Laura McLeod
Noelani Alexander (pictured) is kneepad-deep in producing vegetables on borrowed land, quickly cultivating a new definition of “farm.” She and partner Scott Behmer started City Grown Seattle in 2010, raising vegetables they sell by subscription and from in-city farm stands. They grow on several properties in Ballard and Wallingford.

Green My Ballard: Urban Farms - Know your neighborhood farmer

Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as saying, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered...”

Mine is a garden of mystery, then, as I apparently have many plants with undiscovered virtues. And now, when I actually have time for the garden, they have my full attention. Instead of planting vegetables, I’m playing the catch up and maintain game, making sure the herbs, berries and flowers have the room – and air and sunlight – they need to flourish.

That’s where City Grown Seattle urban farm comes in. In previous years, in addition to growing my own, I’ve signed up for CSA* boxes, or frequented the farmers market. But this year, my vegetable dollars will help support my neighborhood farmer when I purchase my fresh seasonal veggies from farm stands near or around my ‘hood.

What’s an urban farm?

Urban farms first hit my conscious brain when I watched “Beyond Organic: The Vision of Fairview Gardens,” a film about a central California farm. A working family farm for more than a century, it was almost lost to development in the early 1990s but thanks to the ingenuity of farm manager Michael Ableman, the farm will now grow fruit and vegetables in perpetuity. At the time, the farm sat in the middle of a growing urban center, a distant L.A. suburb where development was rapidly expanding – by then an unusual location for a farm.

But these days, urban farms are everywhere. And in no small part, thanks to Ableman. His creative vision led to the establishment of a nonprofit and subsequently the first-of-its-kind land trust. The farm was purchased and Ableman transformed it into what’s become a model for urban agriculture. Fruit and vegetables are still grown here, but it also helps reconnect neighbors to a landscape more defined by fast-moving cars.

A few years ago, Ableman spoke at an event I attended, and shared photos of urban farms from around the world. My takeaway: urban farms just may be our saving grace. As agricultural land continues to be gobbled up by development, as big agriculture moves more toward monoculture and chemicals, and with shipping’s ever increasing costs, the safe, healthy and affordable alternative will be locally produced. I recall Ableman saying he’d like to see urban farms anywhere there’s unused land -– whether a vacant city lot, your neighbor’s unused yard, or a city parking strip.

Urban farms attract a different kind of farmer, too – younger, agile, and not necessarily using land they own – a stark contrast to today’s norm in traditional farming.

Noelani Alexander is just one example. She’s kneepad-deep in producing vegetables on borrowed land, quickly cultivating a new definition of “farm.” She and partner Scott Behmer started City Grown Seattle in 2010, raising vegetables they sell by subscription and from in-city farm stands. They grow on several properties in Ballard and Wallingford.

In exchange for the use of land, the partners supply the landowner with produce during the growing season. Noelani lives in Wallingford and in addition to growing many of the vegetables she eats, she also raises chickens and rabbits (for information on small animals in the city, see the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability site at http://www.seattle.gov/environment/food_grow.htm. She and I hold a similar philosophy, but she’s actually living it while for now, I just admire it: It’s better to know the meat you eat.

Both Noelani and the dictionary describe farming – as opposed to gardening – as a commercial venture, something one does as their livelihood. But aside from growing things, that’s where the old school version and the new vision end. She had planned to someday leave the city and start a farm. But about four years ago, it occurred to her she could start farming right where she was.

“Urban farming is important for so many reasons, like neighborhood resilience, small carbon trail, etc.,” said Noelani. “But what drives me is being able to grow for my neighborhood. My neighborhood knows their farmer and their food source. Our food production is getting further and further from our tables and I’d like to reverse that trend.”

Organic food and farmers markets are still the fastest growing food trends, but the collective “we” still insist on fresh tomatoes in mid-winter, strawberries in February, and oranges year round. I get it. Coffee, tea and coconuts are standard in my diet, and last I heard, they aren’t very local. But it’s nice to have a nearby source for so many options.

“My customers know my practices, and they know they can trust me,” continued Noelani. “Knowing your farmer and seeing your food being produced is powerful. It helps bring awareness about sustainability, the real cost of food, and an understanding that labor goes into food production. It brings practical knowledge that is largely lost to urban populations about how to grow food.” This could be important in the not-too-distant future.

City Grown Seattle hopes to double their land next year to half an acre. Ideally, they’d like to be a model for other city-based farms.

Currently, urban farmers don’t earn huge sums, but that can likely be said of most farmers. An article early this year in the Vancouver Sun reported that urban farmers aren’t quite making a living, despite using borrowed or inexpensively leased land. Hopefully that will change as people see the value of purchasing their produce as close to home as possible.

You could create your own urban farm. While they describe urban farming differently and include any sized garden, Seattle Urban Farm Company, which launched in Ballard several years ago, can get you started. Or find “community supported plant starts” at Cascadian Edible Landscapes.

But better yet, or in addition to, stop by a City Grown farm stand or find one like them and support your local farmer, the new stewards of our urban landscape.

*Community Supported Agriculture

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Feb. 26, 1937

Stay tuned: Next time, find out about Sustainable Ballard’s upcoming Edible Garden Tour.

For Laura McLeod's past colums, click here.

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