We All Eat: ULI Food Forum

From the Greatest Generation to Generation Z and the Baby Boomers and Millenials in between, we are all connected by one simple necessity–We All Eat! Some of us are Feeders–just putting food in our mouths to combat hunger, some of us are Eaters–being deliberate about what we eat, perhaps watching calories and sugar and fat quantities, and some of us are Diners or possibly Foodies –searching for the freshest, most sustainably grown ingredients at a farmers market  and frequenting the Farm to Table restaurants. Then some of us are gluten-free, lactose intolerant, watching our weight or bulking on protein. However, in the end, no matter our food persuasion, we all must eat to survive. Food is grown on land, in water, and in pots and trays. Without food, we have no live(s)-lihoods!

Entering the Stone Barns Conference Center

Entering the Stone Barns Conference Center

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a worldwide organization of real estate professionals has recognized that the link between food and built environment is weak and sees the importance of strengthening it. Rather than building golf course master planned communities, suburban mass-market malls, or ensuring that the rent-reliable bank is located on a prime urban corner, authentic food-focused real estate projects are sprouting up across the nation creating excitement and fun. With this increased attention to integrate good food into development projects, ULI recently hosted two Food & Real Estate Forums to begin to decipher, understand, and share information on what it takes to generate successful food-focused real estate projects.  The day before the typical conference proceedings of presentations, panels, and discussions, the Food Forum attendees got educated, built community and had fun with activities at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Tarrytown, New York.

The Stone Barns Center is located one hour north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley on 80 acres of former dairy property originally owned and developed by the Rockefeller family in the 1930’s. The surrounding countryside is vistas of rolling hills, fields and forests with large homesteads despite being minutes away from the tentacles of the nation’s interstate highway system. This was a perfect locale for professionals steeped in the culture of the urban environment to explore the sustainable food system’s teachings at Stone Barns.

So, what happens when 70 real estate professionals are given a task? It gets done. Give them a challenge? It’s a competition.

The Coop Hoops

Stone Barn Laying Hen

Stone Barn Laying Hen

Slogging in big rubber boots and bundled with a tightly wound scarves in 50° rain, we left Stone Barns’ warm conference space to trudge across the chilly farm. First stop–the hen house. With umbrellas raised, we peered into a large permanent hoop house as laying hens scurried across straw covered floors stopping at grain feeders to peck for their meal. These laying hens, female chickens that produce eggs, are raised with plenty of indoor space and with much coveted outdoor space nestled between an adjoining hoop house. Outside the hens scrounge for bugs to augment their diets. Nesting boxes line the outside edges wall of each hoop house. In winter months about 400 birds are kept, while the summer flock increases to about 1,300 layers. Egg production is significantly reduced in the winter, not only because of the smaller flock, but also because chickens lay up to a 33% fewer eggs just because of the colder, darker days.

Adjacent to the hen house is the chicken coop, another large permanent hoop structure. It is set up differently than the hen house, as it is designed to grow broiler or meat birds. Inside, the coop is divided by wire mesh fencing  to create separate living areas for different aged broods of Cornish Cross and Freedom Rangers meat birds, which are both conventionally raised chickens rather than heritage breeds. Conventionally raised birds are ready for eating when they are four months old, while heritage breeds, those that our forefathers grew, need seven months to grow to maturity. Obviously, chickens that live longer need more feed and are therefore more expensive. All the chicks begin their life at a Pennsylvanian hatchery and are shipped via post as day old fledglings to Stone Barns. The baby chicks bunch together beneath a heat lamp trying to stay warm and only venturing out of their brood to visit the grain feeder.  Once the chicks are between three to six weeks old depending on the outdoor temperature, the heat lamp is removed. Eventually the chickens are put out to pasture in a rotational grazing sequence with other animals to complete their growth before harvesting them.

The Greenhouse

From the drizzly cold, we were led into the steamy, hot 22,000 square foot greenhouse, where Farmer Jason, taught us about his operation. Besides growing food for Chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hills at Stone Barns Restaurant, the greenhouse farmers breed plant varieties and experiment with seeds. During our early May visit, about half of the greenhouse was sown in oats and clover as rotational crops to return nutrients and health back to the soil. A quarter of the greenhouse ground was tilled, raked, and ready for planting, while the remaining ground was planted in radishes, lettuces, and other greens.

Real Estate Professionals Planting Basil

Real Estate Professionals Planting Basil

In one row, a curly-leaf lettuce variety was tightly tied with rubber bands to prevent sunlight from hitting the inner leaves thereby producing pale green leaves for a future specialty salad. I have eaten white rather than green asparagus during Spargelzeit (asparagus time) in Germany.  Farmer Jason said, “Reducing or eliminating the sunlight to vegetables is a specialized technique that isn’t used that often because it is so labor intensive.” He went on to explain that the German’s have perfected Bleichspargel or bleached asparagus, by continually mounding soil around the sprouting vegetable, preventing any sunlight from tingeing the spears green. Farmer Jason alleged, “Preventing vegetables from getting sunlight produces a milder and perhaps more tender vegetable.” We didn’t get to taste test the bleached lettuce, but I’m curious. Maybe I’ll need to try technique in my own garden.  Despite the cold, dreary day, Farmer Jason knew that summer was right around the corner and he had ready hands available for a springtime planting. Crouching down on either side of a two-foot wide planting bed, we planted 50 feet of Italian basil starts. Ungloved fingers dug a small hole to drop and tamp each sprouted herb into the dirt.

The Kitchen

Next stop the kitchen. Shedding wet coats and donning white aprons, then the hand washing station, which is absolutely necessary after digging in the dirt. Once reassembled with clean hands, Chef Adam, holding a bright red globe radish by its leaves, introduced our cooking challenge. “I’ll divide you into three groups of eight people. Your task, in 15 minutes, is to create a dish using all of this vegetable. Your dish will be evaluated on flavor, presentation, and creative use of your radish–the whole radish, not just the red part. Points will be lost for any waste.” Behind him was a table full of ingredients to use in our dish plus knives, plates, a blender, broiler, other equipment, and a prep station for each team.

The 15 Minute Salad

The 15 Minute Salad

Our team–defacto strangers up until now– huddled in our prep area to plan our dish. Moments later, Bry and Bill foraged at the ingredient table, knowing whatever they picked had to be used in whole or it would be classified as waste. I shredded red, purple and white radishes and chopped radish leaves to beautify, flavor, and top the salad. Another teammate grilled prosciutto and wrapped it around individual green asparagus spears to top thin slices of toasted baguette, while others mixed salad greens and artfully arranged edible flowers. Kristina gathered all the leftover radish parts–leaves and roots, added fennel tops and walnuts into a blender. As the blender whirred, she drizzled olive oil, added garlic, salt and pepper and who knows what else to create an outstanding green dressing. Chef Adam gave us a two minute warning. John, the father of a professional chef, grabbed the camera to record our effort, as we feverishly assembled and decorated the plate and poured on the dressing. With a sigh of relief, our only waste was excess dressing, which we intended to “bottle and sell.”

Three exquisitely arranged dishes all with the lowly spring radish as its signature vegetable adorned the judge’s table. Chef Adam sang praise for the teamwork he had seen, as each cohort team had taken a couple precious minutes at the competition start to huddle and strategize. In the end, our dish didn’t win, but it sure tasted  marvelous–just enough bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, and sharpness. I think it needed just a bit more of our “for sale” dressing to make it sing!

Creating Community

At the cocktail hour, dinner, and the next day sessions there were new connections and common interests, as we had created community with a shared food making experience. It takes me back to the days when I was a kid baking Christmas cookies with my Oma or picking blackberries on the “back 40” and making jam with my Grandma.  Picking produce or preparing a meal with family, friends and even business colleagues is a great way to learn, grow, and have fun together! It gets us out of our heads and into our bellies, building friendships, relationships, and memories.

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Food Dollar Math: Who Benefits from Your Food Dollars

Western Washington along the Interstate 5 corridor are some of the world’s most prolific farmlands. Puget Sound is blessed with a maritime climate with warm summers, cool winters, and mountain snowpacks that provide ample irrigation water  through most of the growing season thus generating hefty harvests.

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley, Pierce County

Despite an optimal growing climate farmers gross revenues are between 4¢ and 7¢ per square foot according to the 2012 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census. Whatcom County on the Canadian border has the highest agricultural revenue at 7¢ a square foot. Snohomish County, just north of Seattle and Boeing’s home with the world’s largest manufacturing building, has the lowest agricultural revenue at 4¢ per square foot. These numbers also compete with downtown Seattle Class A office space leasing at $30 per square foot. Just a basic home selling for $100 per square foot out competes the arable land value, too. Despite agricultural lands being intrinsically valuable for our health and well-being–we all do eat–the economic value of the land that grows food cannot begin to compete with development. Looking at the huge chasm between development and farm land values is one way to begin to understand  why our country is losing 50 acres of farm and ranch land to development per hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. Farmland valuation versus development values is one gauge, but purchasing food is another measure to understanding why we lose farmland.

Do you know how much of each dollar you spend on food goes back to the farmer? Only 3.5¢ for every dollar spent goes back to the farmer, when eating out, whether at a restaurant or fast food joint. This number is astonishing, but not surprising when looked at more carefully. Farming is not known as a lucrative business. A farmer is better compensated with food prepared at home and gets 16¢ of every dollar spent. The USDA, through the  Economic Research Services division have analyzed these numbers in their Food Dollar Series (2014).

At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

Where does our “at home food dollar” go? Almost one-quarter or 24¢ of it is spent on food processing, which is the creation of products from the raw materials. We all eat food that has been processed. Processed food staples are bread, noodles, yogurt, cheese, crackers, meats, and multiple forms of tomato products. Some products such as tomato paste have been processed a little bit, while others such as bread combine multiple ingredients. Processed foods in a grocery store, show up in the middle aisles, the freezer  section, or the deli. They are in cans, boxes, bags, and jars. There are infinite opportunities to satisfy hunger with processed food! Whether the food is over-salted, has too much fat, sugar, or artificial color is another matter. I use a combination of minimally processed foods like tomato sauce and paste, and dried herbs with fresh ingredients like onions and garlic mixed in a crock-pot, to make a home cooked meal of spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s easy! The packaging of the processed food is small and only adds about 3¢ to the cost of at home food costs.

Once the food is out of the ground, processed and ready to travel to a store, this is bulk of the costs for the “at home food dollar”. Many people are involved in the effort of getting the food to us. Truckers transport food across the county or the country, wholesalers–also known as the middleman– buy raw and prepared products and sell it to retailers, grocers purchase, stock and sell food, and baggers carefully pack bags. All of these trades and more add incremental costs to food, so that in the traditional grocery store model close to half of the “at home food dollar” or 42% is spent on getting food from the farmer to you.

About 15¢ of the “at home food dollar” is spent on all the support services for the food industry around growing, processing, and selling food.  The on farm inputs are called “agribusiness” and cost just over 3¢. Inputs include seed, fertilizer, farm machinery and all that is needed to grow food. Energy is almost 6¢ of the “at home food dollar” equation and covers the cost of getting the oil, gas, and coal to power the food industry. Advertising, legal services, accounting, financing and insurance are the remaining 6¢ of the “at home food dollar”.

As a consumers we are inundated with advertising on television, web pages, billboards, mailboxes, on the radio, and in magazines and newspapers. As a result of these advertisements, one would think that advertising would be a much larger slice of the food dollar, but in reality, it is just a few cents of the “at home food dollar”. Even so, it is incredible to think with the value of the total U.S. food industry at $835 billion (USDA, 2014), that the advertising slice of the “at home food dollar” is about $21 billion. These numbers put some context into the enormity of the United States food system. It’s because we all eat!

Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

Eating food away from home supports farmers less. With almost three-quarters of the “eating out food dollar” spent on foodservice, there is not much less for anybody else including farmers. Restaurants, bars, clubs, fast-food joints and all the other venues where we buy prepared foods eat up 72¢ of the “eating out food dollar.” Food processing, packaging, wholesaling, energy, financing and insurance, advertising, and the other category including agribusiness, legal and accounting, are all a nickel or less of the “eating out food dollar”, as shown on the adjacent dollar. Farmers get a mere 3.5¢ back for every dollar spent eating out. That’s not much.

Making money as a farmer is tough. A farmer earning 3.5¢ on the “eating out food dollar” or 16¢ on the “at home food dollar,” cannot begin to earn enough money to compete with developer looking for a place to put new homes. With the average age of farmers being 59 years old and nearing retirement, it makes farmland even more vulnerable to being sold for houses.

Food Dollar Math Benefiting the Farmer

So many kinds of beets at Nash's Organic Produce stand

Beets at Nash’s Organic Produce Stand

Shopping at farmers’ markets is a great way for money spent on food to go directly to farmer and not to any middleman or retailer. Once a farmer’s fixed costs for seeds, fertilizers, insurance, table space at the market, labor, licenses, and transportation are covered, any revenue is his. Purchase a seasonal food delivery subscription directly from the farmer through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA subscriber is typically asked to pay a deposit for the subscription before the season starts allowing the farmer to cover his costs for seed, fertilizer, irrigation tape, labor, and other supplies before the first CSA box is delivered. Puget Sound Fresh is a great beginning resource for the CSA search.  Stop by a farm stand on the way home to support your favorite farmer. An eastern Washington farming family has just opened the Tonnemaker Woodinville Farm Stand on 14 acres. They’ll be growing western Washington produce on-site and mixing it up with their outstanding selection of eastern Washington crops like peppers, apples, pears, melons, and more! Washington grows great food and we ought to do our best to support the farmers that grow it!

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Agritopia®–A Little Bit of Arizona Heaven

The first and only time I visited Phoenix was twenty-five years ago. All I remembered from that trip were endless strip malls, six-lane arterials, lots of double left-turn lanes, roads filled with cars, and cascading water fountains. The bubbling fountains at the entrances to subdivisions and in front of office buildings perplexed me, because I knew I was in the middle of the desert! The Phoenix climate was too hot and dry and the built environment was too auto dependent for me. Even so, it’s a nice place to visit in the depths of a soggy Seattle winter. A family wedding was my opportunity to explore Phoenix again. I went looking forward to finding someplace that would comfort my Northwest sensibilities.

After touching down and renting the much needed automobile to ensure that I could get to the wedding festivities, I found myself again driving on the never ending highways, with graceful looping ramps and being distracted by strip malls. Concrete sidewalks bounded both sides of the road on every city street, which is a sign of good urban planning design, but sadly no one was using them. There were no dog walkers, runners, or cycle riders, just a ribbons of sidewalk paralleling the continuous traveled way. Where would I find people? Where would I find community? I was happy when I found a little bit of Arizona heaven at Agritopia®.

Waiting to Pick Citrus

Waiting to Pick Citrus

Agritopia® is located in Gilbert, Arizona about 30 miles east of downtown Phoenix in an area that was once home to ranches and farms. It’s located directly adjacent to a Highway 202 exit ramp the main loop highway around Phoenix, which connects to the interstate highway system. Agritopia® sits on land that was homesteaded in 1927 and actively farmed for 70 years by the original homesteaders and later the Johnston family. Realizing in the late 1990’s that suburbia was creeping ever closer to their commodity crop farm, rather than just selling the farm and abandoning the land’s agricultural heritage, the family decided to do something different. The family to create their own development concept by incorporating food growing into their community design.

Agritopia®’s Community

Turning into the dirt parking area on a Saturday morning in mid-March, the knee-level sign, “Citrus U-Pick Today,” beckoned me. The parking area was nearly two-thirds full with sedans, mini-vans, and trucks. Walking away from a large undeveloped commercial concern behind me and passing by snout-nosed garages on the far side of a large empty field, I walked through the parked cars towards a cluster of large trees. My ears perked when I overheard a grandmother laden with bags of fruit announce with enthusiasm to her grandkid, “This was fun! I’m definitely going to watch for this u-pick next year!”

Just beyond the parking area, beneath the cooling tree canopy, I found what I was looking for—a place where people gathered, spent time with their families and friends, and met their neighbors. At Joe’s FarmGrill’s front door, there was a line of 20 people waiting to get served hometown fare made in part with super local on-farm Agritopia® products. Joe’s FarmGrill occupies the Johnston family farmhouse, which was originally a 1960’s modern home with a sloped roof and large windows. (This was not the farmhouse of my New England heritage!) Other former farm structures have more traditional wood clad siding that have been remodeled and re-purposed for an office, a farm retail space, and a coffee shop that was bustling with almost as many patrons as Joe’s FarmGrill.

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

I kept following the U-Pick signs to the orchard entrance. A young man took my money and gave me a sack to pick 10 pounds of the most delicious citrus—Lisbon lemons and Blood-Ruby and Arizona Sweets oranges. Trees were in full bloom, perfuming the grove in a delicate orange blossom scent, while at the same time there was plenty of ripe citrus to pick. Coming from a northern climate, it was incongruous that a tree was blossoming at the same time as fruit could be picked. I learned later that oranges can take from four to 18 months to reach maturity depending on its variety and water and weather conditions. Orange trees also blossom several times a year and the tree knows when to drop excess fruit to ensure a healthy tree and crop. The three-acre orchard is planted with 150 trees with 24 different varieties of peach, plum, apple, orange, grapefruit, mandarin, apricot, and lemon trees all ready for picking at different times of the year. This is obviously not a commercial fruit operation as the orchard is quite small and very diversified, but rather a developer added amenity to help build community and set this development apart from subdivisions. As I wandered through the grove looking for another tree to pick, I saw families with children and young people on a date—taking selfies, of course!

Enjoying the Commons

Enjoying the Commons

Once my citrus bag was stashed in my car, I walked around the Agritopia® neighborhood with enthusiasm, as I was really liking this development. In some sections of the development, there are more traditionally styled homes with big front porches facing a tree-lined street with sidewalks. Each home has their own driveway with access to a rear detached garage and a fenced backyard. In another neighborhood, there are more innovative urbanist homes fronting on a common green space. Garages are attached to the home and accessed from a back alley. Several folks were lounging underneath a tree in the common lawn between the homes, while young kids were throwing a ball. There was a sense of community—common ground—where the neighboring households could get to know their neighbors. Perhaps they would plan a neighborhood picnic or pick-up soccer game on the lawn?

Agritopia® is also designed to serve all generations, which is a healthy neighborhood model. Age restricted community have been the rage, but as more baby boomers age, they haven’t necessarily wanted to be isolated with only old people but rather have a yearning to be around young energy. GENERATIONS at Agritopia® is a full-service, independent living, assisted-living, and memory eldercare facility located in the geographical heart of the community. GENERATIONS is next door to the religious-based elementary and middle schools, which could potentially offer opportunities for students and elders to interact.

Living Next to the Farm

Living Next to the Farm

My highlight was the seven acres of farm and community gardens located in the heart of the development, dedicated to food production, and easily accessed by the neighborhood. Several folks were out in their garden plots digging in the dirt, getting ready for the upcoming growing season. The commercial row crop vegetable farm looked freshly planted with irrigation lines set, even though nothing had sprouted yet. Recently leafed out grape vines entwined the arbor creating a shadow and respite from the hot Arizona sun. White picket fences, some supporting grape vines, separated the individual garden plots from the walking paths and the commercial farm operation. As I walked back to my car, I had found a sense of peace and contentment from my Agritopia® visit.

What Makes Agritopia® Special

Agritopia® is an incredibly, livable community, because it’s a place to be happy and easy to be part of a bigger community. With two on-site restaurants, a retail farmstand, a school, and community gardens along with an adjacent city-owned dog park and on-site playgrounds, there were plenty of spots where neighbors could meet neighbors. As I walked by Joe’s FarmGrill on the way back to my car, there was still a line to get in, confirming that I had found a little bit of Arizona heaven.

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Zanzibar–The Spice Island

In the middle of Zanzibar are the spice farms, far from the bustle of coastal resorts and Stonetown, the island’s main commerce and tourist city. Departing Stonetown, we passed miles of roadside commerce tucked into open-air storefronts adjacent to the macadam road. Young and old alike walked from shop to shop picking up their daily necessities. Soon fields or forests hugged the road and were occasionally interspersed by a village. Each small community had several small retail shacks, surrounded by hovels and huts where people lived. Still there were people walking on the sides of the roads or waiting for the “daladala”–the open-air privately run bus system. Pods of children of all ages, laden with bookbags walked determinedly on the side of the road heading home after morning classes. About 30 minutes outside of Stonetown we turned onto a winding dirt road heading into the forest. Ten minutes later we arrived at Issa Spice. I was at the end of the road but knew I was also part of the economic lifeblood for this small rural community. Issa Spice is livelihood for the village and much of their money is made by tourists just like me wanting to learn how the exotic spices of the tropics are grown. Our dozen westerners walked through the equatorial landscape with our guide, in what felt more like a Zanzibarian jungle than a farm. Looking back, I know we were on a farm and not just in a forest, because every tree, shrub, grass or vine we walked by had a flavor to try.

Zanzibar is a group of semi-autonomously governed islands in the east African country of Tanzania. It is home to almost one million predominately Muslim agrarian peoples. Its location about 20 miles off the east coast of Africa meant that historically it had been a major trading stop. As a result, the island has been influenced by the Arabs, Persians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, and Brits. Even now, the world continues to flock to the island as tourism is Zanzibar’s second and perhaps more important economic driver after agriculture. As with centuries of early spice traders, I was drawn to learn about the flavors of the tropics and to do my part to support a local farm and economy.

As with every spice farm, Issa Spice has its own version of Gharam Masala a mixture of cinnamon, clove, ginger, cardamom, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and nutmeg which is used in making African and Indian flavored curries and pilaus (commonly known as pilafs in the States). Every Gharam Masala has its own flavors and intensities, as every spice company puts in varying quantities of each spice. Hence, no Gharam Masala tastes the same.

Gharam Masala–the Concoction

Cinnamon Tree

Cinnamon Tree

Cinnamon is the first ingredient in Issa Spice‘s concoction and it’s one of the most recognized flavors in the western world. What’s probably not known is that cinnamon is tree bark! Nothing like gnawing on a tree for flavor! Our guide peeled off a piece of bark for us to take pleasure in the sweet cinnamon smell. Before it can be used in western cooking, the bark is dried and ground into its common form–cinnamon powder.

Cloves are the flower buds of huge trees, towering upwards of 50 feet high, that are harvested, dried and sorted for world markets. Harvesting the flower buds requires the farmer to clamber up the tree to find the blooms. Zanzibar is noted for its premium clove harvest that happens from September to November during their short season rains. Cardamom, a lesser know spice to the American palate, is one of my favorites especially in Christmas cookies and sprinkled on top of broiled grapefruit. Searching for new ground to populate, the main cardamom plant sends out runners on which seed pods are attached. This is similar to the way strawberries send out tendrils to start a new plant. The kernel inside the cardamom seed pod is the spice nugget. Keeping the pod whole until it is ready to be used is recommended as ground cardamom quickly loses its flavor. For peak flavor, it’s best to use ground Gharam Masala quickly, too!

Cumin and coriander were not shown on our tour, but are likely cultivated as a field crop. Cumin are the seeds from the flowering plant of the same name, while coriander are the seeds from cilantro, a parsley-like looking plant grown throughout the world and is an essential ingredient in Mexican cooking, too.

Pepper, as in black pepper and not green pepper or chilies, grows on a vine in small clusters and once dried are called peppercorns. Peppercorns and ground pepper are found throughout the world as a mainstay spice. The nutmeg fruit is pale green and grows on a tree as tall as a two-story house. Inside the nutmeg fruit, the seed is slightly larger than a gumball and has a red-laced sheathing. The seed is dried and ground to produce the spice we know as nutmeg. All of these wonderful flavors are combined to create the savory, sweet, and exotic flavor of Zanzibarian Gharam Masala.

But, what is done with the nutmeg’s red-laced sheathing? It too, is dried and ground into a spice called mace–a peppery nutmeg powdered flavor.

Other Treats from the Zanzibar Farm

Harvesting Star Fruit

Harvesting Star Fruit

The other jungle farm treats were outstanding–turmeric, ginger, jackfruit, starfruit, and other tropical specialties. A young man scrambled high into a starfruit tree to bring down a juicy almost green grape-flavored, mouthwatering sample. Starfruit is a bright yellow six-inch long fruit and when sliced crosswise, each section is shaped like a star. Seeing a ripe jackfruit hanging on its tree is just bizarre. It hangs on to the tree trunk by a thin stem similar to the tubing for the mouthpiece found on a bassoon. The jackfruit has a matte spring-green nubby skin and is about the same size as an old-fashioned oblong shaped watermelon. Our guide clipped the fruit from the tree and opened it for tastings. The bite-sized chunks has just enough sweetness to satisfy and a more mellow flavor than a starfruit. It has the texture of a slightly dry pineapple with a small marble-sized pit inside. Tumeric is eaten as a spice for longevity and ginger is a flavoring that can settle the stomach. Both are both roots. Tumeric stained my fingers and gave me a bright orange tongue, while the ginger just smelled wonderful!

Ripening Vanilla Pods

Ripening Vanilla Pods

On the other side of the path, vanilla pods, looking like green string beans hanging on the vine were slowly ripening to be ready for picking and processing. Vanilla, a member of the orchid family, is one of the most expensive spices to grow, as each flower must be individually hand pollinated. Even in eastern Mexico, vanilla’s ancestral agricultural home, there is a one percent chance of unassisted pollination success from a specific bee species. Hence the necessity for hand pollination wherever commercially viable vanilla is grown and the costly expense.

After our tour, we ate a hearty lunch sitting on the floor of curry and rice–spiced with the flavors of the farm. Since coming home, I’ve cooked with all these spices in sweet and savory dishes. The flavors of the tropics warm the spirits and send me back to Zanzibar–The Spice Island.

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Our Vulnerable Food System

Our food system–the system of growing, harvesting, distributing, and selling food–is fragile! To most, it looks in good health. Stop in any grocery store, stroll through Pike Place Market, visit your local farmers market or drive through a McDonald’s and there is plenty of food! From an eater’s perspective, there is no problem. There seems to be enough food, just that perhaps there is a distribution or cost problem because the poor can’t afford or get enough.

Puyallup Bottomlands Farmland

Puyallup Bottomlands Farmland

The food system is vital to our well-being, but goes largely unnoticed because it seems to be working. Our food system is like an onion, though as there are many layers and it is not pleasant to examine the layers as it is uncomfortable or bring tears to our eyes. Peeling back the food system layers, our eyes start to water and focus becomes blurred when realizing how complex and confusing it really is. Similar to slicing and sautéing an onion quickly, it’s much easier to avoid examining the layers of the food system.

This blog will look briefly at elements of the food system and where it is fragile. Realize that 500-page books, year-long college classes, multiple non-profit’s missions, and countless articles have all focused on the system’s frailness, so this is only touches lightly on the topic. Even so, positive changes are happening and we are getting the opportunity to eat more healthfully because more attention is being paid to what we eat and how it is grown. Despite this, there is still much work to be done to build a food system that serves all participants from farm-laborers, to farmers, to food preparers and eaters.

Where do we begin?

Mass produced food is cheap. Most eaters consume cheap food, because deals abound at Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Olive Garden, you name the fast-food chain. Two for the price of one. Buy one (calorie, fat and sugar laden food item), get one free. The mass marketed “drive-thru and go” and nationwide family-diner food providers buy their wares from huge multi-national corporations (think Kraft, ConAgra, just to name a few), that produce oodles of calories. The healthier fruits and vegetables that the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) recommends that we eat often do not show up on the menu or are loaded with croutons, bacon bits, cheese, and dressing defeating the purpose of eating them. Granted there are food chains such as Chipotle that are breaking this traditional mold, but they have had problems scaling their healthy fast-food business model.

The CDC’s recommendations are directly in conflict with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) heavy subsidization (with our tax dollars) of commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy through Congress’ authorization of Farm Bill every five years. The commoditized, subsidized products feed our nation’s cattle, swine, and chicken supply, producing cheap meat products. The healthy diet recommendation that half our plate be filled with fruits and vegetables gets minimal tax dollar support and are consequently significantly more expensive. Hence, the uniformed eater, which too many of us are, chows down on low quality, cheap food. It tastes good or at least tastes the same all the time! It’s portable. It’s quick. It’s inexpensive. It fills us up! The consequences: obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

To add more fodder to a broken food system, the food growing profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Think of the average farm worker. An immigrant (often in this country illegally), earning a very low wage in the heat, rain, mud, and cold to plant, till, prune, and harvest food. Cheap food does not support these minimum wage workers.

Proposed State Route 167 in the Puyallup Valley

Proposed State Route 167 in the Puyallup Valley

Furthermore, farmland, especially when located in proximity to thriving metropolitan areas, is threatened daily for conversion to housing developments and retail shopping malls. Developers aren’t the only threat to farmland. When a State or Federal transportation department looks for a new highway route or overpass, farmland is the cheapest ground around. We have a great example about one-half hour south of Seattle. The completion of Washington State Route 167 from Interstate 5 to downtown Puyallup will be built on some of western Washington’s best farmland–the Puyallup River bottomlands. The proposed highway location is shown on the adjacent map in orange, while some of the farm properties are outlined in bright green. Last legislative session, the Washington State elected officials brokered a deal to fund the highway construction. Funding for building this section of highway has languished in the legislative process for almost 20 years. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) already owns much of the future highway right-of-way and leases the property to local farmers, so soon this farmland that currently grows some of the best iceberg lettuce, celery, and berries will be lost to pavement.

Environmental regulations threaten farmland, too. The Skagit River delta, one hour north of Seattle, was modified with dikes and drainage infrastructure a century ago to create one of the most prolific farming regions in the world. Now Skagit farmland is threatened not so much by housing developments, but by the desire (and legal obligation through the Endangered Species Act) to enhance and protect threatened wild salmon runs. Dikes could be removed but acres of farmland would be lost.

What to do?

These are just a few of the vulnerabilities in our food system. I purchase as much food as possible that is sustainably grown, preferably from a farmer I know. My actions help to create a more robust food system.

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Serenbe: An Innovative Community

Fulton County, Georgia is best known as the home of Atlanta, the 9th most populous U.S. metropolian area and Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the most traveled U.S. airport. North of downtown Atlanta is continuous suburbs, countless dead-ends and endless strip malls. At the south end of Fulton County, no more than a 30-minute drive from downtown is Chatahoochee Hills an incorporated city with less than one percent of the County’s population and about 10% of the County’s land area. Chatahoochee Hills is predominately rural with rolling hills, pastures, and woods. Just over ten years ago, this city protected itself from the bane of traditional suburban real estate patterns by incorporating 32,000 acres of rural lands into a municipal city and developed a plan to house just as many people as north county, but not in the same way.

Incorporation was accomplished by following a rigorous land use planning process with community meetings and political will that challenged land use patterns of classic American suburban sprawl. One leader of this land use decision process was Steve Nygren, who had moved with his family into south county in the early 1990’s and purchased 1,000 acres. Steve, a former restaurant owner turned developer knew that south Fulton County did not have to be destined to grow into classic American slurb. Now in the heart of Chatahooche Hills, Serenbe a New Urbanism development is the brainchild of Steve’s.

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Visiting Serenbe in April 2014 on a tour organized by the American Planning Association, I was energized seeing a community that was forward thinking rather than just the norm. As a professional civil engineer, I have designed subdivisions and reviewed development projects on behalf of jurisdictions for much of my career. At Serenbe, traditional land use planning and public works infrastructure standards have been challenged and eliminated, creating a master planned development community that works with the natural environment bringing comfort and joy to the residents rather than the incessant drone of the suburbia.

There are currently three hamlets or town centers at Serenbe with a fourth proposed, each having a different community focus. Selbourne Hamlet focuses on the arts, Grange Hamlet is a farm and craft community, and Mado Hamlet centers on health and well-being and is also the location of the adult active development. A fourth hamlet is proposed with emphasis on education. On our visit we toured Selbourne and Grange Hamlets.

Let me give just two examples of why Serenbe was attractive and excited me. One from my perspective as a civil engineer and the other from my passion on integrating food production into residential developments.

Challenging Public Works Standards

Typical Fenced Stormwater Pond in Seattle

Fenced Retention Pond in Seattle Suburbs

Typical subdivision roads are designed to accommodate parking, a five-foot sidewalk, and two-way traffic flow and of course, the largest fire truck the district owns. These requirements demand a minimum 48-foot pavement width. If the neighborhood is lucky, there could be two five-foot sidewalks on each side of the road, requiring a 60-foot wide publically-owned right-of-way. In typical engineering design, the road section from curb to curb is always crowned with a high point in the middle so stormwater can flow to the street sides to be piped away to a detention facility. This facility is designed to store excess stormwater during large storms and then slowly release the water back into the natural creek or wetland system, thereby reducing the chances of unwanted flooding or scouring. Sometimes the system is designed as a retention system with a small permanent pond at the bottom, but too often, it is a large empty hole in the ground surrounded by a fence.

Typical Subdivision Grading

Typical Subdivision Grading

House lots are typically graded such that the homes face each other, are not offset, and are at the same elevation across the street from each other. It is a very regular, predictable pattern. Because most developable land is no longer flat, mass earth movement and tree removal is necessary to create flat housing lots with retaining walls between the side or backyards to accommodate any grade differentiation. Houses step down as a subdivision road descends, hence engineering a fit rather than designing with the natural environment.

For more than 20 years mass grading and fenced in storm ponds have been standard engineering practice to managing stormwater and designing house lots. Designers at Serenbe turned this typical engineering subdivision model on its head. Steve spoke with passion about fighting against the standards with the Public Works Department to create a community that works with the natural site topography and for the people.

Serenbe Community Map

Serenbe Community Map

The roads are designed with hairpin curves, typical for mountain passes and not housing developments, that slow down traffic and cater to people walking rather than just cars driving. (An hairpin curve is circled in blue on the map.) This innovative road design creates wooded backyards for lots on the inside of the curve and at the same time a place to direct stormwater for biofiltration. Walking on the forest paths between the homes my engineering eye could see where the water flows. At the same time my childhood memories recreated stories of “playing house” in the woods, scraping forest floor leaves into long piles for pretend walls. Mixing mushrooms, berries, and leaves together to create a “scrumptious lunch,” eaten in the “dining room” built from downed logs. Every Serenbe kid has the chance to create their own fantasy house in their backyard!

Back at the street, the lots are designed to work with the topography, with some houses actually lower than the road, creating the feel that the community has been around for a long time. Pavement widths are no more than 40-foot curb to curb when parking is provided and shrink to 24-feet wide when only a two-direction traveled way is needed. Pavement edges are defined by granite curbing, which was no longer permitted by the road standards, but establishes a quality of a bygone era. Sidewalks are found close to the center of each hamlet and forest paths connect the community in the backyards.

Selbourne Hamlet is built for people–children, adults, and the elderly–not just for cars, creating peace and calm.

A Farm at Serenbe

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Serenbe Farms is located in Grange Hamlet, integrating food growing with residential living. In most of America, food just shows up, whether in a grocery store or restaurant. As Americans, we take food for granted and forget that it actually grows in real dirt, by an actual person that plants, tends, and harvests it. Someone then cleans, packages, and transports it to a place where we purchase a farmer’s hard work. For most, this connection to food growing is forgotten. At Serenbe the link between food growing and eating is made real.

In Grange Hamlet, 25-acres are dedicated to organic agriculture and is the backyard for a street of homes. (The farm is outlined in red on the Serenbe map.) Serenbe Farms is a teaching or incubator farm, where interns learn the food growing trade and eventually move on to their own land to practice their profession. Only eight acres are currently cultivated producing 60,000 pounds of food annually that support a thriving Community Supported Agriculture program, the Serenbe neighborhood farmers market and chefs both at Serenbe and in metropolitan Atlanta. This connection to food and its cultivation reunites us with the basic necessities of life–EATING!

At Serenbe, I was infused with serenity of place and at the same time energized by innovation in community building.

Steve Nygren is creating a multi-generational community for families with children, retirees, and anyone else that wants to be connected to the essentials of living. Eating good food, playing in nature, walking in the woods, and enjoying the arts are all found at Serenbe. Alas, the price point for purchasing a home serves only an affluent clientele. Even so, the subdivision design elements and integrating the community with nature and food production are important to consider in future development projects. Rather than designing for the automobile, Serenbe is a stellar example of a community for people.

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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The New Agri-hood

“I live next to a farm!” This can be said with enthusiasm and excitement or disappointment  and disgust. Living next to a farm can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. City folks want to move to the country, as they see it as idyllic and bucolic. Farmers worry when city folk move in. Farmers know that the NOISE, ODORS, FUMES, DUST, SMOKE, THE OPERATION OF MACHINERY OF ANY KIND (INCLUDING AIRCRAFT), THE STORAGE AND DISPOSAL OF MANURE, THE APPLICATION BY SPRAYING OR OTHERWISE OF CHEMICAL OR ORGANIC FERTILIZERS, SOIL AMENDMENTS, HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES, HOURS OF OPERATION, AND OTHER AGRICULTURAL ACTIVITIES from their farm operations not only could, but will impact their residential neighbors.

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Often these new neighbors detest the smells of the rural scene smells or getting slowed behind tractors on the roadways. Then they lobby their politicians to create laws placing restrictions on farming practices. Farmers fight back establishing “Right to Farm Laws” that permit farmers to do their job, spreading fertilizers and manures, tilling soil, and growing food and forage. Mistrust between residential dwellers and their rural counterparts can be intense and nasty, especially as suburbanite neighborhoods spread into farm communities. The new arrivals are unfamiliar with the livelihoods of their rural neighbors and want to tame the farmers’ practices to create the idyllic farm experience. Unfortunately, childhood story books and pre-school day trips to pumpkin farms do not depict the real work behind farming.

In Washington State, the rural/urban divide created by the Growth Management Act is strong and strengthens this distrust. Over 20 years ago, legislators decided residential, commercial, and industrial developments belonged in cities, while the rural areas were for farms, forests and large lot residential subdivisions that would house people that could supposedly tolerate rural economies. The consequence of this separation, is further distrust and the erosion of understanding where food comes from.

New Agricultural-Residential Neighborhoods

Children's Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Tractor Ride at Prairie Crossing

Even though distrust exists between city dwellers and country folks, new real estate trends are emerging in pockets across the United States where the urban brethren are yearning to be affiliated with farms and farmers. A small but growing percentage of the US population are becoming eaters and foodies that frequent farmers’ markets wanting the freshest organic produce and pasture-raised meats and eggs. Knowing the farmer and his or her farm practices is increasingly important to this group, so much so, that they want to live in or adjacent to a place where food is grown, hence the birth of the agri-hood.

In the last two years, I have visited four of about a dozen agri-hoods located across the United States. This blog will describe two of these communities.

Prairie Crossing

Children's Garden at Prairie Crossing

Children’s Garden at Prairie Crossing

One hour northwest of Chicago is Prairie Crossing in Gray’s Lake, Illinois, the first modern agricultural-residential master planned development community with its first residential sales in the 1990s. In 1987, when the property was threatened with development of 2,400 homes, a group of neighborhood activists purchased it to develop it with an intention to maintain open space and agricultural uses. Now built-out, Prairie Crossing has 359 single family homes, 36 stacked flat condominiums, a charter school, small-scale retail village, a community barn/event space, a 100-acre working farm and an agricultural educational non-profit. Visiting Prairie Crossing on a crisp bright November day, I was immediately swept to another time where time slowed down and nature mattered. The droning buzz and incessant stimulus of suburban life was gone, replaced by stillness and the calmness of the natural world. There were no traffic lights, neon signs or endless rows of homes or strip malls. Instead, the tall grasses swayed in the breeze and the fields of salad greens were ready to be harvested for Thanksgiving. Chickens roamed freely in their fenced pasture while sheep munched on the remnants of summer grasses.

Prairie Crossing features a 100-acre organic farm with the original farmstead house, barn and outbuildings operated by Sandhill Family Farms, located as a centerpiece of the 667-acre development. Over 60 percent of the property is protected recreational, educational, and open space or farmground. Sandhill Family Farms success has allowed them to expand their production and ensure adequate crop rotation by adding acreage with another farm business 80 miles away in Brodhead, Wisconsin. The Prairie Crossing farm has heavier soils with more organic matter suitable for growing salad greens, garlic, beans, cabbages, and kales, while the Brodhead farm has sandy soils beneficial to tomatoes, potatoes, and pumpkin production. To grow organic food most sustainably, it is critical to rotate field crops yearly to prevent the pest bugs from establishing large colonies to attack crops. Farm products also grow better when a cover crop is intermittently included in the crop rotation to control soil erosion, add fertility, and improve quality. For these reasons it is advantageous to have multiple farm properties, different soil types, and good separation between fields. With all the farm amenities, Prairie Crossing residents benefit directly by purchasing from their farmer!

The Cannery

The Cannery in Davis, California is the newest agrihoods in the country, which I visited two months ago. The 100-acre property was the home of the Hunt-Wesson tomato packing plant, hence The Cannery name. Owned by ConAgra, The New Home Company are developers of The Cannery property and tout themselves as California’s first “farm-to-table new home community.”

The Cannery will reach full build-out with a mixture of 547 single family, multi-family and townhomes, 30 acres of parks and open space, a retail area with up to 172,000 square feet of commercial space and a 7.4 acre working urban farm. The property is surrounded on the south and west by city streets and on the north and east by large swaths of commodity-sized agricultural land. The Davis zoning code requires a minimum 300-foot buffer separating long term agricultural uses from urban uses, resulting in the required buffers being used for stormwater management detention facilities and the farm.

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery's Urban Farm

Heirloom Tomatoes at The Cannery’s Urban Farm

The Center for Land-Based Learning will manage The Cannery’s farm and receive three $100,000 payments over three years to establish the farm enterprise. The City of Davis will own the underlying row crop acreage, the orchard, and the farmhouse, which is currently being used as the developer’s welcome center. The farmable area will be 5 acres, stretching about one-half mile at a 100-foot width. The remaining 2.4 acres of designated farm property is being used for the hedgerow, farm road, and the barn and farmhouse. Two experienced graduates from The Center for Land-Based Learning’s California Farm Academy apprentice and incubator program will be the on-site farmers.

Agri-hood Observations

There are significant differences between these two agricultural-residential communities. Prairie Crossing has a sense calm and peace. Granted it was a cold, windy, but sunny November Saturday, but just entering the property the pace and intensity of a typical American life was shed. The farming operation with the supporting barns and hoop houses are almost 15% of the entire land mass and are a community focus in the center of the property rather than being tucked in a corner or a buffer. Walking paths crisscross the community, offering vistas across the farm property. Both the teaching garden and charter school exude children’s creativity even in November with the skeletal remains of summer tomatoes in the child-sized garden plots and colorful welcome signs.

Sandhill Family Farms operates a full-fledged farm business with row crops, chickens, and sheep to supply a thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Prairie Crossing was created with intention and purpose as a master planned development not using a traditional model, but rather something different and special. It shows.

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

The Cannery Farmhouse and Orchard

Alternatively, The Cannery is developed by an arm of a large U.S. conglomerate, ConAgra. The farm is 7% of the entire site and is squeezed in a city mandated buffer between large-scale agriculture and a road to serve dense urban development. Density is important to curbing urban sprawl, but whether this farm is merely window-dressing or an integral part of the community remains to be seen. Each home is expected to have a citrus tree in their front yard, but they had not yet been planted. Walking paths and seating areas are placed next to the farm, so residents can watch the food grow.

Prairie Crossing has been completed and is entering its mature phase, while The Cannery is expected to be built out in the next three to five years. Each community offers the ability for residents to reconnect with where their food comes from; the soil, a tree, the farm.

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Another Look at Food & Bridges

Temporary Span over Skagit River

Temporary Bridge over the Skagit River–Summer 2013

Just after the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapsed 2-1/2 years ago, I wrote a blog entitled Food & Bridges on how food and bridges are vital to a highly functioning society and neither gets the respect they deserve. We take the basic necessities of daily living, food, water and infrastructure for granted. Consequently, we are disconnected from where our food comes from, expect unlimited quantities of water, and demand unclogged, well-maintained roads and bridges. Food is expected to be available at Trader Joe’s, our local restaurant or farmers market without a hiccup. Trucks deliver our food on roads and bridges from local farms, warehouses thousands of miles away and fields in Mexico and beyond. Our food system is dependent on well functioning road infrastructure, but unfortunately it is not according to the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Infrastructure Report Card. The condition of American roads is “D grade” costing drivers $101 billion in wasted fuel and time annually.

Seattle has the 7th worst traffic in the nation. On a normal day, our roads and bridges are so heavily traveled and congested, partly because Seattle is located in the neck of an hourglass tucked between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, but also because there are just too many vehicles. One traffic accident ripples through the rest of the transportation system causing delayed dinners, flared tempers, and missed soccer games.

In March 2015 at 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon, a semi truckload of salmon tipped over closing all southbound lanes of State Highway 99. Not until after 7 p.m. was the truck righted. Two and a half hour commutes were not uncommon. Now, just four days ago a tractor trailer carrying frozen food blocked all four I-90 westbound lanes causing multi-mile backups and again, gumming up the transportation system. These are only two of the vexing traffic woes both caused just by food delivery trucks. There are countless more fender benders, roadside distractions, and tragic fatalities adding to unpredictable commute times, wasted, fuel and unproductive time. Ultimately the problem is too many vehicles and not enough vehicular capacity.

The traffic problems agitate, frustrate and anger Seattlelites daily, but just as important, but not as pronounced is the health of our food system. We eat every day and are dependent on food to live. Despite a 20% increase in one western Washington county’s value of agricultural products coming off their farmland, food production lands cannot competitively compete with the value of real estate for other uses including, housing, retail, office, preserved wildlife habitat or new road construction.

USDA Ag Census Data

According to the 2007 United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Census, $3,182 per acre was the average market value of products sold in Whatcom County, Washington’s most northern county I-5 abutting Canada. This revenue per acre is the highest of any of the Puget Sound I-5 corridor counties from Whatcom to Pierce County. Whatcom County specializes in higher value raspberry, blueberry and strawberry crops. In the same 2007 Ag Census, Snohomish County had the lowest revenue per acre at $1,635 per acre with principle crops being horses, nursery, floriculture and sod.

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

Skagit Farmland with Mt. Baker

Five years later the USDA issued the 2012 Agricultural Census providing another glimpse into the financial health of our Puget Sound farm economy. Whatcom farmers’ earnings actually decreased 3% from 2007 to 2012 to $3,085 per acre or almost $100 less per acre. Between 2007 to 2012, all other Puget Sound farmers saw increases in market value per acre. King County farmers earned $2,585 per acre (2012) for a 0.1% increase, Pierce County farmers earned $1,838 per acre (2012) for a 5% increase, Skagit farmers earned $2,360 (2012) per acre for an 8% increase, while Snohomish County farmers had a 20% increase in market value to $1,968 per acre (2012). Over the same period, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased 11%. Ostensibly, Snohomish County farmers had a banner five years earning substantially over the Consumer Price Index when compared with their neighboring County farmers.

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

Approaching Seattle on a Ferry

Dig a little deeper and with a 20% increase in Snohomish County’s product market value, these farmers earned 4¢ per square foot. It’s important to use the square foot cost, as it is the commercial real estate industry’s tool for measuring land and building values. Real estate professionals are ultimately the competition for most undeveloped land also known as farmland, forest land and open space. Today downtown Seattle Class A office space, which is considered the premium space, is offered to tenants at more than $30 per square foot. That’s not just the square foot on the ground, but every square foot for each building story. The value of Class A office space at $30 per square foot cannot even begin to be compared to the value of farmland at 4¢ per square foot.

Now we aren’t putting skyscrapers on farmland, but often residential housing is a real possibility. A 2,000 square foot house selling for $200,000 is $100 per square foot. These numbers also out compete farm revenue!

One could ask, why be a farmer when you can make so much more money selling your land for development? Because farmers perform one of the most important tasks for our livelihood, they grow the food we eat. Without farmers, we would have no food. As members of the eating public, we need to support our local farmers and create real financially viable solutions around farmland preservation.

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Foraging: The Act of Searching for Food

We are all foragers. We search, scavenge, and gather food habitually. My daughter comes home from school and automatically opens the refrigerator and says, “there is nothing to eat in here,” despite it being filled with loads of food. Going to the grocery store is dangerous when hungry, as food items astoundingly show up in my cart despite my best intentions. Traveling the buffet line, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, as everything looks delicious.

Gray Jays Foraging in a Hive in the William O. Douglas Wilderness

Gray Jays Foraging in a Hive in the William O. Douglas Wilderness

When hungry, we crave food just as our ancestors did and thus, become modern day hunter-gatherers. Granted we no longer kill an animal, but we stalk, search and eventually grab the food we yearn for, just as the gray jays in the wilderness poked and prodded the downed hive for bee bits observed on an early September backpacking trip. Our evolutionary heritage is alive and well in all of us today. For the first 1.8 million years of humans’ history we lived in the wild. We gathered nuts, berries, roots, and leaves and pursued game, caught fish, and snared birds and small animals. Humans could just as likely be a wild animal’s lunch, too. We lived one with nature, as we were integral to the ecosystem.

In what we now perceive as ancient history, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, our ancestors started to cultivate plants and domesticate animals, at the same time slowly began our journey away from nature. The initial dawn of agriculture started in the Fertile Crescent, which is a swath of land stretching from what is now northern Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean countries encompassing Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, to the now northern Persian Gulf countries of Syria and Iraq. Animal domestication and plant cultivation continued to travel throughout the world with eastern North America adopting agricultural practices as late as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Amazingly the advent of agriculture is merely 0.2% to 0.7% of the total time that humans have been on this earth and it is not ancient history!

Stokesberry Duck Eggs with Ralph's Greenhouse Beets

Stokesberry Duck Eggs with Ralph’s Greenhouse Beets found in the buffet line at the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Harvest Dinner

No wonder as we wander the grocery aisle, or peruse the farmer’s market or salivate in the buffet line, we tap into our hunter-gatherer instincts and gravitate towards certain foods. At my husband’s milestone birthday party, we celebrated with a tiramisu cake surrounded with lady fingers, topped with mascarpone frosting, and adorned with chocolate nibs–heavy, dense, and delicious. Thankfully, the cake is gone, because even writing this, my taste buds lust for just another morsel. My longings are totally normal, as Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., author of The “I” Diet and professor of nutrition at Tufts University says, “In prehistory, calories were in intermittent supply and very essential for survival,” causing the human desire to crave food instinctively.

Now compared to our early ancestors, as a culture we have so much food that we can afford to throw excess away. Think of your last restaurant visit. Were you a member of the “clean plate club”? Or did you ask for a “take-away” container, to schlep food home for another meal? Did you remember to eat the stored meal? Or did it grow new forms of life and you pitched it? Our ancestors would never throw away food as it was unthinkable, unnecessary, and unwise, as they didn’t know where their next meal would come from.

More importantly than our cravings is the quality of the food we eat. Only since World War II have we mechanized, commoditized, petro-chemically fertilized and sprayed, and genetically modified the products grown in our mainstream food production system. This is a mere 70 years or 0.004% of our human existence and 0.7% of the 10,000 years of agricultural history. We are continually being assured and assuaged that our foods are safe for us and the environment, despite the findings that RoundUp is expected to be classified in California as carcinogen and therapeutic antibiotics are consistently being used in animals being grown for human consumption. RoundUp kills unwanted plants, but what other harm does it cause? The minimal amounts of therapeutic antibiotics found in mainstream meat products are now threatening the effectiveness of medicinal antibiotics used by people to treat life-frightening infections.

My solution is foraging at the Farmers Markets or PCC Natural Markets–my local food cooperative, and organic is my sought after label!

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! (Thanks to Dennis Weaver of Change Your Food, Change Your Life for the great photos from the WSFFN Harvest Fest!) 

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Reconnecting with Fresh Food

Hayton Farms Strawberrries

Hayton Farms Strawberries

Summer brings my favorite foods. Succulent corn on the cob, pints upon pints of Hayton Farms strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, flame-roasted Hatch peppers, and lettuces all bigger than my head. My 5,000 square foot city lot just isn’t big enough to grow many foods, so I count on my local farmers markets for most everything since I only nurture tomatoes, green beans, and Italian prune plums. Whether from my yard or from the farmer, I know the food is as fresh as it can be. It’s not stored in a warehouse for weeks nor traveled thousands of miles to my plate.

Even though unprocessed, raw food appears to be fresh, only recently has my palate been discerning the subtle difference between just picked or foraged food and grocery aisle produce. Just because a pint of blueberries appears to be fresh–bright plump berries, with a little sheen–it doesn’t mean that they were just picked. A head of lettuce may be vivid green, but its connection to the earth may be drab tan indicating its days or even weeks old.

slight but significant difference in lettuce

One of my favorite famers Steve Hallstrom of Let Us Farm of Oakville, Washington, travels the Interstate 5 corridor every Saturday from May until November, leaving the farm at 5 a.m. to bring the largest selection of delectable lettuces to his loyal clientele at the University District Farmers Market in Seattle. Talk to other purchasers at the market and they agree Let Us Farm grows the best.

Located in a rural Grays Harbor County on the Chehalis River floodplain, Let Us Farm practices sustainable, organic farming including intentional crop rotation. By allowing a portion of their 80 acres of fields to go fallow regularly and planting them with a nitrogen fixing legume, the soil is nourished again for subsequent yearly plantings. Steve and his wife Cecelia live on the farm and have had many interns rotate through their farm operation to learn the agricultural trade. As with any profession, it takes at least ten to 15 years to become a master and every season there is still more to learn. Every growing season is different, too much rain or too little, lots of sun or not enough, and a late spring or an early fall.

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Despite the vagaries of the seasons, Steve has accomplished the art of lettuce growing, eschewing herbicides and pesticides in keeping with the organic standards. One choice variety is Galisse, a leafy, lobed, sweet, vibrant green lettuce perfect for salads and sandwiches. The head is as large as a basketball and even with four hungry eaters lasts for two or three meals. Being a thrifty Yankee, I am compelled to buy 2 heads for $5 rather than one head for $3 purchasing Bronze Arrow, Esmerelda, or a bunch of spinach.

Still, sometimes, two heads is more than my family can eat quickly and I store it in my own personal warehouse, the refrigerator. This happened recently, where a Let Us Farm Galisse spent two weeks in the vegetable bin, while I was on vacation. Once home the lettuce still appeared healthy, vibrant, and just as fresh as the day I purchased it, so, I used a leaf to top a sandwich.

Only I knew it was two weeks old! It still tasted okay, but definitely not as good as when I first bought it. Instead of a crisp, juicy, sweet leaf, with flavor just popping in my mouth, it was a smidgen bitter and a tad bit dry.

The Other Lettuce

It got me to thinking how old are the lettuce heads I purchase at the grocery store? Usually Romaine is my top choice, as it is the healthiest variety that is sold at a mainstream store or the co-op year around. Even so, Romaine is often bitter and dull-looking. If my Galisse looked so good after my personal warehousing, how fresh is the grocery store Romaine?

Once picked, fruits and vegetables begin their demise, which can be thwarted by chilling, freezing, canning, and other preservation methods. Sugars begin to naturally oxidize, especially when produce is stored in heat or humidity. Fruits and vegetables respire after harvest causing biochemical changes resulting in a breakdown of the carbohydrates and the production of carbon dioxide and methane.

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Further, fresh food flavor is unpredictable because of its unknown travel or warehouse life preceding its arrival in the produce aisle. Additionally, the varying growing conditions such as watering schedule, sunlight hours, and cool versus warm temperatures can vary the produce taste causing the finicky eater to shun the healthiest foods, just because they don’t taste the same every time. Any delay from farm to fork and just the unpredictability of Mother Nature can be enough for food flavor to change from sweet to bitter or vibrant to bland. No wonder it’s hard to get people both young and old to eat their fruits and veggies. And for some it’s McDonald’s fare, because it is so predictable!

One solution to this disconnect with food tasting differently season to season or week to week is to bring food growing back to the people. I’m not suggesting that we all have Victory Gardens as during WWII, but instead that housing developments are built that are landscaped with orchards, berry shrubs, and community gardens. We all eat, but as a society, most of us have forgotten where our food comes from. It’s not Albertsons, Stop ‘n Shop or Publix, but rather a farm. And on the farm, food grows in the ground, or on a bush or in a tree.

By integrating food production into our communities, we can develop neighborliness around nourishment from the earth’s bounty. We need to reconnect with truly fresh food, so we know how good it really tastes!

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, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! 

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