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! 


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. 


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. 


Incredible: Brooklyn Whole Foods

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

Rooftop Farm

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

Gotham Greens 20,000 Square Foot Greenhouse

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

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

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

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

More Sustainable Attributes

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

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

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

Whole Foods parking area with Manhattan skyline

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

And There is More

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

Gotham Greens Basil

Gotham Greens Basil

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

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

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

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


An Agricultural-Residential Development Solution

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

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

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

A New Community Development Solution

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

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

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

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

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

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

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

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Know Where Your Food Comes From

I was born before trucking in out-of-season foods was the norm and consequently grew up eating local foods. Granted we could get iceberg lettuce and citrus shipped in mid-winter from California or Florida, but our usual nightly dinner fare was frozen beans, peas, or vegetable medley with meat and potatoes.

Corn Tassels in the Sunlight

Corn Tassels in the Sunlight

When summer abundance arrived our dinners changed dramatically. My Dad made regular evening stops at Wade’s Farmstand** in the Connecticut River Valley before traveling over the mountain on his way home from work to purchase the freshest radishes, cucumbers, blueberries, strawberries, melons, and corn! The silken ears were freshly picked every day, because picked corn loses its sweetness with each passing hour turning the flavor to pasty starch. The strawberries burst with flavor and had to be slurped. Radishes came in rounds, spikes, as big as carrots and the colors varied from the bright red to white and every shade in between. Melon diversity ranged from smooth to rough skin with red, orange, and green inside.

Hot humid summer days, moved into crisp, clear fall days with a plethora of apple varieties, Mcouns graced the farmstand table for what always felt like a short time, while McIntosh being storage apples were available until spring. Pears, peaches, plums all thrived in the Farmington River Valley at a slightly higher elevation, upstream from its confluence with the Connecticut River.

At home, Dad also had a penchant for the ripest, most recently picked tomatoes and would grow upwards of 20 different plants, including cherries, beef steaks, early and late varieties just for the optimal burger tomato, plate of tomatoes with chives, or to just pop in the mouth. I started my first garden before I was a teenager planting Blue Lake bush beans, which continue to be my favorite.

Evolution of Seeds

Despite the wealth of food diversity I had growing up, unbeknownst to me produce choices were becoming homogenized and limited. Scientists were developing seed stock with characteristics that favored pest resistance, optimized color, generated uniform size, and insured durability for travel. Americans became busier and dependent on the grocery store, where they were trained to expect flawlessly shaped, perfectly colored, unblemished, pest-free fruits and vegetables and learned to shun the misshapen, blemished, but more flavorful produce found at the local farmstand. The seed stock changes limited produce options available at supermarkets where the customers were retrained to shop for food with their eyes, rather than with their taste buds.

Diminution of Seed Stock over 80 years (prepared by RAFI-USA)

Diminution of Seed Stock over 80 years (prepared by RAFI-USA)

Produce variety loss is documented by RAFI-USA (Rural Advancement Foundation International) a non-profit that “cultivates markets, policies and communities that support thriving, socially-just, and environmentally-sound family farms,” and is depicted by the graph which illustrates the seed diversity decrease from information found at the United States’ National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) [formerly known as the National Seed Storage Laboratory], located in Fort Collins, Colorado. In 1903, there were 544 different types of cabbage seed and 80 years later there were only 28, a 95% drop in seed variety. The seed selection plunged by more than 90% for all crops shown on the illustration, except for squash which fell 88% and tomato varieties which only decreased by 81%! As every high school student learns in their first biology class, diversity of a species is critical to survival and resilience. This precipitous decline in crop variety is detrimental to the sturdiness of the food system. If a weight were placed on the top of above graphic, the spindly legs of the seed stock at the bottom would collapse.

New Seed Advances

Genetically engineered (“GE”) foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (“GMO”), were first introduced for human consumption and have been expanding in the marketplace.  The genetically engineered seed stock technology is revered by some, since science has engineered away pest problems by modifying plant genes. Others slander the science, since there have been no controlled studies or tests on how these genetically modified plants will impact human health or the natural environment.

Examples of GE foods are corn, soybeans, and sugar beets which have all been designed to be “RoundUp Ready,” containing a glyphosate-resistant trait and are widely grown in the United States. Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Roundup®. When it is sprayed in the fields of corn, soybeans and sugar beets it destroys the weeds and does not kill the main crop, which has been genetically modified to tolerate the Roundup® application. With American diets about 70% processed foods and the prevalence of these three crops in those foods, it is highly concerning.  With 88% of the corn, 94% of the soy, and 95% of the sugar beets being genetically modified, the long-term strength of these crops is questionable, the stability of the food system is being highly compromised, and is about as sturdy as a one-legged stool.  Resilience is built through diversity and the basic tenet of biology is being challenged by relying on this technology for such a large segment of the food system.

Pole Beans in my Garden

Pole Beans in my Garden

With the corn, soy and sugar beet industry essentially dominated by genetically modified crops, we are living in a time of a potential food catastrophe. If a disease, pest, fungus, superweed, or other annoying agricultural problem gets triggered, it is not unfathomable that a plant type may mutate or infect other plants. Thankfully, organic foods can not and do not include genetically engineered ingredients and are an available option for consumers. We can purchase organic foods and know we are not eating an untested science experiment.

Forward thinking eaters, are working for sustainable food systems that are “protective of the environment, economically viable, and social responsible.” Personally, I support a strong local food system and want to know where and who grows my food, to limit processed foods, to support my local farming economy, and to buy organically grown products as often as possible.

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

**I am happy to see that Wade’s Farmstand is still located on Simsbury Road 95 years after its founding, as you drive west out of the Connecticut Valley with the motto, “I don’t try to sell anything in my stand that I wouldn’t want to eat myself. I’ve found that the consumer will come back to the stand only if you give him top quality.”

Note: The graphic describing the diminution of seed varieties was created by RAFI-USA. RAFI-USA does not endorse, review, or authorize the content stated on Gardow Consulting.  


What is Sustainable Agriculture?

I am not a farmer, but care where my food comes from. I read labels to avoid unknown, unintelligible ingredients. I cannot feed myself with my gardening skills. Farmers grow my food and I have the utmost respect for the work the work they do. Each season farmers start anew deciding what and how much to grow. It is always a calculated risk based on years of experience, while not knowing what nature’s forces will bring in the upcoming growing season.

Diversified Cropping at Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley

Diversified Cropping at Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley

Sustainable agriculture is a term to describe a food growing process that appeals to those whom care about their food choices. Alternatively, agribusiness, the large-scale, commodity-driven, often chemically-induced, pesticide-protected, government subsidized food production beast worries the sustainable agriculture consumers. Examples abound on why to be concerned. Pork production facilities have caused significant environmental damage to North Carolina river ecosystems from leaks from CAFOs–Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations–where multitudes of pigs are treated only as a food source rather than live animals that should be given respect. Food safety calamities with mainstream products such as peanut butter and cantaloupes have caused recalls, sickness and even death and shaken the confidence of our conventional food supply system.

Whether sustainable agriculture is the answer to food safety and environmental concerns is not certain, but I assert that is part of the solution.

Agriculture is…

What is agriculture? According to the Oxford American dictionary, agriculture is “the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food.” Between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, our ancestors realized that staying rooted during the growing season meant a more secure food source, than the hunting and gathering existence of their forefathers. Our predecessors developed villages, towns, and eventually cities around soils that bore fruits and vegetables, and reared animals, which were domesticated to provide milk, materials for clothing, casings for sausage, and a multitude of other uses.

Goat basking in the sun at Cloudview EcoFarm--Columbia Basin

Goat basking in the sun at Cloudview EcoFarm–Columbia Basin

Improvements to agriculture practices evolved over the eons with the advent 6,000 years ago of the simple plow and irrigation practices thereby increasing yields. The invention of the wheel about 5,500 years ago, vastly eased product movement from rural lands to population centers and increased city densification and development of a merchant class.

Agriculture continued to evolve and beginning in 1800, during the Industrial Revolution and accelerating in the aftermath of World War II, food production surged and worldwide population skyrocketed to 7 billion people today. (Since my birth, the world’s human population has more than doubled, which is astounding.) A significant part of the population increase is attributable to the vast improvements in food production, which increased yields by using artificially-made pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. At the same time, seed stocks were hybridized to strengthen traits that improved transport and storability, increased size, augmented color, and optimized the use of artificial inputs (Roundup® ready seeds for example). For those that support all technological advancements, the increase in food production via agribusiness has been a stellar success.

At the same time there have been losses.  Flavor, which is the joy of eating, has been lost with intense hybridization. Rural communities have been emptied, food safety concerns have increased and topsoil continues to be lost. Many assert that agricultural scientific innovation should be tempered with reverence and appreciation for a natural systems ethos to grow food more sustainably.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Much has been written by scholars and farming specialists on sustainable agriculture, which is considered a system that is “protective of the environment, economically viable, and social responsible” according to a 2002 Washington State University (WSU) Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR), Sustainable Agriculture in Washington State publication. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, funded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, further defines the 3 Pillars of (Farming) Sustainability where there is “(1) profit over the long term, (2) stewardship of our nation’s land, air and water, and (3) quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities.” These are solid, grounded objectives that benefit the common good, but have been largely dismissed by agribusiness.

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

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

Concurrently, at least 95% of Americans’ food purchases comes from conventionally grown agribusinesses and unfortunately, the common person is just not exposed nor perhaps even interested in other food production methods, let alone alarmed about issues that protect the natural world or support living wages for the farm workers. Furthermore, most people don’t spend a moment ever thinking about where their food comes from, as it just shows up and is easily available, providing no connection or awareness to any problems or potential fragility in the food system.

Why Should it Matter?

Should Americans care where their food comes from? Should they be concerned about how it is grown or whether the farmer is able to make a living wage? Yes! We are fortunate in Washington State to have extraordinary farmers such as Cloudview EcoFarm, Viva Farms, Nash’s Organic Produce, and many more that are growing food sustainably where natural resources are sacred and workers are treated well. However, for all of these farms to be profitable over the long term, the eating public needs to be educated and to support a sustainable agriculture economy.

My question to sustainable agriculture advocates is how do we ignite the eating public to care about where their food comes from? What solutions do you have? The Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network (WSFFN), located in Mt. Vernon, WA will be updating its strategic plan and collaborating with other like-minded organizations to further sustainable food and farming initiatives. I am on the WSFFN board and welcome your thoughts at Facebook-Gardow Consulting.

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’s blog will muse on ways to create a more sustainable world. Gardow Consulting can also be found on Facebook.


Organic Farms Matter: Uncle Matt’s Organics

Patriarch Benny McLean

Patriarch & Story Teller Benny McLean

Located a half- hour west of Florida’s Magic Kingdome is Uncle Matt’s Organics, a 14-year old family business supplying discerning consumers with organic citrus and juice products. Spending a day with the business’ patriarch and story teller, Benny McLean was the highlight of my Floridian vacation. While my family enjoyed the thrill of Space Mountain® and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin®, I savored the succulent Florida grapefruits and oranges and learned about the challenges of being a farmer not far from Mickey’s home and his 17,500,000 visitors (2012).

The Story

After World War II, US Route 27, was the northern snowbirds conduit to get to the Sunshine Coast, arriving when Florida was predominately home to farmers tending orange groves, strawberry fields, and cattle ranches. The allure of pristine beaches and warm climes brought the northern transplants, despite the mid-60’s television advertisements warning viewers to be wary of buying “swamp land in Florida.”

The Citrus Tower

The Citrus Tower

Clermont, Florida was the epicenter of the citrus industry with the iconic Citrus Tower, opening in 1956, soaring above 300,000 acres of grapefruit and orange groves in Lake County, just west of Orange County, where Orlando lies. Taking the elevator to the top of the Tower provides views to the flatlands from a 450-foot vantage point, since the 226-foot structure sits on a 228-foot knoll, part of the central Florida spine of rolling hills. At the tower base were activities to entertain, products to buy and tours of groves to educate visitors of the delight of citrus.

In the early 1960’s Walt Disney saw that his Los Angeles based Disneyland® was a significant tourist attraction, but realized that to truly create a magic place, he needed control over a much larger land mass. Flying over central Florida, he saw opportunity with its network of highways and vacant parcels where he could create a place of imagination. The Magic Kingdom® opened in 1971 to unprecedented enthusiasm and is now the number one attended theme park in the world. Since then, unparalleled theme park and accommodation construction have continued to fill the central Florida landscape making the Orlando area a destination for visitors from around the world.

Old and New Agricultural Florida

A Snapshot of the Old Red Farm Road and New Asphalt Road

In 1971, Walt Disney World® employed 5,500 workers more commonly known as “cast members” and now boasts it provides jobs for more than 59,000 employees with a $1.8 billion payroll in a 2009 report prepared by Arduin, Laffer & Moore, a conservative-leaning consulting firm. The same report asserts that 2.5% of Florida’s gross state product is because of the Disney theme park businesses. These numbers reveal why there has been a 415% population increase in Orange and Lake Counties, in what had been traditionally a farming region. Regardless of the population influx, devastating Arctic blasts in 1983, 1985, and 1989 were the ultimate death knell of the historic citrus economy. With the freezes, the ever expanding entertainment industry, land being converted to its economic “highest and best” commercial use, and farmers needing to make a living, land was converted to housing, strip malls, and suburbia, leaving places such as Groveland, Minneola, and Tangelo Park as historic names of a bygone era.

Once a Farmer, Always a Farmer

Despite a youthful rebuff of a farming career, Benny’s youngest son, Matt McLean (of Uncle Matt’s fame) equipped with a finance degree has evolved into the “pioneer, agriculturist activist and entrepreneur” in the organic food industry. Uncle Matt’s only grows organically, with no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or chemicals contaminating their products, because it is better for the environment, water quality, and personal health. As Matt says, “before the 20th century all food was organic,” as synthetic fertilizers were initially made in the munitions factories needing to be re-purposed following World War II.

More importantly, with the demise of the Florida orange industry north of the cross Florida I-4 interstate, and only 10,000 acres of Lake County citrus groves now remaining, Matt saw opportunity. In the late 1990’s, no organic orange juice was available. Concurrently, the German market was looking for new citrus sources, since the Teutonic climate is too cold, and the Germans yearned for organics, too. Finally, in 2000, the National Organic Program established the rules around organic production, which created an opening for a fledgling organic orange business to grow.

Organic Farms Matter

Uncle Matt’s Organics is a family-run business, which owns and leases groves, purchases fruit from neighboring farms and supplies all natural, not-from-concentrate, organic juices to markets across the country. The organic orange juice market is only served by Uncle Matt’s and a private label brand. The organic citrus business is small compared to the conventionally grown products, but a critically important part of the food market, since there is ever-increasing growth in the organic food industry. Despite still being small, the organic agricultural market continues to grow at a faster rate than the conventionally grown food and in 2008 was a $21 billion industry and one to two percent of US market according to the Organic Trade Association.

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

Uncle Matt’s is passionate about organics and will not farm as most conventional growers do with petroleum based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Benny’s passion for organics is so strong, that he said some of the local food storage facilities (packing houses) will not store their organic products, because they can’t guarantee their safety. As one packing house owner said, “Rats don’t lie. They can smell the nutrients (in the organic produce).”

From the top of the Citrus Tower, I could not see an orange grove, but could only imagine the undulating rows of fruit trees. Farmland in Florida is so threatened with conversion to development that just prior to the economic meltdown between 2002 to 2007, Florida lost 25% of its citrus acreage, according to the USDA Agricultural Census. From my travels in Lake County it appears that housing starts were up again, as there were multiple tentacles of new roads and subdivisions. Despite the pressures from real estate development, Uncle Matt’s will be the nexus for organic citrus production for the foreseeable future because of the family’s dedication and passion. Uncle Matt’s is here to stay supplying the freshest, most nutritionally complete citrus products for the discerning palate.

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 also on the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Board. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.


Sustainable Development: Incorporating Agriculture

What is a sustainable community? Currently, in real estate development lexicon, it is a transit-oriented project with sidewalks, bike paths, served by public transit with green/energy efficient buildings, and perhaps limited parking. But, there is a new aspect of sustainable development which integrates: Growing FOOD!  Without food (and water), humans cannot survive, which is why including food production in a real estate project makes sense.  Over the past 80 years, Americans have disassociated more and more with food seasonality and where our sustenance comes from and purchased food based solely on price rather than nutritional value, or on how or where it is grown.

Grapes Growing in my Yard

Grapes Growing in my Yard

Growing up in Connecticut, I clearly remember the previous season’s Macintosh apples in my sack lunch and did not like its mealy April texture. With New Zealand fall-harvested apples during the northern hemisphere’s spring, the fresh crop crunch could be savored any time of the year. Grapes harvested in my yard in September are a distant memory, but right now I can have Chilean bursts of summer sweetness. Because of trends like these our food travels an average 1,500 miles from field to fork.

Since the inception of plowed agriculture, food was locally grown and families ate with the seasons, which meant eating the luscious tomatoes, corn-on-the-cob, peaches and other warm weather produce during the summer and preserving the extras into jams, jellies and relishes for the winter season. It also meant that fall-harvested crops, such as carrots, potatoes, beets, and parsnips were over-wintered in cold storage or in the ground in the Pacific Northwest to be pulled as needed. Granted winter meals were garnished with spices and treats from distant lands, but most cold weather fare included meats, grains, and root vegetables that could be stored, slaughtered or caught when summer abundance had passed.

Prairie Crossing:  An Early Agricultural Community Adapter

Now forward thinking people want to take control of their food sources and know where their sustenance comes from. According to the Urban Land Institute, more than 200 developments across the nation have an agricultural twist. I visited one of the earliest examples, Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, located about an hours drive north of Chicago in the middle of suburbia.

Prairie Crossing Homes and Plowed Farmland

Prairie Crossing Homes and Plowed Farmland

Prairie Crossing is a conservation community, a model of sustainable development, which integrates preservation of natural habitat, connecting the community with trails, beach, and play areas, while incorporating an organic for-profit farm and a non-profit education farm. The Prairie Crossing property was purchased in 1987 by a group of neighbors that wanted to preserve the open space and agricultural land. Beginning in the 1990’s a community was designed and developed with 359 single family homes, 36 condominium units, a small retail center, a charter school, and a neighborhood gathering center, all adjacent to two separate railway lines into Chicago and Milwaukee. The project incorporated innovative landscaping and stormwater management systems, trails, pocket parks, and homesites on 677 acres that had been slated for a traditional 2,400 home subdivision. Entering the community on a brisk, cold, November day, I could feel the tenor of endless taillights in the neighboring sprawl development slip away.

Prairie Crossing Fruit Forest

Prairie Crossing Fruit Forest

I went to Prairie Crossing to learn about the 100-acre organic farm operation owned by Sandhill Family Farms, but came away with so much more. Mike Sands, Senior Associate of Liberty Prairie Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Prairie Crossing development graciously spent the morning with me explaining the history of how this conservation community came to be. Homes designed in keeping with the midwestern architectural tradition grace the property with swaths of open prairie separating neighborhoods, which are connected by ten miles of trails. Mike’s excitement for this real estate project is an inspiration for me to build a place that connects the community with its sustenance and creates a sense of belonging in the Pacific Northwest.

Local Seattle Communities with Agriculture

Artichoke at Burke-Gilman Gardens P-Patch Community Garden

Artichoke at Burke-Gilman Gardens P-Patch Community Garden

Washington is a place where values of place, connection, and belonging can be found and nurtured. Specifically, Seattle has a robust P-Patch program, more commonly known as a community garden program, where 1,900 gardeners grow food on small plots on more than 60 locations across the city. In my neighborhood, Burke-Gilman Gardens, a small apartment complex owned by Capital Hill Housing, is home to twenty-six 100 square foot P-Patch plots. Of the multitude of P-Patches across the city some have cooperatively managed composting operations and tool sharing, but all are filled with luscious produce.

These are just a few examples of real estate projects that include food production that could be used in the Pacific Northwest to create an agricultural conservation community.  My wish for 2014 is that stronger, tangible connections are made with where our food comes from, how it nourishes us, and the community that it creates.

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 also on the WA Sustainable Food & Farming Network Board.  Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.


Oysters: The Indicator Species

Oysters on the half shell, the willingness to savor this gastronomic treat that I inherited from my parents.  The slippery, mildly briny, sometimes sweet oyster, swallowed with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of pungent, fresh horseradish is something I relish at the local shellfish bar.  I have never eaten raw oysters with my parents, but knew they enjoyed the delicacy, until being succumbed by Hepatitis A in June 1974 with tainted east coast bivalves.  That summer was BORING being isolated on our family’s one-acre wooded, suburban lot, as my parents recovered from being exhausted by their jaundiced liver disease.

Since 1992, a Hepatitis A vaccination has been available to ward off the infection, as the disease can be contracted worldwide from water polluted by untreated sewage which is used for washing fresh produce, drinking water, or discharged to shellfish beds.  What if, rather than protecting ourselves by vaccination, our worldwide priority was to keep our estuaries, rivers, creeks, and drinking water sources clean and uncontaminated?

Local Northwest Shellfish

Shellfish rafts and one of the 64-foot custom mussel harvesting vessels

Penn Cove Shellfish rafts and one of the 64-foot custom mussel harvesting vessels

Penn Cove, a quiet, mostly rural inlet in Puget Sound with the 1,850 resident Coupeville metropolis on its southern shores, is on the east side of Whidbey Island and is home to Penn Cove Shellfish, LLC, the largest mussel producer in the United States and a significant distributor of Manila Clams, Kumamoto oysters and 30 varieties of Pacific oysters.  The Jeffords family established the company 28 years ago, creating a truly sustainable, premium shellfish operation.  Orders received at command central by 11 a.m. Pacific time, are shipped world-wide and received at their final destination within 24 hours of being plucked from the sea.

The route of the Skagit and Stilliguamish Rivers that feed Skagit Bay and Penn Cove

The Skagit and Stilliguamish Rivers routes that feed Skagit Bay and Penn Cove

On a brisk, but sunny March day, I savored a Kusshi–a tray raised Pacific oyster with a delicate, sweet flavor, a Baynes Sound–a tray-raised and beach hardened larger Pacific oyster with a bit too much brine for my taste, and a Kumamoto–its own species served with the Philadelphia flip allowing the oyster to be drenched in its natural juices, raised on longlines in the cool Pacific waters with just the right amount of oyster flavor and a mild fruity finish.  Just as there is a terroir, or differentiation in flavor, color, size or other characteristic of a land-based crop because of its growing conditions, the vast majority of Crassostrea gigas, more commonly known as Pacific oysters, develop their size and flavor based on their home marine environment.   An oyster’s aquatic dining table is dependent not only on the health of its immediate surroundings, but also on upland conditions.  Penn Cove Shellfish staff monitor the water quality regularly ensuring that only the freshest water from Puget Sound and the Skagit and Stilliguamish Rivers are feeding these critters.  Clean storm water runoff, uncontaminated discharges from sewage treatment plants, and controlled and metered application of agricultural fertilizers are critical to conveying fresh water suitable for raising bivalves in Penn Cove.

I swallowed my shellfish with unimpeded joy knowing they are one of the lowest animals on the food chain, rated as “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Green List, and the freshest I could get.

Oyster Capital of the World

Today, a quick internet search of the “oyster capital of the world” flags Long Beach, South Bend, and Willapa Bay, Washington, all northwest breeding grounds for bivalve farming as receiving this moniker.  Mussel, clam, and oyster cultivation is prevalent all along the west coast with the largest concentration of businesses in Washington, putting it on track to become the nation’s largest shellfish supplier as the number one and two locations in the United States, Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico, harvests sizes are decreasing.

Just 130 years ago, it is astounding to think that “New York (City) was the undisputed capital of history’s greatest oyster boom,” according to Mark Kurlansky in The Big Oyster, History on the Half-Shell.   Beginning with the Dutch settlement in 1613 in what is now known as the Big Apple, New Yorkers feasted on locally-harvested oysters and shipped them to international markets from Arthur Kill, Staten Island, and Jamaica Bay, Long Island, now home to the John F. Kennedy International Airport.  By 1930, all of the commercial oyster beds in the New York metropolitan area were shuttered from dirty, silty, storm water runoff,  thousands of  pounds of heavy metal industrial wastes entering the marine environment via sewage system discharge points daily, and sewage sludge being dumped only 12 miles out to sea, which was not far enough away to prevent impact to the shellfish beds.  Oysters cannot and did not survive this harsh, industrialized environment.

Today, few people remember tasting a New York Harbor raised oyster.  The demise of the New York world-class oyster business should serve as a reminder to remain vigilant about protecting our Puget Sound water resources and concurrently our marine habitat and shellfish industries, as oysters truly are an indicator species.   Thankfully here in Washington, we are years away from needing a Hepatitis A vaccination to protect ourselves from locally infected shellfish or drinking water and only need it when we travel outside the country to places where water quality standards are lax.  My mother, after a 39-year hiatus, is even considering slipping a Washington grown oyster with a dab of cocktail sauce down her throat on her next west coast visit.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., local food advocate, a 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’s blog will muse on ways to create a more sustainable world.