Taste Wheat: Cereal Box Bakery

Imagine every Wednesday, before the sun rises, a bag of baked goods is delivered to your front doorstep. With anticipation you open the front door to retrieve  the large bag with a box and several smaller bags filled with delectable flavors. You first look for the breakfast treat: pastries, muffins, scones, or bagels. Taking your first bite, you are transported to a memorable bakery while savoring the flavors in your own breakfast nook. This is no ordinary delivery. Instead it’s the best baked products from the finest flavored, heritage wheat cultivars available. The baked goods are only offered by Cereal Box Bakery and can be delivered to your door, too. You explore the rest of the delivery:  sourdough, sandwich bread, granola, emmer farro pasta, baguettes, rosemary crackers, graham crackers or cookies. With each delivery I am impressed.

Apple Tart

Cereal Box Bakery Classic Apple Tart

When I was a young kid, my Dad would sneak out early Sunday morning to bring home a box of freshly baked pastries and donuts to the delight of me and my siblings. Now every week, I await my Cereal Box Bakery arrival with the same anticipation. Rob Salvino of Cereal Box Bakery set out a year ago to “make baked goods fun again.” He crafts a bag with different selections every week. Rather than the sugar and white flour bomb of my childhood, I relish the baked goods as they are filled with stone-ground wheat, which have the germ and the bran retained, and thus a more robust flavor. I know it is way better for my body over the roller-milled, carbohydrate-rush, commercially grown, all-white flour. Added benefits are supporting our local Washington agricultural community, keeping heritage wheat varieties in production, fostering a neighborhood business, and it tastes good, too.  

In September, my bag featured a miniature luscious, flaky crusted tart with apples from Tonnemaker Hill Farm in Royal City. Just before Thanksgiving, the treat was a mini-pumpkin pie. Valentine’s Day, a Panettone, the Italian sweet bread usually associated with Christmas, arrived with chocolate nubs, dried cherries, and an essence of citrus. This week I’m awaiting cranberry scones with Sonora wheat and dried Starvation Alley cranberries harvested last fall in Long Beach, Washington.

Cereal Box Bakery Sourdough

Cereal Box Bakery Sourdough

I always get Rob’s favorite bread–sourdough–in my delivery rather than the sandwich loaf option. The sourdough bread flavors are perfect because he uses various stone-ground heritage wheat varieties, such as Sonora Gold and Turkey Red from Palouse Colony Farm. Heritage wheat varieties are similar to heirloom tomatoes, in that they were commercially grown before the 1950’s but aren’t typically grown today. Now, they are found on smaller specialty farms serving markets where customers care about flavor, growing conditions and maintaining a robust stock of wheat varieties. According to Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting, another specialty grain user for malted beverages, there are more than 20,000 wheat varieties. Even with the abundance of varieties only a few hundred acres of the specialty wheats are grown in Washington.

Large farms grow varieties that have high yields and are simple to sell to bakers and retailers because the wheat has known and expected baking characteristics. As a casual baker, I only recently learned that all flour is not the same. Depending on the amount of protein in a milled wheat, it may rise a lot or a little in a baked product. Customers expect a certain amount of loft in their bread, only so many holes, and a consistent product. This often prevents bakers (even home bakers) from experimenting with new wheat varieties as they don’t know whether the end product will meet their own specifications and more importantly, be acceptable to their customers. 

The Wheats

Palouse Colony Farm is located in eastern Washington in what is commonly called The Palouse, an area of gentle rolling hills formed over thousands of years by windblown silts. It is a fertile region where  dryland or non-irrigated wheat is grown and is definitely the bread basket of Washington. Dick and Don Scheuerman, owners of Palouse Colony Farm grow specialty landrace and heritage grains. Landrace grains “were originally raised by settlers in colonial America and the pioneers of the Pacific Northwest” and are non-hybridized strains, meaning they are not crossbred with other grains to create a new variety. Heritage/Heirloom grains are hybridized but no longer widely grown.

Wheat Varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Sonora Gold is the first wheat planted in the Americas having been brought by the Spaniards to Mexico in the 1600s. Transported up the west coast by Spanish missionaries, Sonora wheat filled California Central Valley with close to three million production acres by the 1880s. It was the wheat variety used to make large flour tortillas, a mainstay of Californian/Hispanic meals. Sonora is drought tolerant, disease resistant, early maturing, and has a good yield. With the advent of modern wheat varieties, now grown predominantly in the plains states, California wheat production plummeted with commercial production of Sonora ending in the 1970’s.

Turkey Red wheat arrived in the United States from Crimea (formerly part of the Ukraine and now part of Russia) via Mennonite farmers fleeing Tsarist persecution in the early 1870s. It was planted for 70 years as the dominant hard red winter wheat in Kansas until the mid-1940’s when it was replaced by modern higher-yield varieties. It is not commercially grown now, but is instead a heritage breed savored for its complex, rich flavor and excellent baking quality.

Rob also sources emmer farro wheat and einkorn wheat from Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, Washington and other flours from Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill to bake and prepare his products. Purchasing a weekly share from Cereal Box Bakery supports a small business and benefits the farmer with up to “seven times the price received  in mainstream (food supply) chains,” according to a June 2010 Economic Research Report.* Whole grain wheat flour is also exceedingly nutritious with high protein and fiber levels, as well as it tastes good, too!  Get ready to have your taste buds tantalized with new flavors of hearty and luscious baked goods from Cereal Box Bakery to start your day.

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

* King, Robert P., Michael S. Hand, Gigi DiGiacomo, Kate Clancy, Miguel I. Gomez, Shermain D. Hardesty, Larry Lev, and Edward W. McLaughlin. Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains, ERR-99, U.S. Dept. of Agr., Econ. Res. Serv. June 2010.

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Elk Run: Golf Course to Farm

In the 1990’s the rage in real estate development was both stand alone and master planned community golf course construction. The Golf Club at Newcastle repurposed an old construction landfill with 36 links, a stunning club house, and outstanding views to Puget Sound and beyond. A Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course was built at Snoqualmie Ridge a new plateau neighborhood on former Weyerhaeuser timber lands above downtown Snoqualmie, WA. Now almost built-out, Snoqualmie Ridge is a mixed-use community with new a public school, a commercial downtown, housing for a variety of ages and incomes, a business park, and the golf course as its featured recreational opportunity. Trilogy at Redmond Ridge converted former timberlands to a golf course and residential development serving a 55+ senior community. As a Professional Civil Engineer, during this golf link construction surge, I reviewed engineering design drawings, Integrated Pest Management Plans, environmental documents, and wrote discretionary land use permits for these three King County golf courses.

Trilogy at Redmond Ridge Golf Course

Golf courses as a recreational amenity were a profitable and desirable solution to keep open space and add real estate value. At its peak, real estate developers were rewarded a ten to 25% premium for new homes built next to the golf green compared to homes off links (Ed McMahon, Senior Fellow, Urban Land Institute). Homeowners coveted the views and green space. Golfing was in its prime! I was riding the wave in my consulting business with the developers to build courses for what seemed like an ever-expanding golf population.

Now 25 years later, golf’s popularity has changed dramatically. By 2013, there were 72 public and private golf courses in the Seattle metropolitan area (Golf Link, 2013). For the decade preceding 2013, for every new course being opened, ten courses were closed. (National Golf Foundation, 2013). At the same time as the number of golf courses has decreased there is an ever-shrinking pool of golfers. Sixty-one percent (61%) of the golf players, defined as someone that only plays one round of links in a 12-month period, are 50 years and older. Only 17% of the golfers are under 40 years old. (October 2016, Golf Player Demographic Statistics–Statistics Brain) Golfing is on a downward trend. Granted 29 million golf players is still a large demographic, but with only five million Millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000—playing golf, the decrease in the number of golfers is dramatic.

Even so, golf course master planned communities still provide an emotional and community need for its residents–a place for connection, commonality, and shared activity. Neighbors have common interests and can spend leisure time playing golf. No one knows this more than my 77-year old Californian aunt and uncle. They absolutely fit the key golfer demographic and play golf two or three times a week, live next to a golf green, and are thoroughly enjoying retirement. It’s their social life and keeps them young—walking the course and swinging the club!

So, if Millennials don’t play golf, what drives them? In a 2013 Aetna, What’s Your Healthy Survey, 24% of the Millennials have a daily commitment to eating and exercising right when compared to only 12% of the Boomer generation. An infographic prepared by Goldman Sachs, surmised that the Millennials “are dedicated to wellness, devoting time and money to exercising and eating right.” Am I born in the wrong generation? As a Baby Boomer, I have a daily commitment to eating well, exercising regularly and I don’t play golf! So, what is an alternative land use that still provides community and open space?  

What’s is a golf course owner to do?

At the time, I was permitting new golf courses, the 18-hole Elk Run Golf Course, owned by Covington Golf, Inc. in Maple Valley, WA was constructed.  Nine holes were built on land leased from King County and nine holes wound their way through the master-planned community. For over 20 years, the golf culture created community and neighborliness. Then as with everything in life, things changed. The Tahoma School District secured Elk Run’s leased nine holes for the site of their new public high school, now scheduled to open in Fall 2017. As owners, Covington Golf, Inc. decided a nine-hole course would not thrive and the last club was swung at Elk Run in 2014.

2016 Garlic Crop at Elk Run Farm

After searching for a new use for their golf course land, the Elk Run owners partnered with the South King County Food Coalition (“SKCFC”) to build a farm to grow produce for local food banks! For clients served by the SKCFC’s 12-member coalition, often freshly-grown, healthy produce is rare. Many food banks lack fresh fruits and vegetables for their clientele, as canned and processed foods and grains are much easier to collect, store, and distribute. Despite King County’s riches, 12.4% of the county’s population live below the poverty level (Employment Security Department). Of the 38 cities in King County, eleven of the cities with the lowest annual incomes are in South King County. The Maple Valley Food Bank, one of the South King County Food Coalition’s (“SKCFC”) 12-members, served 5,356 different individuals and 901,375 pounds of food in 2014-2015. There is an obvious need for fresh produce production for food banks in South King County. SKCFC agreed to sponsor the Elk Run Farm project as a concrete way to educate, nourish, and provide locally-grown produce to this important group of eaters.

Elk Run Farmer—Maria Anderson

Elk Run Farmer Maria Anderson

Maria Anderson came to farming out of a passion for good health which she only began to realize as a young adult. As a 21-year old when she started cooking for herself, she recognized her passion for good food. Through her 20’s, Maria’s understanding of the United States’ food system continued to expand with the ultimate recognition that American society is totally disconnected with where its food comes from. Humans have a regular, daily requirement to eat food. Most in our country (unless they are food insecure) have de facto unlimited food choices. Unfinished restaurant meals are scraped into the garbage or taken home in a little white container for the next day’s meal. Grocery stores are chock full of eating choices whether in the deli, produce section or interior, processed food aisles. For most, food is always there. There is no reason to know, understand or think about how it gets to our mouths.

For Maria, her thoughts on how much food, in what locale, at what scale and where it should be grown continued to pester her. This curiosity about food drove her to intern on several Western Washington farms. Should our country really have more than one-half of its fruits and vegetables grown in California? Could localized vegetable production be expanded locally during a region’s peak growing season? Should food waste have a second purpose rather than the garbage can? Could food scraps be used to feed chickens or pigs or create compost? Are certain crops well-suited for large scale agriculture? Maria keeps developing her answers to these important questions not only by reading and studying, but also by living the life of a farmer.  

Beginning in 2016, Maria, a Millennial, is Elk Run Farm’s farmer growing organic vegetables on the one-acre former grassy field adjacent to the old club house beginning in 2016. Initial funding came via a three-year grant from the Partners to Improve Community Health (“PICH”) through the Center for Disease Control. With any new venture and especially farming, there are numerous start-up costs including equipment, secure storage facilities, irrigation infrastructure, and seed costs. Now in 2017, excitement continues to accelerate for the Elk Run Farm project as funding is secure from the South King County Rotary Clubs, The Bullitt Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the King Conservation District’s Food Systems grant program.

Elk Run Farm Expansion Area?

Goals for this growing season include harvesting 10,000 pounds of produce from the one-acre farm. Yes, it is a small amount compared to the need, but a critical start to feeding an important community. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant will cover one 5,000 square foot bed (about the same size as a typical City of Seattle single family building lot). Equal sized beds of summer squash, brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), legumes (peas and beans), and garlic are expected. One 5,000 square foot bed will be planted in cover crops to nourish the soil and provide forage for bees. The remaining 10,000 square feet will grow lettuce greens and root crops like carrots and radishes.

Maria is optimistic and excited about the future. With a new high school opening right next to door, there are opportunities to teach horticultural classes for young people just steps away. The Urban Agricultural program at Des Moines-based Highline College is expected to assist with farm activities. The neighboring community with former golf course frontage, could be enticed to participate in farming education and eating! The opportunities are endless.

As golf’s popularity continues to wane, are there other chances to convert former golf course grounds to farming? If so, open space is saved and food is grown! We all eat at least three times a day, so it is possible! Is growing food where people live a sustainable new trend, to create more community and build well-being? Could there even be a price premium to live next to the farm or in a farm community? As Millennials form families and hip Baby Boomers age and each is looking for community, will on-site farms be the draw to re-ignite the master planned community?

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

 

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Artisanal Ingenuity–Tieton Farm & Creamery

Being an infrastructure nerd, I remember public works catastrophes. Ten years ago the City of Tieton, Washington‘s water system failed. Multiple water lines broke throughout the city. The State of Washington funded emergency repairs. The calamity was my first introduction to Tieton. Last summer, University of Washington held an alumni event in Tieton. Despite not going, I was intrigued and I still didn’t know where Tieton was. Last month, I bought delectable soft cheeses at the University District Farmers Market from Ruth and Lori Babcock, owners of Tieton Farm and Creamery. My curiosity was piqued.  A Tieton trip was destined.

Tieton Farm & Creamery on a winter’s day

On a brisk December morning, after a significant Cascade Mountain snowfall, fellow adventure seeker Robbie and I ventured from the maritime Puget Sound to the frigid Washington interior. I-90 was still slick, but blue sky sucker holes lured us eastward. A Seattle ritual is an April trip to Yakima County to explore wineries and to climb treeless hillsides to be rewarded with commanding Mt. Rainier views, all while soaking in as much sunshine as possible.  A winter visit is only for the hardy and properly clothed. We were prepared. Excitement around our adventure heightened as we climbed Naches-Tieton Road, 850 feet above the Yakima River Valley farms, to the Tieton Basin plateau.    

The slow steady ascent on the sweeping road, hugging the slope’s rise, we finally entered through the final notch to the Tieton plateau. As a child, I was mesmerized by ever expanding vistas. Being on the brink of a slope and above a valley let me savor, even if for a brief moment, the views of what appears to be endless landscapes. A sense of calm, peace, and wonder pervades. There is a feeling smallness and at the same time immensity. A sense of awareness and possibility of something new, something exciting. My curiosity to explore was awakened again.

The plateau was bathed in mid-afternoon subdued light as we were only two weeks from the winter solstice.  Mere inches of snow covered windswept farmland. We arrived at our destination, Tieton Farm & Creamery at 2:30 in the afternoon, just in time to help Ruth with the farm animals’ afternoon meal.

Ruth & Lori

Ruth grew up in Wenatchee in the heart of apple growing country, having worked summers picking fruit. After college, she landed in Seattle in the financial accounting software business, which demanded a lot of sitting time in front of a computer. Lori worked at the same company and had a passion for cooking. Ruth and Lori connected in the late 1990’s and dreamed about their future together.

I met Lori about the same time, when we served as Trustees together on the PCC Natural Markets Board. PCC Natural Markets is the nation’s largest natural foods grocery cooperative, founded in 1953, now with 12 stores throughout the Puget Sound region. PCC is more than just grocery store, as it sells high quality and sustainably grown food, some grown and produced by small independent farmers, such as Lori’s cheeses. Lori and I had forged a connection around the board table in our efforts to support the environment and ensure healthy, organic food without the additives, pesticides and fungicides for Puget Sound eaters.  

Our time on the farm

Our farm chores took about one and a half glorious cold hours on the 20-acre property. The property, a former orchard, had been scourged by fire and in 2009 was a canvas ready to be painted by a new farmer. They got to work and now have 56 goats, 70 sheep, two pigs, a few cows and a steer, a couple of horses, and a flock of fowl including geese, turkeys, ducks, and chickens. All had to be fed and given water.

We met the goats first: Sonnet, Black Pearl, Rheba, and more. All named for their temperament–living in a large, new, open-ended hoop barn, since the older barn had been destroyed by an electrical fire the previous year. Eastern Washingtonians must always be vigilant around fire as their land is susceptible to summer and early fall fire threats, because it is so dry with only nine inches of yearly rainfall. The 2015 wildfire season was the worst in Washington’s history with 1,600 square miles burned (almost the same size as Pierce County’s land area)!

Patiently waiting goats

The goats with expecting looks on their faces waited patiently, as we filled the troughs. All 56 goats lined-up along the trough, as orderly kindergartens do before heading to the lunchroom. In December, all the animals are in their dry period or non-lactating cycle, when they stop producing milk prior to the next birthing and milking season. This cycle is totally normal and likely unbeknownst to the common eater, including me! Not having milking responsibilities consuming six hours daily created a perfect time for our visit. During peak season, with 90 animals to milk, farm days are long with endless farm duties of  feeding, cleaning, milking, rotating fencing, and irrigating. Thankfully, there are plenty of daylight hours. In the milking season, electric fencing is rotated every three days to ensure fresh forage for the animals and to limit manure build-up in the fields. Monthly fence rotations are only needed in the winter, as the animals are farmer fed.  

Robbie Petting the Pigs

Next stop–the pigs–which are raised for pasture-raised pork products. Grain was scooped from a large barrel and sprinkled on the ground. We called for the pigs, but no pigs. Finally, the pigs braved the cold and moseyed out of their hovel for affection first and dinner second. Each animal grouping has their own fenced area and a water trough.  With frigid temperatures, most troughs have a small electric heater element to ensure water and not ice is available to drink. The pigs used to confiscate their heater for hut warmth. Those pesky pigs outsmart the farmer! Now hot water is carried to the pig’s water bowl to ensure winter liquid refreshment!

Farmer Ruth Poised to Feed the Sheep

The cows and sheep are fed organic hay, purchased for winter feedings. With herd mentality, the sheep watched and followed our every move, as we peeled off “flakes” or about a three-inch thick square section of hay bale to toss into the pen. A five sheep group ate three flakes of hay. Two tips for hay heaving, never aim for a manure pile and always use a side arm throw rather than over head toss. Being dressed in grass flecks confirmed I was a novice thrower. 

All the fowl are cooped together with both inside and outside space. Grain was sprinkled in a make-shift snow trough. The chickens immediately started eating while the turkeys and geese took their time preening themselves before deciding it was time to eat. In each animals’ pen, we refilled the drinking trough with a garden hose. The hose was quickly drained by lifting the hose from one end to the other to ensure an empty hose. Frozen cracked hoses are useless. 

Cheese-making

Lori makes the finest artisanal cheeses–the soft cheeses Bianca, Sonnet, Black Pearl, and Rheba are named after the goats–using pasteurized milk as required by law. The hard cheeses, Venus and Calypso are made using unpasteurized raw milk. My favorite is Rheba, as it has a Camembert consistency with sharp overtones. But, why do the soft cheeses need to be pasteurized?

Pasteurization was a technology breakthrough in the mid-19th century by Louis Pasteur’s to heat liquids to kill bacteria, whether wanted or unwanted. Cheese can be made with raw milk, provided it is aged more than 60 days. Raw milk aficionados contend there are beneficial microbes that not only add superior flavor and complexity to cheese, but perhaps may even help humans with more robust belly flora. Harmful bacteria, such as listeria, can harbor in milk products when animals are kept in dirty, confinement conditions and the udders are not properly cleaned and treated, prior to milking. The 60-day aging rule was established in 1949 as the minimum cutoff date when the acids and salts in the cheese making process would destroy any harmful bacteria in raw milk. Visiting the farm, and observing the intensity, dedication, and attentiveness that Ruth has for the animals’ health and well-being brings utter (or is it “udder”) confidence in the cheese products that Lori creates.  

The life of a farmer varies in pace from winter to summer, and in the different cycles of the animals. With attentiveness, knowledge, and love, Ruth ensures happy and healthy animals to produce the finest milk, cheese, and meat products. As with Ruth, Lori’s cheeses vary with the seasons. The artisanal ingenuity is evident in the rhythm and care of the farm and the flavor of the cheese. Now visiting Tieton is a “must-do” on an April jaunt for sunshine and perhaps for the Mighty Tieton spring open house! 

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

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Rescue California from Drought? Re-Localize the Food System

As parents conversed over coffee and donuts early Saturday morning excitedly anticipating the outcome of sorority rush week, I chatted with a Dad about his daughter leaving sunny southern California to come north to the University of Washington. Of course, we started talking about how much it rains in Seattle. It’s just that west coast thing. Southern Californians can’t imagine how Seattleites can bear the endless rain. Of course, I had to perpetuate the rain myth.

The Dad exclaimed, “I like seeing green (trees, bushes, and grass) and know I will enjoy visiting Seattle, since I live in the land of endless drought. I must say that Governor Brown’s executive order last year that cut our water use by 25%, while agriculture (the State’s largest water user) had no restrictions was unbelievable.” Jokingly, he said, “Maybe we’ll be importing water from Seattle soon.”

“Perhaps, by re-localizing the food system, California water can stay in California and not be exported (in its agricultural products) around the country and the world,” I suggested. “Maybe we should get back to eating seasonally and locally, eating what grows where we live when it is available?”

Strawberries:  A Summer Fruit

Lucious StrawberriesWhen the sun and heat amped up in Connecticut in mid-June, giant signs with only one strawberry on it announced the start of the U-Pick summer fruit season at the family farms around town. Knowing that just picked strawberries were the best, my Dad would coerce my siblings and I to venture out early Saturday morning to pick the brightest, reddest, and biggest berries possible. I quickly learned the art of picking–one for the mouth, one for the basket. I knew the proprietor would not be weighing my on-farm consumption, so I could indulge in my favorite fruit–what I learned later was the June-bearing strawberry, a variety that bears fruit for a short three week window every June.

Sometime 20 or 30 years ago, I don’t know exactly when, strawberries started showing up in grocery stores in February way before I expected them. Of course, my mouth salivated for the luscious, sweet, flavor of my childhood. Alas, the berries were never as tasty or juicy as I remembered. February berries are an ever-bearing strawberry and are never local in my northern locale, as it is still cold, dark, and rainy. The ever-bearing strawberry produces multiple crops over a growing season no matter where they are grown. In the winter, they are shipped in a clear clamshell box from a warmer climate to allure the northern shopper with the anticipation of summer flavor. Even though the mid-winter berries are bright red and large, the flavor always seems somewhat dry and slightly woody despite being 92% water, which is the highest water content of any fruit. Ever-bearing strawberries can be delicious and sweet, as the freshly-picked flat I bought yesterday at the Lake City Farmers Market from Hayton Farm Berries grown one-hour north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley.

The majority of Californian strawberries, supplemented with berries from Florida and Mexico, are travel-ready and ever-bearing to be shipped everywhere to the east coast, Seattle, Chicago, China, you name it. The berries have been bred to withstand long-distance travel, arriving at their final retail location looking pretty, but not necessarily tasting good.

U.S. Strawberry Production MapWhat’s astonishing is that only five counties, four in California and one in Florida account for over 75% of the nation’s strawberry acreage, all destined for clear clamshell boxes found in grocery stores year-round. From March to December, strawberries grow just an hour south of Silicon Valley–the high tech center of California–in Santa Cruz county and the Salinas Valley. Winter strawberries grow an hour and a half north of downtown Los Angeles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and near Plant City east of Tampa, Florida. Looking at nationwide strawberry production, it’s startling, but perhaps not unexpected, that California grows 61 percent of US commercial strawberry production with Florida being a distant second with only 17 percent of the crop. Sadly, our taste buds are accustomed to the travel-ready clamshell box strawberries, so much so that even my own daughter doesn’t like the local June-bearing berry.

California Drought and Strawberries

Location of California Strawberry Production & DroughtOur federal government monitors, analyzes, and issues weekly nationwide drought maps. Since water is life, the drought forecast is critical to understanding the irrigation capacity and hence, the potential shock and disruption to our nation’s food supply from the effects of drought. The September 20, 2016 map demonstrates that the extreme (red) and exceptional (burgundy red) drought conditions, the most severe drought categories on the map, are centered directly over California strawberry acreage. Granted this map is depicting a single point in time during the driest time of year, but even so, California’s precious water generated from snowmelt and groundwater sources is irrigating the nation and world’s strawberries!

The future effects of continuous southern California sun on strawberry yields is not certain, but interestingly from 2013 to 2015 about 10% of strawberry acreage was eliminated from production in part due to the drought. There just wasn’t enough irrigation water to feed the thirsty crop. The California drought is not expected to end anytime soon, as there is still a significant water shortfall to replenish to serve people, fish and streams, and agriculture. Whether the lack of irrigation water will impact strawberry production more is totally unknown. Looking at U.S. Drought Monitor, anybody can monitor the weekly fluctuations in precipitation which impact the drought conditions on agriculture and water supplies.

Which brings me back to the Orange County Dad. He agreed, “Eating locally grown foods tastes better! Maybe if the rest of the country grew their own food, it could help the California drought? California agriculture would have to get smaller though and that would be a hard sell. There could be more water for the cities, too.”

Something to ponder. Would re-localizing our food system help the California drought?

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. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. 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 with good food!

 

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My Backyard Harvest

My yard is brimming with food now always arriving in the hot, sultry, dog days of summer. I plant only what I can grow, nurture and produce successfully. I don’t want failure. Gardening takes a lot of persistent, dedicated, focused work. Preparing the soil, pulling weeds, watering regularly and picking the produce. But, it’s worth it, because the food just tastes so good. I’ve been growing food for more than 40 years starting in my parents Connecticut backyard.

Blue Lake Pole Beans

Blue Lake Pole Beans

My first crop green bush beans was successful enough that I plant beans every year. It’s probably because I am spoiled by the immediate palate pleasure of my homegrown veggie rather than the days old, dull, drab, and sometimes even tasteless store bought version. (Fresh green beans at Thanksgiving are always disappointing!) I now plant pole beans, rather than bush beans, since they produce for several weeks ensuring a steady supply of the crisp, succulent, slightly sweet, but also savory slender shot of yum!

Moving to Massachusetts just out of college, I grew the standard east coast hot summer vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, and of course, green beans. The entire eastern seaboard is characterized by hot days with high humidity and occasional thunderstorms, driven by the warm, humid Gulf of Mexico air and high pressure systems in the Atlantic Ocean. New England is tempered from the most intense weather by the more northerly latitude sun angle, but still the summers are usually hot and humid enough to grow luscious fruits and vegetables.

Changed Coasts

In 1985, I moved west across the 100th meridian or longitude line, where the climate changes from humid conditions to a semi-arid/arid climate, which roughly follows the western edge of the plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas and actually forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma. Most of the west generally has hot, dry summers with an occasional, rather rare flash-flood thunderstorms. In recent years, the west’s winters have been dry with infrequent storms, hence the incessant California drought.

I landed in one of the two thin slivers of the west coast’s unique growing climates. The Californian Mediterranean coast is hot and dry similar to the rest of the west, but gets moderated by the Pacific Ocean bringing in the moist oceanic air, but never freezing temperatures. The Pacific Northwest’s maritime climate in Seattle is home to warm, dry summer days and cool summer nights. Winters are a different story, hence, “It rains all the time!” Being so far north the angle of the sun is shallow and our winters are punctuated by dark and dreary days and continuous rains. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate the continuous rains, but that’s what we want you to believe.) The benefit is the wet days fill the Cascade Mountains, just a one-hour drive east of Seattle, with snow, thereby replenishing and storing our summer water supply.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

With a brand new growing climate, I had to learn again how to grow great food! Seattle’s maritime growing climate is like a symphony, with the temperature modulations ebbing, flowing and moderating as each season progresses with fewer extremes and changing over a period of days rather than hours. My east coast sensibilities had been used to the mid-May growing season being like the 4th of July fireworks–coming fast and furious with a quick rise from cool spring temperatures to scorching, humid days. To grow food in the Seattle it’s still an educated guess to predict when the spring rains and cool temperatures will stop, or whether our summer will be bone dry and require endless irrigation. Or will we have the year of the “green tomato” with summer daytime temperatures never exceeding 70 degrees?

Italian Prune Plums

Italian Prune Plums

Thankfully, this summer’s weather has been cooperative and my garden is plentiful. Green pole beans and tomatoes are paired with zucchini, basil, thyme and parsley. I grow garlic and lots of it–both hardneck and softneck varieties. It’s easy. Plant in October, cut the scapes in May for stir fry dishes and harvest in June, repeat. My sole Italian prune plum tree bore 180 pounds of fruit. Bags of cut-up plums fill my freezer, Zwetchendatschi–my grandmother’s Bavarian plum cake recipe–is always a treat, honey-syrup canned plums fill my cupboards and I gave 15 pounds of plums each to two of my favorite local food establishments–Sand Point Grill and Cereal Box Bakery. Four blueberry bushes, close to barren this year, an established rhubarb plant, and a vigorous, logarithmically, increasingly producing Interlaken white seedless table grape round out my garden.

What’s Next?

Seedless Interlaken Grapes Drying

Seedless Interlaken Grapes Drying

Growing my own food makes me happy, tastes good and keeps me engaged with nature. As much as possible, I purchase the rest of my food from local farmers at Farmer’s Markets, PCC Natural Markets and Metropolitan Market. Even so, I’m starting to think when can I slow down? Forty year of gardening is getting close to enough and I’m interested in letting someone else grow my food. Where can I live so I can get produce as fresh as what I can grow?

Thankfully, a new type of food-growing residential developments called agri-hoods are just beginning to sprout across the nation. In Washington state, Elk Run Farm and Skokomish Farms are two such communities where a farm is integrated into the development. Elk Run Farm replaced a section of an abandoned golf course with a 4-1/2 acre farm, while Skokomish Farms has a large farm serving 20 homesites on 750 acres. When will the next community builder (aka developer) create an agri-hood for those who crave 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. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. 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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Savoring Summer Produce

I am a “fruit-aholic”. I love fruit. Even as a kid, I craved fruit– especially the summer fruits–strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums. The juiciness, the flavors, the short summer season so taste boredom never arrived–all reasons summer fruits satisfied immensely. As an adult, I still love fruit, but now I find sweetness in vegetables–carrots, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. It’s the natural sweetness that I long for.

Looks can be deceiving though. I’ve been snookered into buying a pint of the biggest, plumpest blueberries with a deep blue sheen–and they taste like wood or what I at least imagine wood tastes like. So, what is it that makes a piece of produce just taste so good?

Is it Just Memories that Taste Good?

Luscious Bluberries

Luscious Bluberries

I looked back at my childhood, to gather data from my memories. As a kid, Grandpa Peters–the quiet, introverted engineer–drove me to a neighbor’s strawberry fields to pick a flat. Sweat dripping from my face in the sweltering sun, I bent over a row of plants lifting the leaves to find a treasure of red berries. Instinctively, I wanted to pick the biggest berries, but knew that the smaller ones also packed a punch of sweetness. Picking berries with a tinge of green was however, totally unacceptable, as they were bitter. To reward myself for my effort, it was one in the mouth, one in the basket, one in the mouth, one… It’s lucky the neighbor didn’t weigh me before I started picking and I wasn’t making a living picking berries.

Fresh red strawberries, no more than a few seconds old are divine. But, even after bringing them back to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, they were still marvelous, perhaps with just a little whipped cream. Did picking my own berries make them test better?

Grandma Peters–the joyful, loving, teaching, and extroverted grandma–and I picked wild black caps (black raspberries) on the edge of untended forest at the top of the ‘back 40’ slope in the heat of the summer. Following the jam recipe on the back of the liquid CERTO pack, we crushed the berries, mixed in the liquid pectin, and added the prescribed amount of sugar. The statement, “DO NOT REDUCE THE SUGAR IN THE RECIPE SINCE THAT WILL RESULT IN SET FAILURES,” scared me into obeying every word in the directions. Boiling the fragrant black mass as the recipe demanded for “exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly” was critical before ladling the preserves into jars ensuring success. The final step, to prepare the jam for extended storage, meant pouring 3/8″ of freshly melted preserving wax on top of the jelled preserves. Two-piece vacuum caps and lids, now standard for protecting and preserving jam, didn’t exist 50 years ago.

Opening a jar of black cap jam in the middle of the winter and spreading it on toast, brought the waft and taste of summer to my senses. Did using the freshest berries make it taste better?

Oma and Opa Gardow jointly owned “the Farm” with other German immigrant families about an hour’s drive outside of Buffalo, New York. Down the steep hillside, from the horse stables that had been converted into tiny weekend getaway cottages, were wild giant high bush blueberry plants. Being a kid, I could only pick from the lowest branches and looked up at what seemed like bushes as tall as the cottages. Dressed with long sleeves, pants, and boots, mosquitoes and flies buzzed around my head, as my feet sunk into the mud. I hated the bugs, as I was and still am a mosquito attractor. Again, the berries were luscious, sweet, and juicy. Oma was an excellent cook and preparer of meals and used the berries to make a pie. Was picking the berries with my own hands the secret for flavor?

With all that I learned from my grandparents, to this day, I still make jam, (chutneys, relishes, salsas, and pickled vegetables) and follow every direction as it is exactly written. Using only the freshest ingredients from the farmers’ market, my CSA box, or my garden, I savor the sweetest tastes of summer opening every jar I canned during the darkest days of winter. What is it that makes my canned food taste so good?

The Secret Ingredient

My own labor growing, picking, or selecting the freshest ingredients are definitely factors that make my food taste better. But, is there something else? Reading Dan Barber, chef extraordinaire and author of The Third Plate, I learned the secret ingredient. “When we taste something truly delicious, something that is persistent, it most likely originated from well-mineralized, biologically rich soils.”

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Summer Radishes and Carrots

At the base of the wild black cap brambles at the forest edge, the ground was strewn with old leaves and layers of humus. The blueberry bushes sucked the water and minerals from the soggy soils to produce the most succulent berries. Fifty years ago, strawberry fields were family run and managed the old-fashioned way for the best flavor rather than optimized for travel, color, and profit. The most extraordinary tasting food comes from the best soils. It’s the dirt that matters. As Dan Barber says, “the more minerals available for the plant to synthesize, the more opportunity for better flavor.”

Try it yourself. Buy a box of berries or bunch of carrots from a mainstream grocery store and the same from a local, organic farmer. Do a blind taste test. Savor the flavor. Which tastes best?

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. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. 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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