Seattle’s urban farmers are reclaiming public space

A movement to use land for productive gardening will help communities support themselves during and after the pandemic.

gardener tending plants in a garden bed

Natalie Garcia tends to the community garden at the MLK FAME Community Center on Oct. 22, 2020. The existing garden was expanded by Black Star Farmers about four months ago, and the group holds “stewardship parties” every week to keep the garden going. “We are really lucky to have this space to come clear our heads and be together and tend to the land,” Garcia says. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

“I can't really tell if I'm doing much,” says Julie, a new volunteer for the urban farming coalition Black Star Farmers. She’s holding a dull machete and a file, learning to sharpen tools before using them to break down more plant parts into compost for a garden flourishing in a sea of concrete outside the MLK FAME Community Center.

“It doesn't feel like you're doing much in the beginning,” says Marcus Henderson, the group’s founder. “I would just start in one spot. Once you feel some resistance, you'll feel like, ‘OK, it’s starting to take off.’ ”

Henderson’s advice neatly encapsulates how he set off an urban gardening revolution in the middle of Cal Anderson Park five months ago. Black Star Farms began when he planted a single basil plant in a field; as that garden grew, Black Lives Matter protests coalesced around the park to eventually become the CHAZ and then the CHOP. He was joining a long history of farmers and organizers who reclaim land for equitable use with the community-building power of plants — a movement that has only gained steam during the pandemic, where food security has entered a crisis stage for many.

Seattle has a rich history of Black, Indigenous and people of color urban farming, and a sizable Black-led farming community. But with gentrification, as well as redlining limitations on land ownership, much of the land people used to support themselves has been lost ⁠— and with it, important truths about who has a place outside.

“The myth that BIPOC don’t like farms and nature is persistent, but completely the opposite of reality,” says Sean Watts, a Seattle-based inclusive conservation consultant. “National polls demonstrate over and over that, in fact, BIPOC care more than white folks about clean air and water, [about] healthy food. This should not be surprising given that they suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation.” 

The city has invested in programs to increase food security and expand garden access. These include a partnership with City Fruit to harvest from hundreds of fruit trees across parkland; youth gardening education programs; and farms on parkland like Rainier Beach Farm and Wetlands (which used to be a city nursery, and is now co-operated by community organizations) and Marra Farm. There's also the 89-garden-strong P-Patch program, which generates 38,000 pounds of fresh produce for food banks annually. The P-Patch program within the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods includes roughly 34 acres of land comprising 3,630 plots used by 3,500 gardeners. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for space far outstripped supply. 

“Interest in the program has spiked since the onset of COVID-19,” says Sam Read of the Department of Neighborhoods, with wait times for individual gardens ranging from 0-6 months to 3-5 years. The longest wait times “are generally for gardens in densely populated neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill and the greater downtown area.” 

But people like Henderson believe more of that land should be used for different kinds of public benefits, including food production. Cal Anderson is part of the 6,414-acre, 485-park system managed by Seattle Parks and Recreation. That comprises 12% of Seattle’s land area. Thirty-one of the city's P-Patches are on parkland, which also feature about 12 fruit tree orchard locations and 11 community garden education sites.

Keith Tucker holds up soil from the land on Cherry Street Farm on Oct. 20, 2020. Tucker started the farm two years ago but recently began a partnership between his organization, Hip Hop Is Green, and Black Star Farmers to expand the farm. Tucker grew up on the same block as the farm and says his grandmother taught him how to garden when he was growing up. “This is my grandmother and grandfather’s soil,” Tucker says. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

A few extant community organizations support BIPOC urban farming; and some new ones, like Black Star Farmers, were born out of the pandemic. Over the past few months, urban farmers experienced and channeled the boom in support for their work by claiming physical space for gardening, demanding agency to public land that hasn’t always felt public for everyone, inspiring new farming talent to expand existing efforts, networking with other organizations that increase demand for urban farming and shining light on the ways different types of space can provide for members of marginalized communities. 

Which efforts last depend on Seattleites rethinking how we use public land and who gets to farm on it. 

Guerrilla gardening to land security 

Those first few weeks of CHOP gardening were “surreal” and “radical,” says Henderson, who works in sustainable real estate development. “It was like someone shot the gun, and we were just running. [Being in CHOP was like] living in a dreamland of what the world could be like if people could just come together with the resources that we all already have, and radically change something that isn’t working for us.” 

Henderson’s work garnered more than 12,000 Instagram followers. “Food is so essential to everything, and [this guerrilla garden] was such an easy solution to a problem,” he says. “And it didn’t feel too radical for people, even though it’s extremely radical.” 

A core group coalesced around people like Natalie Garcia and Orian Grant, and the leaders considered what a sustainable organization might look like, whether that’s a nonprofit or a cooperative limited liability company. “We want to create an ecosystem that can uplift all of us, and give us something to do outside the system and produce income and [that] can scale and can grow,” Henderson says. 

But the initial energy and enthusiasm the CHOP — the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest area — provided eventually became demoralizing, as park sweeps, the use of fireworks and internal and external tensions ramped up.

“It’s literally guerrilla warfare,” Henderson says of the fireworks, which prevented people from sleeping and kept them stressed out. “It was like being in a war zone, and they blamed the war zone on us…. I realized the ways in which the city reacts and how to be prepared for that.” 

“They have told us that we need to do a better job of updating parks in a way that includes and welcomes all in the community, and for some parks [that are more regional in nature], they need to reflect our broader community,” Rachel Schulkin of Seattle Parks and Recreation says, on behalf of colleague Andy Sheffer, of what groups like Black Star Farmers tell us about how different communities feel about their access to, or ownership of, public spaces in the city. 

Henderson knew his guerrilla garden would need to find a dedicated space as CHOP started winding down. The day of the final sweep to clear the area, Henderson rushed to Cal Anderson Park from his house. A supporter working with Seattle City Parks & Recreation let him into the garden and said they wouldn’t harm it, he says. Still, Henderson said it was heartbreaking to watch other people’s tents and possessions get thrown out while his plants and soil beds were gingerly placed on truck beds for transport. 

Marcus Henderson, left, and Amz Sae Zim tend to the community garden at the MLK FAME Community Center on Oct. 22, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Rita Howard, a board member of MLK FAME Community Center, reached out to offer Black Star Farmers an opportunity to restore the center's garden. Black Star Farmers announced its new partnership on Aug. 7, and began preparing beds for fall and winter gardening. About 36 people participate in an active Slack messaging group for Black Star Farmers, and up to 15 people attend garden work parties. 

Now the MLK FAME garden is bursting with life. Climbing plants creep up neatly arranged trellises; birdhouses and artfully organized steppingstone paths dot the space next to the community center’s paved yard. A Black Star Farmers truck with a gold spray-painted fist is parked next to a garden shed. 

Henderson says they aren’t producing a lot of food yet — but they are talking to growers, distributors and food banks about how to lock in together as a system. “It’s like, how can we make something that’s grander, with a better vision and more sustainable?” he says.

The garden space also functions as a mutual aid group. Henderson frequently helps with serving and delivering food to food banks in South Seattle, delivering food harvest from the gardens to Plant Based Food Share Seattle. He helped distribute N95 masks after another group's community drive received more than $20,000 in donations in two days. Slack groups hum with requests and offers. 

A before, left, and after comparison of the community garden at the MLK FAME Community Center. Marcus Henderson, pictured, started Black Star Farmers, which expanded on the existing garden about four months ago with donated crops from CHOP. Henderson says the space was mostly covered in chest-high weeds when they started working on it. “A lot of love went into this,” Henderson says. (Marianna Davidson and Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

But even though Black Star Farmers has found a new home in Madison Valley, Henderson finds himself pulled toward its tumultuous beginnings in Cal Anderson Park.

“That space will always bring me back,” he says. “I don't know if that area will ever really go back to normal like some people want it to.” 

Saying YES to urban farming 

For all the energy and social media attention that Black Star Farms commands, it’s just the latest iteration of BIPOC-centered urban farming in Seattle. At YES Farm in Yesler Terrace, rows of neat garden beds host fading zucchini ready to pass the torch to winter squash. Aeration pellets dot soil like a dusting of too-early snow. All of this is only yards beyond the rumbling of semitrucks and commuters shuttling down Interstate 5. And most of it wasn’t here at the beginning of the year.

YES Farm, a project of the Black Farmers Collective, was born of a request by the city for proposals for an urban farm on an underdeveloped plot abutting the highway, due west of the Yesler Community Center. YES’s farmers hope it will be a model for urban farming education and a pathway to land access for BIPOC communities in the area. Before the freeway, this area used to be full of homes with backyard food gardens. 

Ray Williams, managing director of the Black Farmers Collective, grew up in Seattle. He watched as Indigineous families and immigrant Japanese and Italian families developed land in cooperation with the environment. And he watched these places disappear. 

“One of the losses of density and gentrification is not only the loss of housing, but a loss of growing space for everybody,” he says. “The change of ownership and land has been profound here. There’s a rich history of urban farming, and it’s been driven a lot by immigrants. We’re just trying to raise the profile of it, and say, yes, people of color are part of this moment as well.” 

But getting YES Farm to this moment has taken time. Five years ago, the Black Farmers Collective agreed with the Seattle Housing Authority and Washington state Department of Transportation to lease a two-acre plot for free. But it took three years for the farm to finally get the go-ahead to start work.

By January, the farm had only a few beds. But the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic activated participation and leadership in 2020, and a small team built more beds and erected a greenhouse structure. With so many people unemployed and underemployed, a surge of volunteers showed up this summer after learning about YES Farm on Instagram and through media coverage.

“Once people got a little antsy and the George Floyd protests began, we started seeing people come out a lot more,” says farm manager Hannah Wilson. “The pandemic and Black Lives Matter uprising just showed how important this work is.”

“A lot of people are trying to learn how to do anti-racist work,” says Nahr Suha, who has volunteered with YES Farm since February and joined the team officially in September. “I don’t think that protesting is for everyone, so this is another way to do healing and care work for our communities.” 

Suha says many are young BIPOC folk who see urban farming as an opportunity to grow and learn new skills in things like construction, soil science and biology. They say one 17-year-old volunteer is attempting to engineer a solar panel-operated irrigation pump. “That’s exactly who we want in this space, and who we need to be uplifting,” Suha says. 

The farm works with grassroots organizers, food pantries and free farm stands. Clean Greens Farm & Market (to which YES gives a box of greens a week), Uprooted and Rising, Seattle BIPOC Organic Food Bank are current partners, and they’re also starting to develop partnerships with Black-owned restaurants like nearby Soulful Dishes, and grocery stores like Sami’s Corner Store.

Wilson says Henderson’s work through Black Star Farmers has been amazing to see, and she’s seeing more people push the city for land access. “That’s kind of where our interests lie — actually getting land on a larger scale to produce food,” she says. “For us, there's some hesitation to participate in all the guerrilla gardening because there actually is an abundance of gardening space in Seattle. But not everyone knows about it.” 

A 2008 review commissioned by the city found 45 vacant and unused sites, together totaling 12 acres, deemed suitable for urban agriculture. It also identified 122 school properties, 139 public parks, four multiuse paths and a transmission line with underused space that had promise for supporting community gardening. But not all of those spaces have the same quality environmental conditions; plus, making use of those spaces can require a significant time investment ⁠— something communities don’t always have, especially in a pandemic. 

But Wilson hopes people can see YES Farm as a model for the scope of what community farming can achieve. 

“Even with this 1½-acre piece of land, we’re doing so much,” she says. “You don’t have to be some rural farmer with 50 acres to do something. It’s just a matter of organizing and working on community interdependence. We’ve seen how bringing in the community to help us do this labor has made this work really quick, and get a lot of people invested in this space. People come back because they see they’re making a difference.” 

Keith Tucker at Cherry Street Farm on Oct. 20, 2020. Tucker started the farm two years ago, but recently began a partnership between his organization, Hip Hop Is Green, and Black Star Farmers to expand the farm. “I’ve had time in the pandemic to rethink what we are doing with this space ... how do we maximize the space in this field to yield as much as we can and train the community to grow it?” Tucker says. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Seattle’s deep garden roots

In the ’70s, when Keith Tucker was growing up in the Central District, almost every home had a garden. He and his friends pulled pears and plums from trees throughout the neighborhood; his grandmother won an award from the mayor for best garden. “To be able to be self-sufficient and grow your own food just comes from our culture,” says Tucker, an entrepreneur who focuses on healthy lifestyles. 

Tucker started Hip Hop Is Green in 2009 as a multicity organization dedicated to teaching nutrition, fitness and animal rights. Two years ago, he decided to focus on growing food: He converted one of his family’s lots in the Central District into Cherry Street Farm, a small urban farm where he could help get young people’s hands in the dirt. His grandfather, expecting the Central District to increase in value, had purchased multiple properties on the corner abutting the farm decades ago.

“There’s a lot of things that Black people and Indigenous people and people of color don’t have control over, but being able to grow your own food is something that we can control,” Tucker says. Being able to use his own land to do that is increasingly rare, especially in the gentrified Central District. 

Tucker was born and raised on this corner. When he walks the Cherry Street Farm property, which is tucked between one of his family’s triplexes and another multiunit house, he weaves stories of the plants and animals that used to be here. Tucker says he took a lot of the value of urban gardening for granted when he was growing up. But as an adult, he realized that gardening activism is timely for BIPOC communities seeking control and agency in a world that would remove those liberties. 

When Tucker noticed that Henderson’s garden in the CHOP was gaining momentum, he approached Henderson. “I wanted to get involved with another organization that shared the same values as me, and they really did the work,” he says. “People don't see the beautiful things that came out of what CHOP was.”

His partnership with Black Star Farmers means more brains and bodies to help create the self-supporting community hub of Tucker’s dreams. “We have them working on this project with us, as well as other people,” Tucker says. From replacing aging retaining walls to coordinating with schools, he sees a partnership with Black Star Farmers as a way to expand cross-city urban farming. 

Right now at Cherry Street Farm, small shoots peek out from the earth through the dirt, including a young artichoke ⁠— the same plant on the Hip Hop Is Green logo. But Tucker envisions a one-stop shop for urban farming, gardening and cooking education. The farm will grow community staples ⁠— collard greens, kale, different types of lettuce and with a hydroponic lab, food that can be grown 365 days a year. Volunteers have been helping to prepare the land for new crops at small work parties, and Tucker hopes to develop relationships with colleges and businesses in the area that might purchase some of the produce. 

Keith Tucker gathers tools from a shed at Cherry Street Farm on Oct. 20, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Because of the Black Lives Matter movement, Tucker estimates a 25% to 40% jump in interest this year from individuals and collectives — a conservative estimate, he says, given the constraints of COVID-19. 

“Ever since COVID has happened, we’ve been in war mode,” Tucker says.

Instead of teaching people to grow food and prepare meals in pre-pandemic, in-person classes, Hip Hop Is Green has obtained food from different farms and sponsors, giving away 150 boxes of food with Plant Based Food Share Seattle every week. “The list is a mile long of the things we have to do in order to make sure we get these boxes,” he says. He also just started a grocery voucher program with Safeway, distributing vouchers in Federal Way on Friday afternoons. 

It frustrates him that one of the reasons people don’t feel safe contributing right now is because of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the community his organization is meant to serve. “Black people and people of color are adversely affected by the pandemic,” especially because those communities have been “the dumping ground for every bad type of food you could put in your body,” he says. “For us to be still thriving, and all of that stuff, is just a miracle under all the pressure and stress and food insecurity, education insecurity, job insecurity, systemic racism, redlining — everything that you can throw at a person, we've been dealing with for decades.”

Tucker credits a lot of the successful translation of interest in BIPOC-led farming this year to the strong relationships urban farming organizations have built up over the years. Laying the groundwork helped maximize the energy erupting from CHOP. 

“It's just about the seeds that we've been planting. When that stuff happened, it actually just watered the seeds,” Tucker says. “We've been doing the work for 11 years, so it's not like we're looking for a handout or anything like that. We know we're professionals, and we know exactly what we need to do.”

Marcus Henderson tends to the community garden at the MLK FAME Community Center on Oct. 22, 2020. Henderson started Black Star Farmers, which expanded on the existing garden about four months ago with donated crops from CHOP. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

But with opportunity comes risk — especially for BIPOC farmers who see their hard work eventually usurped by outside interests. 

“I’ve seen many times over the years, guerrilla farmers go and take a space of public property and develop it into a beautiful oasis, with all kinds of plants, and feed the community, and then the people that control the property come in and bulldoze it and kick the person off once it’s successful,” he says. “I don’t fall into that trap. That’s why we have our own land, and we can do whatever we want with it. And nobody can say anything about it.” 

Future expansion

Henderson believes this year’s explosion in urban gardening will pale in comparison to what will happen soon. 

“I think next year, you’re going to see two, threefold numbers of garden spaces being activated,” he says. “A lot of organizations have reached out to me to say, ‘Can you help us clear land and get ready? What would you do here?’ A lot of organizations have spaces that they just don’t use, either because of capacity or interest.” 

Other urban farming groups, like Nyema Clark’s Nurturing Roots in Beacon Hill, are pushing the city to allow it to expand to unused spaces like Red Barn Ranch, a 40-acre surplus of Parks and Recreation land technically deeded to the city by basketball star Elgin Baylor for use as a sports camp for children. Henderson says that people like Chef Ariel Bangs, who started giving away thousands of pounds of food a week in the pandemic, have approached him for advice about getting a greenhouse started. 

“It is my hope that we don’t let these crises go to waste and that we use the recovery as an opportunity to push for a more significant and permanent rebalancing of power and influence,” says sustainability consultant Watts. “The BIPOC communities I work with have shown such innovation in taking care of each other, but it is an indictment on society that they have no choice but [build] their own safety nets.”

For its part, the city of Seattle says it’s pursuing a host of new equity-focused urban farming initiatives that extend land access. Earlier this year, Read says the P-Patch program adopted new plot assignment guidelines that prioritize “placement of underrepresented community members.” Between January and July, 439 new gardeners were assigned plots, 45% of which were from these priority placements. The city also increased its plot fee assistance. Where the P-Patch program offered $48,219 in assistance in 2019 to 700 people, it has already offered $51,998 to 741 people in 2020. 

There are also planned expansions for city community gardening in historically underserved neighborhoods next year. The Department of Neighborhoods is working with the Seattle Housing Authority to establish Seattle Community Farm in Rainier Valley, which could be made permanent. Closing the Market Garden because of COVID means no farm stands, but there are more gardening spaces at Highpoint and New Holly, Read says. The Department of Neighborhoods is also working with Parks and Recreation on the Lake City Landbank, which should be completed in 2021 to include seven additional P-Patch plots. 

“We have to make sure we ride this wave as it lasts because I think that the movement will stay strong but at the same time, the public support, it’s not going to last at the same rate” says YES Farm’s Wilson. “We’re learning to rely on each other, and create that interdependence that is crucial for a revolution.” 

Henderson, for his part, remains humbled by the outpouring of support for a garden that blossomed from a basil-plant-that-could. 

“It’s cool to be at the center of that and keep grounded,” he says. “Our work and all the energy that our organization has put in over the last few months is growing into something bigger."

Update: This article was updated at 2:39 p.m. on November 18, 2020 to clarify the locations of P-Patches within the city. 

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