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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Embrace Change–It is Inevitable–Eat Good Food

Summer is here. Saturday, May 23rd, I bought my first flat of Skagit Valley’s fresh Hayton Farms organic strawberries. I can’t remember ever buying local strawberries this early. Some seasons, I’ve had to wait until the first week of July!

Symphonic Spring

Italian Prune Plum Blossoming in March

Italian Prune Plum Blossoming in March

Typically, April and May were months where Seattleites would be tantalized by our symphonic spring. Unlike my Connecticut upbringing where spring arrived like the 4th of July, quickly and with vigor, the classic maritime spring is punctuated by gorgeous days and temperatures gradually rising often times between what feels like endless days of clouds. Expecting summer imminently, usually when June comes, we are socked in with “June Gloom” or “Juneuary” amid low-hanging clouds until after the 4th of July. Outdoor events are scheduled after July 5th, when magically, the giant weather switch in the sky changes and summer officially begins. Summer lasts about 2-1/2 months until mid-September, with little rain and lots of sunshine! However, contrary to the norm, this year the first week in May week had temperatures over 80 degrees! And now, traipsing into June, temperatures are hovering near 80 again!

Another anomaly this year, ski season was cut short. Not enough snow. If there was snow, it was only above 5,000 feet at Crystal and Stevens ski areas. I ski to get into that meditative zone–just the swish of the ski, the pounding of my heart, and cool wind brushing past my face. My last ski day was in January in the sun, on crunch, avoiding rocks–oh, so loud and not fun!

March 2015 Gas Energy Usage

March 2015 Gas Energy Usage

My February 7th to March 10th Puget Sound Energy gas bill confirmed the bad ski season. The weather is different, changing, and four degrees warmer than the previous winter which significantly reduced my energy consumption and my bill! Daily temperatures have continued to increase and since April, I’ve been sleeping with the window open and the fan on! It has just been too hot! Continuing this trend, according to latest forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Forecast System surface air temperatures for this Seattle summer (June, July and August) are expected to be two to four degrees Fahrenheit above normal, which would give us on average 80 degree days and 60 degree nights! It sounds divine for growing food, but not for cooling off our city homes. With weather and predictions like this, it is time to plant your tomatoes, as it will not be the “year of the green tomato!” (Oh, and buy a fan, too, before they are sold out!)

March Blooming Hedge Blueberries

March Blooming Hedge Blueberries

Not surprisingly, Governor Inslee on May 15th declared a statewide drought. This past winter, Seattle had normal quantities of precipitation, but it came as rain rather than snow–hence, the bad ski season. The Pacific Northwest is dependent on snow and thus, snowmelt to quench a thirsty populous. Snow typically accumulates in the Cascades and Olympics through the winter, creating a defacto giant frozen reservoir. With warming temperatures and sunny days, melting snow feeds drinking water reservoirs, irrigation channels, and salmon-bearing streams. The statewide snowpack is only nine percent of normal according the Washington State Department of Ecology, and currently predicted to be the lowest on record in the past 64 years. As of May 29th, there is no snowpack in the Olympic Mountains. According to Cliff Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington and regular commentator on KUOW-our public radio station, western Washington public water systems are predicted to have enough water due to foresight from operators that filled reservoirs with rainwater during the winter. With sufficient water supply and sunny warm days ahead, if you plant your yard with edibles, anticipate a bountiful harvest.

Rather than pining for the cool summers of past or worrying about the hot summers of the future, embrace NOW with gusto and eat (and perhaps, grow) good food!

Eat Good Food!

Late May Prune Plums

Late May Prune Plums

I am looking forward to a plethora of great food from my yard. My perennials are rhubarb, rosemary, Italian prune plums, thyme, blueberries, strawberries, and Interlaken grapes. Plums, arriving in late August, are a staple for my annual zwetchendatschi–the plum tart of my Bavarian heritage. Any over abundance of plums and grapes are dried into prunes and raisins. Annually, garlic, tomatoes, green beans, basil, snap peas, and Japanese cucumbers flourish in my garden. My tomato starts are chosen based on the fruit not growing beyond two inches round to ensure they ripen. My favorites, Stupice for slicing, San Marzano for salsa, and any grape, cherry, and pear tomatoes for salads. I grow what will thrive! It is a joy to see my good food yard!

Late May Low-Bush Blueberries

Late May Low-Bush Blueberries

Farmer’s markets are my salvation for all those delectables I don’t or can’t grow on a 5,000 square foot city lot. Ever since my cabbage moth infestation, I am dependent on farmers to grow my brassicas–kales, chards, and broccoli. Organic farmers minimize pest problems by having enough land to rotate their crops between different fields every four to 13 years. Bad bugs never have a chance to set up camp and grow big families, since their favorite food group keeps moving fields. A legume planting is also part of the rotation sequence to naturally introduce nitrogen back into the soil. With so little real estate and unwillingness to use pesticides, I just abandon crops when pests invade. I will grow brassicas again when I know the bugs have left for new haunts. Hot weather crops, like melons, high acreage products such as corn, and large fruit trees are virtually impossible to grow on a Seattle city lot and all are purchased from my local farmer.

I could fret about the days that just seem too warm, but instead, I savor yesterday, tend for tomorrow, and eat for today.

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, 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 Elusive Tomato

Growing up in Connecticut, tomatoes were “to die for.” From the end of April to the beginning of June, nature’s winter cloaks were summarily discarded and summer’s heat quickly arrived. May was a time of massive seasonal transition. The last vestiges of cold nights ended, trees seemed to go from bud to full leaf in just one mid-May day, and setting tomato plant starts was a top priority by Memorial Day weekend, to ensure the first cherry-sized bursts of succulent sunshine by the 4th of July. There was something about the heat, the soil, and the rain, that created the tomato of childhood memories. After biting through the tender skin, we slurped the juice from the mouthwatering pulp. Adding just a little bit of salt and cut up chives over a plate of sliced baseball-sized orbs created a sweet and savory treat my family enjoyed every late summer dinner.

Can I still get that powerful, luscious tomato flavor from my childhood? Or is it only a dream? Is it just childhood untainted taste buds that imagined a flavor brimming with complexity?

Tomatoes are available year around in Seattle markets, but never measure up to my childhood recollection. Have tomatoes undergone a transformation to a bland, rock hard, perfectly-shaped red spheres?

How did today’s tomato evolve?

Tomatoes were first domesticated by the Mayans in southern Mexico or northern Central America. By 1521, when Cortes conquered the Aztecan city, now named Mexico City, the native people already combined tomatoes, hot peppers, and salt, into a concoction now known as salsa.

By the late 16th century, the tomato was found on Italian soil, where it was woven into the region’s food culture. Soon after American colonists integrated tomatoes into their meals despite some thinking the orbs were poisonous. However, in the U.S., it wasn’t until the Civil War, that consumption spiked with tomato’s acidity benefiting from new canning technology allowing long-term food storage. The Union troop’s easily carried canned tomatoes, perhaps benefiting the outcome of the war. By 1880, schooner powered trade flourished between Havana, Cuba and east coast ports bringing summer produce to city folk yearning for a change from the repetitive potatoes, beets, and other winter root fare.

My own cherry tomatoes!

My own cherry tomatoes!

Farmers, threatened by the imported food, had political clout and fought back. They wanted to grow the produce on U.S. soil, knowing the northern cities were a huge winter market to satiate with delectable warm weather crops! The fight became so fierce that ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the tomato could be protected by tariffs provided it was classified as a vegetable. Biologically, the edible sweet and fleshy product of a plant with seeds is a fruit! In keeping with politics, the Supreme Court ruled that since tomatoes are served with vegetables, it should be classified as such. Never mind the biological criteria! This monumental high court decision triggered Florida’s entrance into winter time tomato production, so well told in Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit. U.S. farmers no longer had to worry about imported tomatoes, because vegetables (and not fruits) were tariff protected.

Florida: The Fresh Tomato Market

The All Natural Mexican Tomato

The All Natural Mexican Tomato Orb

From mid-October until June, the southern half of Florida “produces virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the U.S…, and accounts for about 50% of all fresh tomatoes produced domestically” according to the Florida Tomato Committee, the controller of Florida’s tomato production. Floridian tomatoes are basically grown in sand, devoid of topsoil, hummus, and nutrients found in the rich bottom-land soils of fertile farmground. Instead the plants are fed chemical fertilizers and blasted “with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal,” as documented by Barry Estabrook. These chemical concoctions not only “feed” and “protect” the tomato, but also expose the farmworkers to excessive chemical contamination causing extensive health problems.

Eventually, the tomatoes are hand-picked green, with no more than a hint of pink to be carted in open-top semi trucks [think six feet deep with no dented or bruised spheres], for washing and sorting into boxes. Crates of tomatoes are gassed in ethylene-filled rooms for “ripening,” before being shipped to markets. Last fall visiting the Tomato Division of Armata Fruit & Produce in the Bronx, I watched pale-red tomato orbs bounce (not roll) down a conveyor belt, while being electronically scanned for color and swept by a mechanical arm into boxes for final “ripening.” These tomatoes are designed to travel long distances, unscathed, and to allure us with their red color. The “look” of the red tomato is intended to trick us into thinking it will taste good!

What’s an alternative?

My own San Marzano tomatoes

My own San Marzano Roma tomatoes

Wait for tomatoes to be in season! Garner the ultimate tomato experience by shopping at the farmer’s market or growing your own! Tomatoes get their flavor from the seed, the sun, the heat, the water and the soil and its micronutrients–creating the terroir or sense of place–of the ultimate fruit (or do I mean vegetable).

Most importantly and no matter the tomato, it should never be refrigerated! Sit it on a counter, stem side up, so as to not bruise its shoulders. Even the winter traveling tomato from Mexico or Florida should may even taste a little better without being refrigerated!

For the best tasting tomato, try growing your own! With our ever increasing summer heat, tomatoes will become easier to grow. “How to grow tomato” websites can be found at Gardeners Supply, PCC Natural Markets, the Seattle-based food cooperative, and the Cheap Vegetable Gardener. I grow Stupice–a two inch diameter slicer, Sweet Million–a cherry, and San Marzano–a Roma, salsa-making tomato all perfect for my northeast facing lot that is in shadows by 4 p.m. on hot summer days. My childhood tomato memories live on!

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

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The Land That Feeds Us: Skagit Valley

The answers are 91, 57, 7, 2, and less than 1.

The questions are:

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?
  2. What percentage of the U.S. population are farmers?
  3. What is the average age of U.S. farmers?
  4. What percentage of U.S. production of fruits, nuts, and berries are grown adjacent to urban areas?
  5. What is the rotation cycle for carrots being grown in the same ground?
Bucolic Summer Days in the Skagit with Mt. Baker Looming in the Distance

Bucolic Summer Days in the Skagit with Mt. Baker Looming in the Distance

“Playing with Food: Fun with Farm Facts for All Eaters!” stimulated the conversation for the Urban Land Institute-NW’s Center for Sustainable Leadership cohort on the bus from downtown Seattle to Taylor Shellfish’s operation on the shores of Samish Bay in Skagit County this past October. In a one and a half hour motorcoach ride, the 25 students were transported from city bustle to a county that is passionate about remaining a strong, vibrant farming and food-producing hub.

What does it mean for this part of Puget Sound to be appreciated as a bioregion, with an emphasis on agriculture, was the day’s overriding theme. The link between city folks and country residents was emphasized as essential  to foster, respect, and cultivate. Without our rural counterparts nurturing the soil, growing our sustenance, and bringing it to market, the city would be hungry. Having locally grown and harvested food is a key ingredient to sustaining a resilient community thereby melting the urban–rural divide. Just as cities need food, rural farmers need eaters–a symbiotic relationship is built.

Skagit Valley Farmland: The Resource

Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland was birthed by five farming families in 1989 when a 270-acre theme park was proposed at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Chuckanut Drive in the heart of Skagit farmland. Now 25 years later, Allen Rozema, Executive Director of the non-profit, works to maintain and sustain a viable economic agricultural cluster with four strategic pillars: 1) agricultural economic development, 2) farmland preservation/land use regulation, 3) infrastructure, including 400 miles of drainage ways, 105 tidegates, and farm suppliers and businesses, and 4) education and outreach.

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Beginning with a crisis, the organization now drives the work to ensure that the Skagit Valley continues to be an agricultural hub in perpetuity. Currently there are 108,000 acres of land in farm production, of which 98,000 acres are zoned for agricultural use, but less than 10% of the food-producing ground is permanently protected with conservation easements. Despite 90%  of the farm properties being agriculturally zoned, farmland is still highly threatened with non-agricultural uses. Farmland is cheap, flat, and seemingly ready for non-farming purposes. Salmon habitat restoration (80 acres), soccer fields (120 acres), wetland mitigation bank (100 acres), wildlife habitat (100 acres), large lot farm estate (40 acres)–these are just a few of the pressures on farmland. Skagitonians’ mission is to shield all farm ground from conversion to others uses, as it would be a “tragedy of the commons” to the vital resource that feeds us.

One of the reasons large blocks of land is optimal for efficient agricultural production is the biological necessity to rotate crops between different fields and not growing the same crop in the same ground in consecutive years. In my own yard I experience the lack of rotation in my Brassicas (kale, chard, ornamental kales, etc.) which are now aphid infested every season. Granted, I could douse them with pesticides, but because I only have a 5,000 square foot lot, I must instead eliminate kale production. The aphids will not find a home on my lot and leave. The Skagit farmers, on a much larger scale, similarly must rotate their crops—potatoes, corn, grains, strawberries, tulips, seed crops, cover crops, and others—to sustain a viable agricultural system, keeping the soil healthy and reducing the need for excessive use of herbicides and pesticides. An example are grain crops, which are a necessity in rotations because they have deep roots, which help with soil friability and are nitrogen fixing to support future crops.

The Skagit’s top crop—red and white specialty potatoes—requires 36,000 acres or one-third of the entire valley’s farm ground every year to retain an economically, sustainable business. Only 9,000 acres or one-quarter of the “potato acreage” is planted in potatoes each growing season, while the remaining “potato acreage” is rotated among the other crops. There are at least ten different red potato growers in the Skagit. Check where your potatoes come from this holiday season.

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Visitors Enjoying Springtime Tulips in Skagit Valley

Another major Skagit crop is seed production. Nine out of ten bites of food start from a seed. Without seed, there is no FOOD. The Skagit Valley is where 75% of our country’s spinach seed and 95% of its table beet seed is grown. To breed vigorous, viable seed, two to five miles separation between seed production acreage and 12 to 14 years in field rotation is compulsory. These seed-growing requirements demand extensive crop acreage to ensure a pure product. To ensure crop rotation, Skagit farmers gather yearly in the depths of the winter to “pin” or locate those fields they will plant the next growing season. They don’t necessarily own the land they plant, but trade planting ground to be sure crops are properly rotated, that each farmer has adequate acreage and water supply, and that all growing requirements are met. No attorneys, contracts, or memoranda of understanding are necessary to “pin” the fields. Such a feat flabbergasted the attorneys in the ULI class. All “pin” deals are made on a handshake, compelling all farmers to be good land stewards of their land and when they use their neighbor’s ground.

The Farmers: Vegetable, Livestock, and Seafood

Beginning with an understanding of the rhythm of the land base, a three farmer panel was introduced: Jessica Gigot, PhD, of Harmony Fields, vegetable and herb grower, Linda Neunzig, of Ninety Farms, livestock farmer and Snohomish County Agricultural Coordinator, and Bill Taylor, of Taylor Shellfish Farms, fourth generation seafood producer. Directing their comments to this audience of real estate professionals, each farmer emphasized how important it is to build cities as great places where people want to live there, thereby reducing pressures to convert rural lands.

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Bagging Oysters at Taylor Shellfish on the Salish Sea

Having just toured the shellfish farm and feasted on raw oysters, oyster stew and steamed clams and mussels for lunch, Bill emphasized the importance of the superb water quality necessary to sustain Taylor Shellfish’s $60 million family run business which sells seafood products to local and worldwide markets.  Bill expressed concerns on the impacts from climate change which are acidifying and warming the ocean and estuarine waters that provide the food that feeds us. One class participant had an epiphany and linked the importance of his jurisdiction’s wastewater treatment discharge on the health and well-being of his lunch!

Linda stressed the significance of local food production, as an important measure of a region’s sustainability. Can Puget Sound feed itself, if for some reason we were unable to import food from California, Mexico, or Arizona? Typically, Puget Sound grocery stores only have a three-day, non-local, food supply. The dairy system needs hay, to feed the cows, to produce milk. Hay does not have a high profit margin and hayland is highly threatened in Snohomish County. Jessica spoke of her personal choice to go back to the land, to grow food.

The Food Distribution System

Rebuilding a local food system is the effort of Lucy Norris, Director of Marketing of the Northwest Agricultural Business Center. Once upon a time, most food was locally grown with specialty items coming from outside the regional growing area. Cinnamon and coffee are the kinds of food that have always been transported long distances, stored for extended periods, and still be highly usable. Now zucchinis, green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce are available year around being transported from southern climes during the Northwest’s winter months. Living with the food seasonality is no longer a necessity, but is a more sustainable way, by keeping connections to the land, reducing food miles traveled, and protecting our rural landscapes. Re-establishing aggregation or Food Hub facilities and creating local, large-scale and institutional markets are important to Lucy’s success. Bringing in-season blueberries to the University of Washington Medical Center’s breakfast bar was a featured accomplishment–connecting the farmer directly with the food service team.

Playing with Food: The Answers

  1. What is the distance needed between seed crops?

Seed production fields must be separated at a minimum by two miles, but it can be up to five miles separation depending on the crop. Losing farmland to other uses impacts the viability of this important crop, as seeds are a basic building block for food.

  1. What percentage of the U.S. population are farmers?

Despite being founded as an agrarian society, farmers are less than one percent of the U.S. population, with only  45% of those farmers work full-time in the business. Both Linda and Jessica on our famer panel have “day” jobs, too.

  1. What is the average age of U.S. farmers?

The average of a U.S. farmer is 57 years old and one-third of all farmers are 65 years of age or older. As farmers retire, who will grow our food? Younger farmers are entering the profession, but it is a capital intensive business with low profit margins, high costs (land and equipment), and significant uncertainty (weather, pricing, and pest infestations to name a few).

  1. What percentage of U.S. production of fruits, nuts, and berries are grown adjacent to urban areas?

According to American Farmland Trust, ninety-one (91) percent of U.S. fruits, nuts, and berries are grown adjacent to urban areas, which are the most highly threatened lands for conversion to other uses.

  1. What is the rotation cycle for carrots being grown in the same ground?

According to Nash Huber, Nash’s Organic Produce, seven (7) years are needed for a carrot field’s rotation cycle.

The “tragedy of the commons” would be to squander the vital Skagit Valley farmland resource, that is so critically important to providing an essential ingredient to human life—FOOD. Learning more about the local agricultural system creates a deeper appreciation for the importance of our farmers, the land, and the food they grow and the value of real estate professionals developing great cities.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, 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 ULI-NW’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. Stephen Antupit of CityWorks, Inc. collaborated with Kathryn to create the “Playing with Food” matching game as co-host of this year’s ULI Northwest CSL’s Skagit Bioregion program day. 

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Where Sustainability Reigns and Community Flourishes

My yard peaked in abundance in September. The last tomatoes were picked before the fall rains came. At the same time, ideas percolate about creating community where families thrive because children play, elders impart wisdom, Millenials connect and food is grown. Sustainable living at its best is where the most important aspects of life, nourishment in mind and body, are met.

Late Fall Roma Tomatoes–perfect for salsa

Through the summer, gathering my evening meal from the plethora of plums, gaggles of grapes, bountiful beans, and tons of tomatoes, I knew I was eating the most tasty, healthful food from my 5,000 square foot city lot. Even as the weather changed, I snipped chives, gathered thyme, and harvested rosemary, as additions to roasts, stews, and salads. Each night at the dinner table, I would announce, “The beans, basil, and tomatoes are from our garden.” My kids would respond, “Oh, Mom, do you have to tell us where the food is from?” in that teenage whine.

Of course I want them to know, because I want to expand my joy and add community and neighborliness beyond my dinner table. Incorporating a sense of shared purpose, not in an “invitation-only” environment, would be ideal. In four short years, there will be only two diners at my table. Preparing and enjoying a meal together is one of the greatest pleasures in life. As I age, and am no longer able or willing to garden or spend as much time in the kitchen, I want that just-picked fresh prepared food experience at my table. Granted, I can schlep to the farmers market or purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, but to live among neighbors and have great food surrounding me, would be my idyllic setting. I don’t want to be destined to grocery store only choices.

Children's Play Area at GROW

Children’s Play Area at GROW

Recently, I experienced two ventures GROW Community and Heyday Farm  that are flourishing on Bainbridge Island, which is across Puget Sound by ferry just west of Seattle. GROW Community is a predominately owner-occupied development with compact single-family structures.  For rent, apartment living is being built now with townhouse and stacked living planned for the next phase. Heyday Farm is a full farm experience set in rural Bainbridge Island.  Melding these two concepts together would generate the shared, community I seek focused with a food environment. Each project is unique on its own, but combining them would make a spectacular place to live.

Reigning Sustainability

Heyday FarmHeyday Farm is on historical island farm property that had been fallow, but its owners wanted to create a sustainable farm business and hired a farm manager to facilitate creation of their vision. Craig Skipton, a trained landscape architect with a penchant for being his own boss is the farmer and visionmaker creating, developing, and growing the farm brand that permeates the island. Vegetables are cultivated in raised beds and greenhouses. Cattle is kept on the main farm for meat and cheese production. Chickens flourish in moveable hoop houses on an adjacent property.

The main property is the showcase, with the classic farmhouse, where guests can stay overnight, enjoy a farm-fresh dinner or take a class on how to use fresh produce in cooking or canning. Further, the commercial kitchen is canning central where pickles, krauts, and chutneys are produced for sale in local markets.

Having a GROW Community concept right next door to Heyday Farm would meld two innovative concepts and create a community where couples, families, and singles would thrive.

Community Flourishing

GROW’s first phase featured 23 detached, energy efficient, sustainable homes and adjacent rental apartments that were all built using One Planet principles. (The for sale homes sold out quickly and the rental apartments will be completed soon.) One Planet is a British-based non-profit organization that applies the “princples at the design, construction and long-term management stages of a development … to create places where it is easy, attractive and affordable for people to live within a fair share of our planet’s resources.”

GROW Community Gardens and Pathway=Community

GROW Community Gardens and Pathway=Community

The Ten One Planet Principles provide design approaches to allow communities to reduce their ecological footprint by applying zero carbon and waste concepts, using sustainable building materials, reducing transportation infrastructure, minimizing impacts to land use and wildlife, incorporating local, sustainably grown food, and creating a community that integrates health, happiness, and well-being into the development. GROW has included the One Planet features by integrating on-site community owned and maintained garden spaces between the homes, parking areas separated from the living spaces, small lot sizes, energy-efficient homes, and the added bonus of affordable solar powered electricity.

Inside the homes are compact, but light and roomy with strategically placed amenities that offer comfort, space, and easy livability. Many units have a separate, detached room with toilet facilities, that could be used by visiting grandparents, an independent teenager or an office. Since garages are non-existent, each single-family unit is equipped with a discreetly, designed structure for bikes, garden supplies, and other outdoor based storage. Cars are on the southern end of the community in a standards asphalt lot, but placed strategically such at the full-southern exposure is available for solar.

Occupants at GROW are families with children, empty-nesters or singles. It is a true mélange of people with differing life stages, occupations, and backgrounds, that all want to be part of true community, while maintaining an independent, but neighborly home life.

The ideal community-based components are thriving on Bainbridge at GROW and Heyday Farm. Now is the time to find the right piece of land and political environment that will allow meshing a residential community and farm environment together to create a fabulous place called home. My dream of being at home in a neighborly, sustainable community can happen. I want to say, “Today, I picked the zucchini, yellow squash, and thyme  that you are eating in the ratatouille tonight!”

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

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Incredible: Brooklyn Whole Foods

I was wowed when visiting the newly opened Whole Foods store located on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York! The high-end, natural and organic foods market is strategically located in an up’n coming area of Brooklyn, despite the fact that the Gowanus Canal is a Superfund site and one of the nation’s most “extensively contaminated water bodies” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The South Brooklyn area is rebounding with youthful energy, as it is more affordable and hip, as evidenced by my 30-year old niece and her husband living there despite having jobs in Manhattan.

Rooftop Farm

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

Touring the store was on top of my New York City “must do” list as I had heard that the 20,000 square foot Gotham Greens rooftop farm grows more than enough greens and tomatoes to supply the thirteen metropolitan New York Whole Foods stores with surplus product to sell to other stores, too. The pesticide-, insecticide-, and herbicide-free hydroponically grown produce uses 1/10th the amount of water and produces 20 times the yield of in-the-ground grown and harvested product. The climate controlled environment beneath the louvered glass enclosure is vigilantly monitored and adjusted by Gotham Greens staff to provide just the correct amount of light, air, and heat every day, depending on the growing season.

Whole Foods entrance, greenhouse and parking lot--Brooklyn, NY

Whole Foods entrance, greenhouse and parking lot–Brooklyn, NY

Gotham Greens leased a bare rooftop allowing them to construct the greenhouse and command central, where computers, sensors, and attentive personnel grow kale, basil, lettuces, other greens, and tomatoes year around. Some items such as red lettuce grow better in the autumn and become a seasonal Gotham Greens feature. Every week, 10,000 beneficial bugs are released beneath the glass, to ensure the produce remains pest free while guaranteeing pollination. Crops are harvested every three to six weeks, while tomatoes are picked daily, year-round from long draping indeterminate vines that grow across the greenhouse. Packaged products are “shipped” downstairs and delivered to twelve other Whole Foods stores.

More Sustainable Attributes

The edible rooftop was incredible, but all the other attributes made the store an outstanding example of pushing the envelope on sustainability into a realm that is testing new ideas and making them plausible and perhaps even feasible for future forward thinking real estate projects. Having a few moments to look out over the Whole Foods grounds from the second store outdoor balcony before our tour began, I took in all the advanced thinking, cutting edge innovations and was energized by new possibilities in future development projects.

J’aime Mitchell our Whole Foods guide began by talking about the store’s infrastructure, which is mundane to many and often doesn’t get the respect it deserves, except from engineers like me. Only 5% of the on-site stormwater runoff leaves the project site, as the rest is captured for re-use or infiltrates. The parking surface is built with porous pavers, which immediately return rainwater into the ground and eventually the canal. Cars are parked beneath solar panel canopies that meet 25% of the store’s energy needs, but also serve as a rainwater collection system. The captured stormwater flows and in-store hand-washing wastewater are directed to a large storage tank beneath the parking lot creating a graywater system that is cleaned and filtered and used for toilet flushing and irrigation water. The stormwater and graywater management systems are impressive as water was used twice, but there was more!

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

The parking lot was dotted with an overhead light system that is totally powered by solar and wind. As the wind blows or the sun shines the battery packs beneath each light standard are adequately recharged such that no auxiliary power source is needed for a securely illuminated lot. Further, human power brings a multitude of customers by foot and bike evidenced by the endless line of bike racks that were moderately filled during a mid-week non-prime time and a smaller than average parking lot. J’aime said that additional bike racks had been added to accommodate the weekend cycle traffic.

And There is More

Entering the store vestibule, which is an important buffer between a bitter cold winter or a steamy hot summer and a pleasant shopping environment, the gaze travels upwards to the greenhouse’s tomato section. Draping vines fill the space 20 feet above eye-level, growing fresh bursts of year-round sunshine.

Gotham Greens Basil

Gotham Greens Basil

In the produce section, Gotham Green products are featured along with a multitude of other locally grown fruits and vegetables in an interior setting designed to recognize the region’s historic past. Brick facades were evident throughout the store such as in the upstairs bar/eating establishment and adjacent to the produce section that were repurposed from a Newark, New Jersey Westinghouse factory that had been razed brick by brick. Board walks and building materials from the ravages of the Superstorm Sandy were crafted into benches, wainscotings, and produce bins rather than landfilled. Admirably, Whole Foods took historically significant materials from tragedy and times past reintegrating them into a vision of beauty and purpose.

Finally, the Brooklyn Whole Foods took the initiative to install a refrigeration system that only uses carbon dioxide rather than more typical synthetic refrigerants. Reaching back into early 1900’s technology, European and Canadian grocers have been thwarting conventional synthetic refrigeration systems as they can leak into the atmosphere and are detrimental to the environment by hurting the ozone layer or contributing to climate change or both. Whole Foods has now joined this trend and installed their first “old is new” carbon dioxide refrigeration system. One aspect of this system is the refrigerated products being protected by clear, plastic, vertical drapery which allow the coolness to stay in the case rather than chill the aisles. Customers must reach through the curtain to their milk or other perishable product, as I did as a child.

Besides all the environmental and sustainable innovations, the store was light, airy, and inviting. Once back in Seattle, I couldn’t stop talking about the incredible Whole Foods–Brooklyn and how it is pulling the future of sustainability, reuse, and locally-grown into today.

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

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Stokesberry Sustainable Farms: Feeding the Seahawks

“The Seahawks are fueled by the Stokesberry’s eggs and chickens!” Piquing my 16-year old daughter’s interest in organic, sustainable farming was impossible until the 2014 Super Bowl champs were involved. Jerry and Janelle Stokesberry are an unassuming farming couple providing superb meat and egg products for the Seattle Seahawks, and for discerning palettes at restaurants and wise shoppers at farmer markets.

Farm to Team

How do the Stokesberrys supply fresh organically grown chickens and 60 dozen eggs a week to stoke the Seahawks?

Baby Red Sex-Link ChicksIn late May, I spent time on the farm learning about their operation, collecting eggs, cuddling a baby chick, and feeding the chickens destined for the barbeque. Observing the farm rhythm, helped me appreciate the demands and determination that it takes to create a bountiful food abundance not only for the Super Bowl team, but for all their customers. Eaters who care about where and how their food is grown are grateful for the attention the Stokesberrys put into raising their animals.

Thankfully, all of the animals have adequate space to roam and enjoy life, until they are processed for the dinner table. Unlike the mainstream meat production system, there are no animals confined to cages or living in isolation. All the animals are fed their natural diets, making healthy protein products for humans.

The Home Farm

Stokesberry Sustainable Farm is tucked away in semi-rural Thurston County, just minutes from the I-5 thoroughfare, the bustle of modern living, and State’s political epicenter. The Stokesberrys had a only short time for a visit, as they along with their two full-time workers had many daily chores to accomplish, orders to fill, and paperwork to complete.

Red Sex-Link LayersFirst stop was the Red-Sex Link chicken hoop houses. Red-Sex Link chickens are bred for their incredible egg laying ability at 265 to 300 eggs per hen per year and just as importantly different feather colors between the sexes. Roosters not only crow at break of dawn, but anytime they want to, so quickly become chicken soup, since the neighbors are ungrateful for the noise. Many jurisdictions outlaw roosters, since they disturb the peace. With the differentiated colored Red-Sex Link poultry, the roosters can be quickly culled leaving only egg producers.

The Stokesberrys do not raise their layers from eggs, but rather purchase hatched chicks, which upon arrival are immediately housed under heat lamps and soon after moved to larger quarters. Once five months old they are moved to the hen house, where laying begins. Happy chickens clucked around my legs, as I reached inside the hen boxes for the warm containers of compact protein. Five hundred dozen eggs, equating to 6,000 individual eggs, are harvested from the hens weekly with 12% of their yield being Seahawk nourishment.

DucksNext stop was the duck house.  Duck eggs are popular because of higher fat content and consequently more flavor than chicken eggs. Those allergic to chicken eggs, can often eat the alkaline duck eggs which lack a particular protein that is found in the acidic chicken eggs.  Duck eggs are larger and have a noticeably tougher shell, which gives them a longer refrigerated shelf life, too. The ducks were content in their pen waddling around in a tight group.

The home farm has multiple hoop houses for chickens and ducks and a small area for pigs. Bob, the boar (male pig) is housed by himself in an open air pen, as the sows adjacent to Bob were tending a drift of piglets.

The Pasture

A 20-minute pastoral drive away, the Stokesberry’s lease eleven acres of pasture where they raise several cattle, a small herd of sheep, and meat chickens! The meat chickens are raised for slaughter and are actually ugly, since they have a scrawny feather coat. Fewer feathers makes for easy plucking! Upon arrival, five chickens were wandering outside their chicken tractor, having escaped through a hole and trying to figure out how to get back in. Chickens are not loners, but prefer hanging out with their brethren, and don’t often wander off.

Now, “What is a chicken tractor?”

Chicken Tractor with Cornish Cross MeatersA chicken tractor is just over a foot high, 12-foot square wood framed home with no bottom, covered with wire mesh sides and corrugated metal roof, designed so the chickens are not attacked by predators, protected from the rain, and still able to see their surroundings. About 100 Cornish Cross meater chickens live beneath each tractor, pecking at the dirt for grubs, bugs, seeds and other delectables. Every day two people must visit the pasture to refill the grain troughs and move the tractor, since the grass is matted and mottled from the chicken excrement.

Moving the tractor takes about 10 minutes. First the lid is removed enabling the grain troughs to be refilled. The forward end of the tractor is lifted with a dolly, and two–four inch diameter pipes are placed beneath the frame on the forward part of the tractor. Two people push the back end of the wood structure forward rolling over the pipes, until the chicken home has moved one tractor length. The chickens walk quickly ahead while the tractor advances, because they know the grass will be greener and filled with more morsels than the day-old ground they are leaving. As the urban gardener knows chicken manure is a primo fertilizer. By the time the next brood of chickens is returned to this portion of the pasture, the grass will be green again.

The final chore of my visit was to relocate the electric fence to move the cattle to greener pastures. As with the chickens the cattle are regularly moved to ensure that the animals always have superb grass to eat and don’t over-graze or over-fertilize the field.

The Stokesberrys attentively tend their animals and business such that the Seahawks’ chef, Mac McNabb knows he is getting premium product for the best football team in the country. Now, what Seahawk can only eat duck eggs, rather than chicken eggs? My daughter knows!

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

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An Agricultural-Residential Development Solution

Local produce heaven is now… asparagus, strawberries, cherries, snap peas; followed by string beans, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, peaches; culminating with apples, corn, winter squash. What would make every food summer more perfect? Living in a community that grows, savors, entertains, and surrounds itself with good food. A weekly trip to a local farmers’ market or attempting to grow my favorite foods on a city lot are just not enough.

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Our country began as an agrarian society, but with industrialization, rural towns lost population and families moved away from living adjacent to where their sustenance grew. Larger farms and companies, such as Dole, Kellogg, and Kraft now grow, store, process and supply most of the food we eat. King County residents eat $6 billion of food every year with only 2% or $120 million of agricultural products grown in county. Non-profits, governments, farmers, and consumers are working to strengthen the food system so a greater percentage of our food economy is local. Purchasing and consuming local products taste better because the food has traveled fewer miles and is therefore fresher. Keeping food production local, adds jobs. Rural landscapes stay bucolic rather than being punctuated with houses and strip malls. Much work needs to be done to re-integrate food production into people’s lives, to strengthen the local food market, and to increase market share of regionally grown products. What is another option to re-connect people with their food?

A New Community Development Solution

A new type of neighborhood is cropping up in the United States that includes food production, as a facet or even a centerpiece of a development project. There are foodies that want to live adjacent to where their sustenance is grown and are willing to pay a premium to live in these new projects. Good design is a necessity to minimize the inconveniences of odors, noises, and other activities of life adjacent to a farm. Except for Skokomish Farms with 40-acre lot sizes located 33 miles northwest of Olympia, Washington in a rural area of the state, an agricultural-residential project has not been built in Washington. The Puget Sound region is ripe to create a development that integrates farming with intergenerational living, attention to the natural environment, and green homes with good value.

Why is this type of development model needed? With a 2.8% growth rate over a one-year period ending July 1, 2013 (3), Seattle is the fastest growing big city in the nation adding 18,000 new residents and 15,000 new jobs. At the same time apartment buildings and micro-unit apartment structures, also known as apodments, have sprouted throughout the city creating dense neighborhoods and a true in-city living experience. Not only did Seattle grow, but concurrently the rest of the Puget Sound region increased by more than 44,000 new people. Combined the entire region grew by 62,000 people or the equivalent of the city of Marysville located in Snohomish County. King, Snohomish, and Thurston counties had growth rates of more than 1% during the same time. Noticeably, 30% of the new Puget Sound residents moved into Seattle, while the remainder moved elsewhere in the region. This suggests there is demand and desire to still live in less-dense communities, where housing is more affordable or perhaps to just be outside an urban environment. With surging population, undeveloped land is under pressure for conversion to its “highest and best use” in appraised value, which is development.

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Simultaneously, the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 quinquennial agricultural survey was released, documenting trends in the local farm economy. Surprisingly and perhaps worrisome is the shrinking average and median farm size over the last 15 years. Kitsap County’s average farm size dropped 74% from a high of 53 acres in 1997 to 14 acres by 2012, while the median farm size dropped during the same period from 11 acres to 6 acres.(4) Skagit County has made significant strides, by increasing the number of farms by 50%, but even so, average individual farm acreage dropped 24% to 99 acres and median farm size fell 53% to 20 acres in the same 15 year period.  Almost all the Puget Sound counties now have median farm acreage of 10 acres or less, except Whatcom at 16 acres and Skagit at 20 acres. During the recent recession, all of the counties analyzed saw median farm size drop. The historical decline in total farmland actually slowed in the last 5 years, but there was still a net loss in farmed acreage, too.

Nonetheless with increasing population and decreasing farm sizes, farmland is still highly threatened, so perhaps now is the time to test a new model that re-integrates food production into people’s lives and protects some farmland in perpetuity.

The agricultural-residential development is a solution for an under-utilized property, such as an old golf course, a former farm in an incorporated city, or fertile ground in an urban-growth area that is destined for development. Obviously, the governing jurisdiction would need development codes that allow farming in a residential project.

Homes, cottages, townhouses, perhaps some commercial development could be built adjacent to a farm that is protected in perpetuity. The farm needs to be large enough to be commercially viable and support a livable income. The farmer would run a business that would sell to both the residents but also outside customers. A symbiotic relationship between grower and eaters would ensue.

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

What else should this type of project include? What should be the minimum farm acreage? What protections should be incorporated into a homeowners agreements to ensure that a farmer can do his/her job without nuisance complaints from neighbors? What should the buffers be between the farm ground and residential units? Should the project include a restaurant featuring the farm’s products? Should there be any restrictions on what should be farmed? Animals? Produce? Organic vs. non-organic? What other amenities are important? What other questions need to be asked?

Across the country agricultural-residential communities are sprouting including Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing and Serenbe Farms. Each has its own characteristics and community. By living in an agricultural community, the pulse of the growing season will resonate throughout the lives of the families that call the farm home.

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

Notes: 

1)1997 Population Data Used: Table CO-EST 2001-12-53-Time Series of Washington Intercensal Population Estimates by County: April 1, 1990 to April 1, 2000, Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Release Date: April 17, 2002.

2) 2002 & 2007 Population Data Used: Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population for Counties of Washington: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007 (CO-EST2007-01-53), Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Release Date: March 20, 2008.

3) 2012 & 2013 Population Data Used: Estimates of Resident Population Change and Rankings: July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Release Date: March 2014.

3) 1997, 2002, 2007, 2012 Agricultural Data: US Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, Table 1: County Summary Highlights for 1997, 2002, 2007, & 2012 respectively.

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Experienced Farmers–Beginning Farm: Four Elements Farm

Amy Moreno-Sills and her husband Agustin with more than 20 years of combined experience growing food are building their dream at Four Elements Farm, on land in Orting Valley. Amy knows it takes hard work to get a new business off the ground.  She has successfully helped other farmers expand, change, and grow their businesses, and is excited and optimistic about what the future will bring. After completing a Sustainable Agriculture degree in 2001 from The Evergreen State College, she interned at Jubilee Farm (Snoqualmie Valley) for two years, worked for Full Circle Farm (Snoqualmie Valley) for five years, spent two years at Tahoma Farms (Orting Valley) and completed her journey at Terry’s Berries (Puyallup Valley). Now, Amy and Agustin are putting their own seed in the ground and growing a business.

Four Elements Farm

Tilled Acres at Four Elements Farm

Tilled Acres at Four Elements Farm

Four Elements Farm leased five acres on land conserved by PCC Farmland Trust in 2009, when 100-acres of prime farmland located three miles south of Orting, Washington were protected by removing the legal right to develop a residential subdivision and creating an opportunity for farmers to practice their trade. This farm ground was laid down in the 15th century when the Electron Mudflow inundated the Puyallup River Valley with upwards of 15 feet of Mount Rainier’s pyroclastic muck. The Puyallup and other Tribes lived in the Orting Valley and surrounding lands as hunter-gatherers, maintaining their lifestyle for centuries and experiencing the Mudflow, until settlers entered the valley in the mid-19th century. Early crops were hops and produce, and eventually tulips and daffodils, but ultimately, in the second half of the 20th century, the Orting Valley was peppered with small family-owned dairy farms. On what is now Four Elements Farm, Ted Ford ran a dairy operation for 45 years, naturally fertilizing and amending the soil.

Upcoming Season & Long-Term Plans

Amy's Farming Family

Amy’s Farming Family

Amy and Agustin expect to plant 65 different types of crops and sell them via three distribution methods: 1) Four Elements Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) program, 2) on-site at Meadowood Organics in Enumclaw, and 3) through wholesale connections with Charlie’s Produce, Organically Grown Company, Terra Organics, Scholz Farm, Marlene’s Market, and others that could be interested in purchasing produce from a new farm.

Amy is eagerly and optimistically anticipating the upcoming season, as the forecast is for a good growing season and the farm has multiple advantages, as there is plenty of on-site pumped irrigation water, drain tiles to ensure water doesn’t stagnate below seedlings, and barns for storage of equipment. At the same time, California growers are experiencing a major drought and expect to scale back operations, since adequate water from snowmelt is unavailable for all of the State’s agricultural lands.  As in 2012 when only 20% of Michigan’s tree fruit harvest produced and small farmers in Washington State benefited (Ensuring Food Security: Wade’s Vision), California farmers expect to plant at least 12% less land than in normal years. California’s agricultural losses could be Washington’s gain and Four Elements Farm’s opportunity.

Even with all these attributes and opportunities, ultimately the greatest resource is a farmer’s human ingenuity and business savvy. Despite being a new farm, Four Elements Farm does not have beginning farmers. Amy many years of experience makes her job easier with familiarity of the many pitfalls and challenges of running a farm business.  Amy was instrumental in Full Circle Farms growth from a 260 to 5,000 CSA members being responsible for planning, planting, managing labor, ensuring availability of packaging supplies, and assisting the business owner in a constantly, rapidly changing, and increasing customer base.

Fledgling Vegetables

Fledgling Vegetables

On three other farms, working with the WSDA organic certifier, she completed the critical paperwork to create the premium value from organic production.  Knowing that having a willing buyer before you put a seed in the ground is critical to building a viable business. She is innately familiar with the optimal time to pick produce, when and how to wash product, ensuring there are always adequate twist ties on-site ahead of harvest, and all the details of a creating a productive and profitable organic farm. Most importantly, the differences between being a “large-scale gardener” and a farmer are intuitively known.  A produce farmer grows row crops, multi-tasks, makes rapid fire decisions, and changes plans at the first sign of rain or blistering heat, while a gardener is relaxed, knowing it is not a livelihood.

Agustin, partner in the Four Elements Farm team, cultivates and nurtures good tasting food during the extended summer daylight hours while working his day job across the street as farm manager at Tahoma Farms.

With support from the customers, colleagues, and friends, Amy and Agustin are working towards creating the ultimate dream; their own organic farm. With their enthusiasm and dedication, Four Elements Farm has the ingredients to become another small farm success story.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities.  Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, infrastructure, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on working to create communities that include food production.  Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.  Gardow Consulting can also be found on Facebook.  

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