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Urban farming gains foothold in Seattle

From different corners in the city, the urban agriculture movement grows and grows.
Becky Warner makes a sale in Wallingford for the company City Grown Seattle,  a multi-plot urban farm growing vegetables for market. 

Becky Warner makes a sale in Wallingford for the company City Grown Seattle,  a multi-plot urban farm growing vegetables for market.  Hallie Golden

When Wallingford resident Nina Finley was 9 years old she decided she wanted to be a farmer. She drew up a detailed blueprint of all the animals and plants she would have and announced that her family should move to the country. But when her mom, a pediatrician, and dad, a Boeing engineer, were not so inclined, she did the next best thing — she transformed her backyard into its own farm.

“Coleslaw was my entrance to the whole thing,” said Finley, referring to her first rabbit, a Netherland Dwarf rabbit. “He came with the Easter bunny in the Easter basket 10 years ago.”

Still passionate about farming, Finley has just finished her senior year at the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. But it’s no longer the same casual hobby it was when she was nine. She has a daily routine that starts at 6:30 a.m. to take care of her rabbits, chickens, and ducks. And when they stop producing eggs or simply get big enough, the 18-year-old slaughters them for her family to eat.

The widespread popularity of urban farming in the United States has come partly from the generation of people who grew up during the recession. It gives them a way to understand and control where their food comes from, so that they can create a sustainable way of life for themselves — a way of life ultimately out of reach of a fickle economy.

Their interest has also played into wider concerns about the U.S. food system, health, and the environment. In Seattle, the trends have converged to support a growing number of farmers markets, the inclusion of city-grown food at the markets, and changes in city policy. 

Finley has seen the growing popularity of urban farms first-hand from the members of her 4H club, called Cooped Up in Seattle. She’s had the club for about a year and already has 30 members and 120 people on the mailing list.

“I knew there was this huge wealth of kids interested in it, in the city, who had no way to learn about their animals through 4H,” Finley said.

She has held lessons during the club's monthly meetings in sewing, taking care of farm animals, cooking, canning and gardening. But it’s not always cute and fuzzy. At one of her first 4-H meetings, she asked the members what they wanted to learn about. The consensus was chicken butchering.

She explains the process succinctly, just like when she taught her club members: “Put the bird in a killing cone, cut off the head or slit the arteries, bleed it out, scald it in boiling water to loosen the feathers, pluck it, eviscerate it, wash, refrigerate.”

And by the end of the class, Finley said there were children ages 7 to 17 taking part.

The city of Seattle has made many changes in response to the growing trend of urban farming. In 2007 the City Council made it legal to have miniature goats (under 100 pounds). Mayor Mike McGinn declared 2010 "The Year of Urban Agriculture," which meant he worked to increase farming in the city so as to boost access to locally produced food. In this same year, the City Council raised the number of chickens permitted on a city lot (up to eight) and made it legal for people to sell food grown on their own property.

Brian Genung, an adept farmer and employee at Portage Bay Grange, a store in the University District that sells farm animals, equipment, and feed, thinks that this interest comes from a movement for food independence, which came out of the recession.

“With the collapse of 2008, and the recession, that pointed a lot of people to thinking about how could they provide for their family, with less money and have more security,” said Genung. “Seattle’s a city that has a lot of opportunity for creativity. So if you have a creative solution to a problem, in Seattle they’ll say go for it.”


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