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!):

The real staff of life

In the third of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, UW geologist and Macarthur Fellow David Montgomery walked us through a few millenia of catastrophes caused by people abusing dirt. And in fact, he says, if we don’t knock it off, we stand to run out of fertile topsoil in only one or two more centuries.

First, the science. Basically, Mother Nature sees her job as moving all these mountains right here down there into the ocean, so that she can make room for her new mountains. Here’s how it happens. Rock thrusts up from the mantle of the globe, and heat, cold, water, plant roots, chemical processes and other forces break it up and grind it down. Plants and animals die on it, and worms fold their remains into the mix. Then rain and wind carry it downhill. This is nature’s long slow tumble of creation and destruction. David says that it can take about 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil; the covering of topsoil around the globe is only about one to three feet thick. Comparing the earth to the human body, soil is a “much thinner and more fragile layer than human skin.”

At the same time, the “fundamental condition for sustaining a civilization is sustaining soil and fertility.” Over and over again, civilizations from Neolithic Europe to the Easter Islands to the American Dustbowl have radically suffered or even disappeared as they have exhausted their soil. Remember that it can take 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil? Right now, the rate of erosion is one inch every 60 years.

David calls soil degradation an “under-appreciated crisis, a secret silent environmental disaster.” This was not news to the people living through it; Plato, for instance, comments that “the rich soft soil has all run away, leaving the land nothing but skin and bone.” And (skipping ahead a few years) our own George Washington observed that the situation could be turned around if farmers “were taught how to improve the old, instead of going in pursuit of new and productive soils.”

George had it right–the real cause is not THAT we farm, but HOW we farm. David traces the growing crisis all the way back to the invention of the plow; the plow, he says, fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and erosion, dramatically increasing erosion by breaking up the ground cover that knits the soil in place. (We won’t even discuss the modern “512 disk ripper” plow for ridding your fields of “soil compaction.”)  In short, we practice self-destructive agriculture. As FDR had it, “a nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.”

But if we change our agricultural practices, we can turn the situation around. And we actually already know how to do this! (–And have for centuries.) For instance, we could cut subsidies for erosive agricultural practices, and we could support no-till ag, terracing, and other soil-preserving strategies. To rebuild soil, you need to apply just two things, David says:  organic matter and labor. Small labor-intensive organic farms are in fact the most productive in the world. But to get there from here, we need to alter our whole socio-economic model of food production: we need to stop treating soil as a commodity and start treating it as the fragile ecosystem that it is.

Great talk!–I can’t do justice to it in just these few paragraphs. Get the book! (David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007)

Getting to know your Mother

After farming for more than 20 years, Kurt Timmermeister is still working on his vision of a farm–working to get rid of it, that is, and replace it with the reality in front of him.

Mother Nature doesn’t love us! She doesn’t glow with pride when we try to do the right thing, she doesn’t catch our arm before we tumble off the ledge, and she certainly doesn’t write us a little check for a do-over when we screw up. Oh well.

Last Thursday, in the second of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ series of talks on the culture and politics of sustenance, former restauranteur and current cheesemaker Kurt Timmermeister took us on a tour of his twenty-year wrestling match with Mother Nature.

Twenty years ago, seeking a calmer life closer to the soil, Kurt found a house he could afford on Vashon island–four acres of brambles with a converted chicken coop for shelter. Later, he added an adjacent 13-acre parcel with the additional amenities of decades of buried industrial detritus and garbage from the old Beall Greenhouses operation.

But that’s not what Kurt saw; instead, he had a vision of a farm. You might recognize it (you might even share it!): a few sheep, some chickens scratching in the yard, maybe a couple of ducks, a bunny or two, some goats, cows of course, an orderly and verdant vegetable garden, and ranks of gnarled fruit trees in an orchard. Now, twenty years later, 90% of it is gone, and he is down to one or two things that he can actually do. He has Jersey cows and he makes a cheese (Dinah’s, a soft bloomy rind cheese). In a year and a half or so, he will offer a second cheese.

So what happened? Well, let’s start with that orchard. He wanted apple trees, to make hard cider. He ordered about 200–”very fussy trees; the more obscure the better I liked them.” The plan was to plant them, wait five years, and be all set to go. But one morning he went out to discover that the first tree had no leaves. The next one?–no leaves. The deer had come through and in one night destroyed his trees. He re-planted. They did it again. They stepped casually around his really scary scarecrow and kept munching. “My idea was, I was good. I took the land and made it better. The deer should respect that! Why are these deer against me?”  Well, say hello to the power of nature.

Even living there on the farm, Kurt says, he still doesn’t fully understand where food comes from. We go out to buy food, and we can have anything we want, all year round; it’s really hard to know what’s seasonal and local, or what goes into producing it. We eat meat, and so somebody slaughters animals; we need to know this and accept it–but it’s hard to get next to the reality of it. He points out that he himself has never seen a cattle slaughterhouse; in fact, he’s seen only two commercial dairy operations (not pretty, by the way).

Why does this disconnect matter? “It’s food. It’s vital,” he says. It keeps us alive; we should want the very best. But it is really hard to make food.

What’s worse, small farmers have to compete on pricing with large agri-business operations. Their advantage is that you can go out, shake their hand, and poke around their operation. You can see how they do things and talk to them about ways to do things better. But if you want this kind of personal relationship with your food providers, you have to pay them a price that allows them to pay for their farm and live reasonably–send a kid to college, hire some help. Replace the fridge. Have a nice bottle of wine. Have the kid see a future in coming home after college to run the place. This is the only way that small farming is truly sustainable, Kurt says.

Small farmers also have to navigate through the murky waters of costs and regulation. Let’s take the case of sending a cow to slaughter. (Kurt doesn’t, by the way; wouldn’t be a good experience for him or the cow, he says.) But he looked into it early on. (This was after he came to grips with a big fact about dairy cows: if you want them to continue producing milk for you, you have to outfit them every year with a baby. Roughly half of those babies are going to be future bulls. Not so useful on a dairy farm. Plus, after a while you have some aged old girls.)

Remember that Vashon is an island; that means that the cow will have to take the ferry to the slaughterhouse. But the fare for a truck pulling the trailer she is riding in is huge (plus, how is she feeling about the scrum of cars being loaded on the ferry? what’s her view of Seattle traffic on the other side?) Then, after she’s had the Bad Moment at the slaughterhouse, you still have to pay the cut-and-wrap facility–and pay them a lot. Plus, Kurt adds pragmatically, you don’t get back the bones and blood. (Nothing going to waste around here!)

So Kurt does his own slaughtering on the farm, and shares the products of it with his employees. More hard work!–And it has its hazards. (Picture yourself wrestling with a 500-pound carcass suspended from a hook above your head.)

So, why does he do it? Why has he stuck with it all these years? Because he loves it, and because he relishes the challenge. “Life is short,” he says, and “I want to be scared every day.”

See my “What I’m reading” posting for February 24th for a review of Kurt’s new book, Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land. And visit his website to browse his journal and see photos of his beautiful farm:

“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 (–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 or a chunk of a huge multi-story building like Weber Thompson’s Eco-Laboratory (see, 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” (, 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,

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,” I’m signed up for the series, so stay tuned for future installments!

Lamb riblets from Lefever Holbrook ranch

These lamb riblets!–Plump, juicy, deeply . . . lamby. I did almost nothing to them–seared them, made a mirepoix and braised them over it, and ate them with wild rice. Melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

My riblets were once part of a lamb grazing on the “dry land hills and pastures of Lorena Butte” on the Lefever Holbrook Ranch across the mountains in Goldendale. Paulette Lefever sent me this photo; maybe you can taste that sunset in her meats. I bought the little fellow from her last October (after his one bad day, of course), and she and her 11-year-old son Conor delivered him right to my kitchen. (You’ll hear more about Conor; I gather that the hog operation is his, and I’ll be getting several pork products from him soon.)

They do the slaughtering on the ranch and use Buxton’s Meat Co., in Sandy, Oregon, for the butchering; what actually arrived on my kitchen counter (lugged up my many front steps by Conor himself) was a big cooler full of well-labeled packages for my freezer.

The ranch is a member of the Gorge Grown Food Network, a nonprofit that “connects local people to local foods and local farmers to  local markets.” I heard about Paulette’s wonderful products from a friend in my book club–haphazard! It’s great to know that they have an organization devoted to getting the word out.