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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We All Eat: ULI Food Forum

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

Entering the Stone Barns Conference Center

Entering the Stone Barns Conference Center

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

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

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

The Coop Hoops

Stone Barn Laying Hen

Stone Barn Laying Hen

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

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

The Greenhouse

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

Real Estate Professionals Planting Basil

Real Estate Professionals Planting Basil

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

The Kitchen

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

The 15 Minute Salad

The 15 Minute Salad

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

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

Creating Community

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

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Agritopia®–A Little Bit of Arizona Heaven

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

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

Waiting to Pick Citrus

Waiting to Pick Citrus

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

Agritopia®’s Community

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

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

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

Citrus U-Pick at the Farm

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

Enjoying the Commons

Enjoying the Commons

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

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

Living Next to the Farm

Living Next to the Farm

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

What Makes Agritopia® Special

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

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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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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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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Creating Connections–Neighbor’s Night Out

“I only talk to my uphill neighbor at the 4th of July parade. I wave to my neighbor across the street and the downhill lot is vacant,” divulged my work colleague. “My wife had a problem with the neighbors when she was growing up so says, ‘don’t talk to them’.”

Hearing this, I was overcome with sadness, “You must be lonely.”

He just looked at me and shrugged. “We are thinking of moving to Seattle though.” I don’t know if moving from an outlying suburb to Seattle will make a difference, but I know I am happy that I know my neighbors!

My Neighborhood

Hugs are always on order when I see Kathleen my next door neighbor, as is borrowing a cup of sugar or picking up mail. Trimming trees and shrubs on the property line are an easy conversation to have. My son sold $20 of coupons to Kathleen to support his track team. This makes a neighborhood!

The neighbors to the south, Emily and Will are new arrivals. They shaved their overgrown front-yard vegetation causing their formerly hidden garage light to swathe our bedroom on hot summer nights in almost full daylight. One request to Will on solutions to our light-filled bedroom and he agreed to turn the light off every night! He’s kept his promise, too. I made sure to thank him, too!

Four years ago, Maggie started the monthly ladies-only neighborhood bookgroup. The only membership criteria is living within walking distance of each others’ houses. We do talk about the book… most of the time, for at least five minutes. Our group includes a doctor, a realtor, several teachers, and an engineer. Some of us are retired while others are entrepreneurs. We are mothers and grandmothers, with ages ranging from 57 to 79. Put twelve curious, chatty women in the room and of course, there are multiple conversations about the neighborhood, new grandchildren, jobs, traffic, and more. Younger woman do come, but often can’t commit. Their lives are still just too busy!

Neighbor’s Night Out

For 18 summers, our street has come together to celebrate Neighbor’s Night Out, a nationwide get to know your neighbor night. Having organized the first event in 1997, I’m overjoyed that I don’t have to be the planner every year! At the start, we left flyers on everyone’s doorstep and now the organizer just sends out an e-mail invitation and purchases burgers, dogs, chips, and fixings with a  $10 per family contribution.

Neighbor's Night Out

Neighbor’s Night Out

Just before 6 p.m. on Neighbor’s Night Out, my kids drag the six orange cones to the street ends, declaring that cars are banned and it’s a people-only evening. Lawn chairs and fold-up tables show up as well as everyone’s favorite summer potluck food. Charles brings his classic key lime pie and Maureen her homegrown tomato caprese salad. When the neighborhood children were young, we had a bicycle parade and water balloon games, but now the teenagers just slink around, grab a bite to eat, waiting for the opportunity to sneak away from the grown-up conversations.  There are new babies on the street, so hopefully soon, children’s playfulness will return to our annual summer gathering.

Adults do their yearly catch up. Traffic congestion is always a huge topic, as Children’s Hospital expands, University Village draws more customers, and Husky home games snarl movement. Housing affordability, taxes, and the upcoming brand-new district-based (rather than at-large-only) city council races are fodder for conversation. Of course, there is always chatter on children and grandkids, too.

Will you have a Neighbor’s Night Out? It’s always the first Tuesday in August! I always look forward to connecting with my neighbors again!

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 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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