Down on the (campus!) farm

On-campus at the University of Washington, on a meandering quarter-acre around the Botany Greenhouse, UW students have labored for over seven years to build out a working farm, complete with “beds in buckets,” cold-frames, irrigation system, two bee hives, and four plump chickens with their own custom chicken-tractor. And last but not least, a functioning clay-and-straw pizza oven! (More on that later.)

UW Farm signLast week, Beth Wheat, newly minted UW PhD in Biology (now a postdoc in the Program on the Environment) and the Educational Coordinator for UW Farm, capped off the Seattle Arts & Lectures series “Following Wendell: the culture and politics of sustenance” by giving us a talk and a tour of the operation.

Beth set the stage by pointing out that less than 2% of our population now farms, and the average age of the American farmer is 57. Even here in Washington (an agricultural state, actually, if you leave out Seattle and Boeing), students were showing up in ecology classes with no idea what a growing vegetable looked like–they couldn’t match a carrot with a carrot top. Hence the motivating idea for UW Farm: actively educate citizens for a more sustainable future by teaching students how to grow food.

cold framesSo they started digging away, preparing all the beds and buckets by hand, adding structures like the cold frames shown here, trying out new ideas about growing food. They now layer crimson clover under chard, to fix nitrogen. They consider the salad-making possibilities of their “weeds.”

planting beds in medianThey also really ran with the concept of the parking-strip garden! Here, between a sidewalk and a bike path, they have a series of beds, borders, buckets, and teepees growing everything from herbs to beans.

student Michelle giving us the tour

Helping out with our tour were student farmers Michelle Venetucci Harvey and Julia Reed (Michelle shown here). Both are also active volunteers with the farm–two of the 150 students typically involved at a given time! The farm has a Compost Crew,  it has a Chicken Crew, it has the Dirty Dozen (now 40 students) who meet on Monday mornings at 7:30 (when I was in college, I didn’t know there was a Monday morning at 7:30) to plan the entire operation of the farm for the week. And, for recruiting, rewarding themselves, and educating the public, they have Pizza Bakes once a month!

pizza ovenNo way were we going to miss out on fresh-baked pizza. So everybody got a ball of dough and  rolled out an individual pie, which we dressed up with herbs and veggies from the farm. individual pizza on pizza shovel Here’s mine, fresh out of the oven!

Did I mention the salad ? As you can see, there was plenty!salad greens in a wheelbarrow

And the Prosecco went very well with both!

After years of operating slightly off the administration’s radar, UW Farm is now writing a business plan and working to become as sustainable organizationally as it is agriculturally. They’ve scored an additional (and larger) farm site at the off-campus UW Center for Urban Horticulture, and our remodeled student union building (now about half-finished) will incorporate a demonstration garden of several four-foot-by-ten-foot raised beds. Next up, they need funding to hire some actual paid staff; it’s hard to keep going when your  workforce turns over practically every quarter!

Read more about this fantastic operation here (oh, and don’t overlook the donation button!):  http://students.washington.edu/uwfarm/

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“Local” isn’t enough

“Mind the ‘local’ trap,” Branden Born warned. But wait, I thought “local” was good!?! Last Thursday, in the debut talk in a Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, Born challenged us to get clear about what we really want from our food system.

He points out that the food industry has been nimble in capturing the words we use to describe what we want our food to be: “natural,” “organic” . . . and, yes, “local.” In the face of this country’s huge losses of agricultural land, rapid urbanization, and corporatization of the food system, we no longer know what our food looks like, where it comes from, or how it actually gets from plot to plate. We don’t know who grows it or who processes it for our consumption. But we have a sneaking feeling that we have put ourselves in the hands of people who just may have interests other than feeding us well! He quotes Wendell Berry, the animating spirit of the lecture series:  as urban dwellers, we now share the fears of “people who understand what it means to be landless.”

When we say we want to eat locally, in Born’s view, we point to a whole range of more fundamental ideas that we value (and he encourages us to discuss values, not scale). Food safety. Food equity. Access to healthy food. Democratization of the food system. Connection to the earth. Given our current urban environment and food supply-chain system, these values are in fact in trouble. But Born points out a range of alternative choices that we can begin to make to create a “new urbanity”around food.

For instance, if we value community engagement over food production efficiency, we might join an urban ag activity like Seattle’s p-patch system.  Go here to see a group working  in the High Point Garden (http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch/)–one of 75 community gardens in the city. These gardens don’t just provide food and a sense of community for the people who work them; last year, p-patch gardeners donated almost 21,000 lbs. of fresh produce to local food banks and feeding programs. (Full disclosure: I put myself on the waiting list for my neighborhood p-patch last year; I hope to get a plot before I’m too old to work it. I mean, I’d better hurry!)

Or, we might go with urban development that scales up our sense of what urban gardening can be; vertical gardens can cover the side of your house (see http://www.cleanspirited.com/blog/?p=336) or a chunk of a huge multi-story building like Weber Thompson’s Eco-Laboratory (see http://inhabitat.com/files/ecolab-lead01.jpg), designed around a community garden and featuring numerous other “green design” elements–energy systems, ventilation, etc.

Or, we might focus on urban community-development activities. Born described a number of fascinating programs. To offer just one example, the Clean Greens program runs a community garden east of Seattle in Carnation (read: likely to get some actual sun) to grow and deliver “clean, healthy, and fair produce for everyone at affordable prices” (http://www.cleangreensfarm.com/), especially families in need in Seattle’s Central District. They also have a thriving educational program focused on healthy eating habits and food justice.

Eye-opening talk! You can find much more on these topics on Born’s website, http://faculty.washington.edu/bborn/.

Branden Born is a professor in UW’s Dept. of Urban Design and Planning. His talk, “Bringing the Urban Back into the Food System–Questions of Culture & Technology,” was the first in a five-talk series from Seattle Arts & Lectures, “Following Wendell: The Culture & Politics of Sustenance,” http://www.lectures.org/season/sal_u.php?id=298. I’m signed up for the series, so stay tuned for future installments!

Food bank gourmet

Last Sunday, FamilyWorks, my neighborhood’s food bank, threw a semi-“iron chef” event! Two top local chefs each prepared a three-course meal using ingredients typically found on the food bank’s shelves. Emceed by local celebrity chef Kathy Casey, the event featured Rachel Yang of Joule Restaurant and Amy McCray of Eva Restaurant, who both cooked us up a treat of a meal.

(Why semi-”iron chef?” Neither of these pro’s showed the least trace of a killer instinct!–More like “tofu chef.” But their food was great!)

Using just a small table for a workspace and two gas-canister-fueled hotplates, Rachel and Amy each came up with a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. And as each course got done, volunteers divvied it up for the dozens of us to sample. We also had a wine-tasting going on in the corner and a spread of hors d’oeuvres laid out on a side table so we wouldn’t get too restive. Sozo Wine was a sponsor of the event. Interesting organization! Check them out: http://www.sozoplanet.com)

Rachel opened with an Asian-accented pancake (a specialty of her newest restaurant, Revel) made with canned peas and fresh spinach.

Next, she went with a stew made with chicken thighs, mushrooms, veg, and–I suspect, not an ingredient she’s used to working with!–Top Ramen. Delicious.

What could be better for dessert than rice pudding? She made hers with sauted apple slices, “left-over” rice (“who doesn’t have left-over rice?”), and canned coconut milk. (The exact brand I have on my own pantry shelf. Yes, I saw it on the shelf in the food bank too. This is Seattle.)

Amy went in a different direction for the starter–a fresh salad with shredded sweet peppers and a citrus vinaigrette. (Like most neighborhood food banks, FamilyWorks gets fresh produce from Northwest Harvest and other large distributors. Stay tuned for a posting on how food distribution works in urban America.)

Next, she went with a chicken curry with carrots. Here, she worked in a “mystery ingredient”–a packet of nasi goreng flavoring. (Yes, from the food bank shelves. Again, this is Seattle.) The curry also incorporated coconut milk and canned peas. This stew may have shared some ingredients with Rachel’s, but tasted totally different! Also delicious.

(The volunteer who gave us our tour of the food bank showed us the substantial range of food products they offer to their clients. Many, many plastic bins of canned goods, peanut butter, fruit, produce, breads and other starches marched along a long table, each labeled with how many of each item could be taken by a family on each visit.)

For dessert, Amy also made rice pudding!–but again, a very different dish from Rachel’s. Amy started her rice in coconut milk, then zested several oranges (remember that citrus vinaigrette?–nothing going to waste here) and threw it all in. A lot of it! And we were glad she did–lovely fresh taste.

Great food!–And a fun event. Hats off to FamilyWorks for a creative fundraiser that was also an eye-opening introduction to the work they are doing to make good food accessible to every family. Do you have a similar effort in your neighborhood? Give us a snapshot of what it does.