Growing System

Nash’s Best Carrots

The organic food growing system has been around for eternity. It builds the coveted nutrient-rich, dark brown, friable, moist, growing medium in which food is grown. Organic farming is the art of yearly rotating crops from one field to the next, so the bad bugs don’t have the opportunity to destroy a harvest by becoming fruitful and multiplying. Rotating different crops in sequential years from one field to the next is not only good for pest management, but also it also increases soil fertility and crop yields.  

Composting on-farm crop wastes recycles and returns beneficial organisms and humus back to the soil to replenish and nourish the ground for every years’ crops. Resting and rejuvenating the soil for a season with a nitrogen fixing (often low monetary but high soil and ultimately food nutrient value) cover crop replenishes and rejuvenates the soil. Companion planting, another method to ward off bad bug invasions, increases pollination possibilities, and creates habitat for beneficial bugs. [My own experiment with companion planting is growing bush beans with tomatoes in a large pot on my deck. Planting garlic with bush beans is a big companion planting “no-no.”] With all these benefits of the organic growing system, why is organic production only four percent of the total U.S. food sales?

Farmers have been growing organically since the beginning of farming. With the advent of chemical farming after World War II and the dependency on single crop farms managed with synthetically made fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, our agricultural system is vastly changed from its original agrarian roots. 

Our Current Food System

Top Ingredient Corn Munchies

Before the post World War II Green Revolution, organic farming was the tried, true and only way to grow food. The Green Revolution transformed everything. Its noble goal was to feed the world and it excelled at that objective. It succeeded in reducing worldwide hunger, but at what cost? The Green Revolution fostered an industrial food system that is still the predominant food growing, processing, and delivery structure to this day. Crop conformity with hybridized seeds benefiting from extensive irrigation systems and the application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to increase yields is the dominant agricultural paradigm. Agricultural scientists developed seeds that took some of the uncertainty out of food growing. Farmers were given guidelines, instructions, and research from the Land Grant Universities on when to apply synthetic chemicals to the fields or crops throughout the year to boost yields. Granted, the farmer still had to worry about too much or not enough rain, too much or not enough heat and a myriad of other concerns. Even so, by making each type of crop a commodity–more similar than dissimilar so that a crop such as corn could be generic and interchangeable–eaters lost variety, flavor, health benefits, and a relationship with their farmer and where the food came from. Of course, the big food processors and grocery chains favored the industrialized system with uniform, predictable crops as it made it easy to purchase and create food products that could be sold to the masses.  

The outcome of this agricultural system is that mainstream, conventional food stores’ products now offer multiple concoctions of products with corn, soybeans and wheat–the top three agricultural revenue generators and crops that cover our farmland in the United States.

Organics Market Share

Those that either demanded or mourned the loss of quality, healthy, and tasty foods of days gone by, worked to develop a nationwide organic standard. The National Organic Program was established in 1990 with its rules enacted in 2002. Since the organic rules were published, nationwide organic food consumption has increased by double digits each year which sounds impressive. What is unimpressive is that organic sales are only four percent of the total U.S. food sales. In any other industry, a four percent market share after 16 years is considered paltry.

So, why don’t organics get the respect they deserve? My quest is to find out. I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Thoughts on Healthy Communities

The inner world is in our mind. Our outer or human experience is where and how we exist, interact and observe others, gather news, spend our time, and be in the world. The mind is the harbinger of mental health. Can the environment we live in impact our mental health? The short answer is, “Yes, of course.”

Yoga and Living

I am a 25-year yoga practitioner. My early practice was a work-out, as is very typical for many yogis. The United States yoga industry has flourished focusing on a cardio yoga routine while predominately ignoring the inner work. In my 30’s, my lunchtime routine was either running three miles on the Seattle waterfront, pumping my heart to a pulsating aerobics class or practicing balance, shoulder stand and flow in a yoga class. All relieved the downtown law firm workday tension and got the blood flowing from my sitting, day job. Getting out of my chair for an hour long yoga class to move, stretch, breathe, was a weekly highlight, which has continued almost unabated except for a year when my children were young.

My early practice was trying to master the famous yoga pretzel poses–you know the ones you see that you can’t ever imagine doing. After years of concerted effort and practice, my heels have never touched the floor in a downward facing dog and my toes are always out of reach in any forward bend unless I bend my knees at least 30 degrees. For close to 20 years my practice was an outward viewing experience, comparing myself to what others could do and the legendary calendar poses.

Bridge Pose

Then, lifes ups and downs got in the way. I became an untethered professional (also called working for myself) and started practicing yoga more rigorously again. Unknowingly, I took a class being taught by a former fellow practitioner that I had met when taking classes with my first teacher, Kathleen Hunt. If you don’t know, it’s helpful to understand that yoga is an almost never ending lineage of teachers that likely started more than 5,000 years ago. Each student has a teacher or teachers to which they credit their yogic path or yoga evolution. Yoga is not just exercise, but an evolution in awakening–getting beyond the physical experience and into the mental and spiritual forms of the practice.

That fateful day my teacher was Melina Meza, who I now credit as my second teacher. She encouraged me to consider taking yoga teacher training. Of course, I said, “I can’t be a teacher, I can’t even touch my toes without bending my knees!” From the human or outer world existence, yoga teacher training is just that, how to be a teacher of yoga. What Melina didn’t tell me and I could only learn by doing is that teacher training is the beginning of a journey to unpeel and examine the layers of my inner world.

ULI’s Health Leaders Network

For 40 years my professional world has involved land use, civil engineering, and real estate development–components of the built environment. How land is used has always fascinated me as it is how we live and experience the built, agricultural, and natural worlds. This upcoming academic year, I am looking forward to bringing my professional world together with my yogic world, as I participate in the Urban Land Institute’s Health Leaders Network. The recently formed Network is bringing together a group of 40 professionals involved in the real estate business from across the country that will do a “deep dive” to develop a better understanding and develop tools on what it takes to  build healthy communities. Personally and professionally, I want to know what it takes to make a healthy, happy community (and as a result perhaps a healthy mind–where the inner and outer worlds are at peace). I realize I may be asking a lot and have set a high expectation. However, if I do not start this new venture with high intentions and aspirations, than I could wander and not know what to look for or what questions to ask.

In preparation for the Network’s venture, I’ve been assembling some of my thoughts on what I think makes a healthy place. I know I live in a healthy place. I can just feel it in my every day experiences and it is confirmed by AARP Livability Index score. The Livability Index was originally created to address the needs for the senior population but is now advertised as “Great Neighborhoods for All Ages.” Neighborhoods that benefit the elderly are good for everybody.

AARP’s Livability Index–Health Score

Two of the seven AARP Livability Index categories for my neighborhood–health and environment–score in the top third or above average at 75 and 74 respectively. The Livability Index is a beneficial tool as the scores are calculated on reproducible and measureable metrics and data. Each category is measured both by neighborhood census blocks and/or county and regional measureable attributes. The category indices are further refined by incorporating an assessment of adopted government policies and plans that further characterize livability.

Unhealthy Smoke Filled Seattle Sunrise

To measure health, six metrics are evaluated and two policy categories are considered. For my neighborhood, five of the six metrics were rated the highest while only one metric was below average. My neighborhood is 30% below the national average on smoking prevalence, 21% below the national average on obesity, and more than 40% below the national average on the number of hospital admissions for conditions that can be addressed through outpatient care. The only Livability Index metric that needs improvement is the “percentage of patients that give area hospitals a 9 or a 10, on a scale of 10” for patient satisfaction on the quality of health care. This metric is lower than the national average, but I suspect there are health care facilities that have high marks close to my home as there are many hospital options in the Seattle area.

On the policy front, Washington State excels in smoking regulations, if you value clean air. In 2006, the state legislature enacted a law prohibiting smoking in public gathering places and where people are employed and does not allow smoking within 25 feet of the entrances of these same locations. This law has changed my night life as I will now go out dancing or to a bar! I don’t come home and leave my smoke-filled clothes on the doorstep or take a late night shower so my pillow doesn’t smell like smoke in the morning!

What is lacking on the health policy front is any statewide or local plans to create age friendly communities. Granted there are local age-restricted 55+ plus communities, but evidence is mounting that perhaps my generation of seniors want more inclusive multi-generational communities with housing and transportation options that “create great neighborhoods for all ages!”

Just last night I had a conversation with a 61-year old female colleague that said she is specifically looking for a multi-generational community as she ages. She is married, but never had children and has only one niece. Being dependent on just family for her community is not an option. She doesn’t know what her community will look like in 20 years, but knows she doesn’t want to be with “just old people.” Multi-age friendly communities need to include different housing sizes, price points, and accessibility that encourage and allow all ages and abilities to mix together in community.

AARP Livability Index–Environment Score

Denny Creek Flows Generated from Snow Melt

Air and water quality are the metrics measured for the AARP Livability Index environment score, which are all above average for my neighborhood. The water quality metric measures the health of our drinking water supply. Seattle’s public water supply violations are practically non-existent, as our water comes from pristine, protected reservoirs in the Cascade Mountains that are snow-fed by incessant winter storms. Our water supply is  highly dependent on cold winter temperatures to ensure that we get snow rather than rain in the mountains. As the globe warms, our water supply could be more tenuous, but thankfully is stellar now.

Air quality measures monitored in the Livability Index include being less than 200-meters from a major thoroughfare with more than 25,000 vehicles per day, proximity to industrial facilities with airborne pollution, and the number of unhealthy air quality days per year. On all of these metrics my neighborhood grossly exceeds the nationwide average, thereby excelling in healthy air. On average, we experience 1.7 days per year of unhealthy air. This summer however, we exceeded the average because of multiple forest fires about 200 miles north of Seattle in British Columbia, Canada. Weather patterns smothered our state with unhealthy, smoky, gray haze for a week and a half until our cool marine air finally pushed the smoke away. If I lived next to Interstate 5 where more than 200,000 cars travel through downtown per day or adjacent to an industrial area with uncontrolled airborne pollution they would impact my air quality.

The upcoming Health Leaders Network sessions will explore and expand the knowledge base on what are the ingredients needed to create and ensure longevity for healthy communities. I am looking forward to evaluating and discussing all elements of a healthy community that could impact one’s inner and outer worlds.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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How Does Your Neighborhood Score?

I live in a great city-the Emerald City- Seattle, Washington. Living here 32 years is more than half my life.  I started life as a New Englander, growing up in a Connecticut suburban town with a couple elementary school years in Buffalo, college in Schenectady, New York, and Massachusetts where I started my professional career in the Boston Metro area before moving to Seattle. After three decades, I call this place home. It didn’t take 30 years to say that but it definitely took awhile. Now, I can’t imagine leaving. Living in this wonderful part of the world is enhanced by living in a great neighborhood.

Biking on the Burke Gilman Trail on a mid-summer’s day

What makes where I live so special? My uncle taught me the first rule of real estate is location, location, location. It’s the neighbors and the location! I live one and a half blocks away from the Burke-Gilman Trail a 20-mile former railroad grade that stretches from the City of Bothell at Lake Washington’s north end to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, connecting with the King County trail system. At my trail access is a compact commercial area with City People’s Mercantile a member of the True Value Cooperative, Katterman’s Pharmacy, Sand Point Grill, and other small retail establishments. One-half mile away by walking, biking, or driving is Metropolitan Market-Sand Point a full service grocery store.

Mid-Day at the UW Link Light Rail

The Burke-Gilman Trail has easy bikeable access to the University of Washington’s Link Light Rail station with trains running from 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. daily to downtown and SeaTac Airport. Service is every 6 minutes during rush hour, every 15 from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. and every 10 minutes at all other times. Since March 2016, the Link’s most northern stop at the University of Washington on the north side of the city-splitting ship canal has been a commuting game changer. Biking to the station takes me 20 minutes. I lock my bike and hop the train to get downtown. It can take me as little as 35 minutes from my house to my Pioneer Square office for a $5 round trip. Considering during rush hour it can take up to an hour in an automobile to get downtown, plus a minimum $14 daily parking fee, the Link is a bargain in time and money! The bus is the same price as the train, but takes almost an hour to get downtown, since it gets stuck in commute traffic. LINK’s also easy access to the airport without getting caught in downtown I-5 traffic.

King County Metro busses # 62, #74 and #75 all serve my neighborhood with bus #75 providing simple, walkable access to the University of Washington’s Link Light Rail station, too. Would more frequent bus service on Sand Point Way be a benefit to my commute? Absolutely! Thankfully, I’m willing to bike in almost any weather!

Grades from Walk Score

Today, data also drives information and decisions. Walk Score and AARP’s Livability Index are two great tools to research and evaluate any U.S. real estate address. Walk Score, now owned by Redfin a full-service real estate firm, computes a walk score, transit score, and bike score using mathematical algorithms for addresses across the United States. According to the founders,  

“The Walk Score algorithm awards points based on the distance to the closest amenity in each category. If the closest amenity in a category is within .25 miles (or .4 km), we assign the maximum number of points. The number of points declines as the distance approaches 1 mile (or 1.6 km)—no points are awarded for amenities farther than 1 mile. Each category is weighted equally and the points are summed and normalized to yield a score from 0–100. The number of nearby amenities is the leading predictor of whether people walk.”

The walking distances to my local amenities are: City People’s Mercantile-0.2 miles, Katterman’s Pharmacy and Sand Point Grill-0.3 miles, and Laurelhurst Elementary School and Park-0.6 miles. All are incredibly walkable destinations. University of Washington’s Seattle campus is 2 miles away and University Village, Seattle’s premier shopping center is 1.5 miles away and both are easily bikeable. (Now if University Village would only add more bike parking!) Based on a maximum score of 100, my Walk Score is 57 designated as somewhat walkable, Transit Score is 52 with good nearby public transportation options and Bike Score is 60 with very steep hills and some bike lanes.

All of these scores are low by my summertime standards, but probably accurate for a cold, rainy, winter day standard. In the summer it’s easy to hop on my bike to pick up a few items at Met Market or walk to City People’s. The bike score is low for any destination along the Burke-Gilman Trail and absolutely too high, if a steep hill is on my route.   

AARP’s Livibility Index Scores

A Break on the Burke-Gilman Trail

AARP originally created their Livability Index for seniors, but now advertise it as “Great Neighborhoods for All Ages.” What is good for seniors is good for children! Safe streets, easily available and accessible stores and public transportation, a healthy environment, employment opportunities, possibilities for civic engagement and entertainment, and housing affordability benefit all ages, not just seniors. AARP’s Livability Index is a web-based tool that scores health, environment, transportation, neighborhood, engagement, opportunity and housing. These seven category scores are calculated both cumulatively and individually to contribute to well-being or livability score. Policies, studies and statistics that support and further define each livability factor are expanded under each category. Each category’s individual score can be dialed upwards or downwards in real time by the user to place higher or lower emphasis on a specific well-being attribute. As an example, access to hospital or doctor facilities (Children’s Hospital is 1/2 mile away) may be of utmost importance to one family, while a walkable neighborhood and easy transit access may be the top priority to another family. Housing affordability and job opportunities may be the most important issue for another and be dialed higher or lower individually. Scores are rated in thirds with green scores of 67 to 100 as best, 34 to 66 as middle ranked and less than 33 as below average. 

My neighborhood ranks in the top third in the health and environment categories. We have superior access to parks and recreational facilities, excellent air quality, and comparatively low smoking rates. With Laurelhurst Park and Burke-Gilman Playground being only one-half mile away, I also live 1.5 miles from the 350-acre Magnuson Park with beach access, trails, sports fields, P-Patch gardens, and a playground. Our transportation, neighborhood, engagement, opportunity, and housing categories are in the middle third ranking and our neighborhood has no scores in the bottom third. Housing is our lowest livability score at 37 mostly due to Seattle’s housing affordability crisis. Seattle area housing and rental costs continue to skyrocket.

Both Walk Score and AARP’s Livability Index rank my neighborhood similarly and slightly above average for livability and walkability. What are your scores?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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