Becky Warner makes a sale in Wallingford for the company City Grown Seattle, a multi-plot urban farm growing vegetables for market. Credit: 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.”
And it turns out that for many in Seattle, urban farming was that solution. For Portage Bay Grange, this rising interest has meant that the business has gone from the back of a truck, to a garage, to finally landing smack dab in the middle of the city about two years ago.
Genung explained that most people start with chickens, because they’re simple to take care of. “You can set up a chicken coop in an 11-foot-by-6.5-foot area that will provide your family with a dozen to a dozen and a half eggs per week — easily,” he said.
Genung said that once people take a small step into urban farming, they often see all of the other opportunities for agriculture, and simply expand their farm from there.
Annette Cottrell, who took care of her family’s vegetable needs all year round through her 1/8-acre urban farm in Seattle, said it saved her a lot of money on food. But the main reason she kept expanding the crops she produced was because of the health benefits.
“I started my urban farm in response to realizing just how bad industrialized food had become,” said Cottrell. “I have two young kids and it's my job as a parent to make them as healthy as possible. That's just not possible feeding them store-bought food so I decided to take food production as far as I could on my tiny city lot.”
After about two years of perfecting her farm, she had 22 fruit and nut trees, plus all different types of berries and vegetables, chickens, ducks, rabbits and mason bees. Last year she moved her family to a house in Carnation, which is on five acres, so that she could expand her farm even further.
Noelani Alexander, who graduated from the University of Washington in 2005, and her two business partners, have found a way to expand their urban farm in the confines of the city; they simply grow crops primarily in other people’s yards. The three operate "City Grown Seattle," a multi-plot urban farm that grows vegetables for market.
Like Cottrell, they have everything from strawberries and lettuce to chickens and rabbits. But instead of focusing on eating it themselves, they focus on selling the vegetables twice a week, once at the Wallingford Farmer’s Market and once in front of their house on Eastern Ave in Wallingford.
Alexander said that although her work in urban farming has helped her save money on food, given that a quarter of the food she eats comes from her own backyard, she and her business partners are just starting to see a pay-off from their business.
“From 'City Grown,' we have just seen the first month's money come to us to replenish all the money that has gone out,” she said. “All of the animals have needed housing and feed before they produced any actual food for us.”
There is another group of young people in Seattle who has a reason for taking part in urban farming. This group is made up of University of Washington students who are members of the college's "farm" and want some semblance of food independence after growing up during the recession.
Mollie Tarte, who graduated from UW in June and was the farm’s outreach coordinator, said the main reason that students like to get involved in the farm is because they feel like they can actually make a change in society.
“Their interest is kind of piqued because they learn about how screwed up our conventional food system is,” said Tarte. “It’s one of the few issues that you personally can actually improve the way things are. You can grow your own food, that is something you can do.”
The farm was started in 2004 by a group of University of Washington students in a biology class. The students claimed a tiny section of land, covered by gravel that was owned by the school, and started to plant fruits and vegetables.
“They didn’t really have any sort of authorization from the university to start this, so it was like guerilla gardening,” said Tarte.
Today, they have expanded to two sites, about an acre and a half in all. And the school doesn’t just give them authorization to be there; it has just bought its first round of crops from them for its dining halls.
“I think this is one small step in moving towards a food-secure and food-sovereign society,” Tarte said.
As the UW Farm continues to grow, Finley’s own plan for the future has expanded away from being an urban farmer. In the fall she will start at Ohio State University, where she will study animal science, so that she can become a large animal vet.
“I realized that to be a farmer, you either have to be a small organic farmer who takes food to the one percent that can afford it,” Finley said. “Or you’re a factory farmer who really produces the food that most Americans eat, but in that case you’re perhaps managing a factory or doing remedial labor.”
But if small urban farms continue to grow and evolve, this movement could change the role of farmers in the United States and perhaps open the career path back up for Finley.