Seattle is simply gaga for gardening. As I describe in an article for seattlepi.com, elected officials, nonprofit groups, churches, businesses, and schools are pushing all sorts of programs to promote in-city farming, even naming 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture. It’s exciting stuff. But the Emerald City is not alone in its love of fresh, seasonal homegrown pickings. That made me wonder what Seattle’s farms-and-foodies neighbor to the south is doing in the field of urban ag.
It turns out that Portland is out in front on many of the pro-ag initiatives that leaders in the Puget Sound area are considering, providing an opportunity for a little cross-pollination of ideas and initiatives that could benefit both regions.
But first, a quick rundown of what Seattle is up to. City leaders this month will get a look at a package of policy changes to encourage more folks to grow produce in their own backyards, whether for themselves or for profit. A church in the Broadview neighborhood has ripped out landscaping to make way for a community p-patch. Seattle Central Community College is offering what it believes is the first US program in sustainable, urban agriculture. There’s a handy new site coordinating it all called Urban Farm Hub. And the examples go on (see the P-I article for more information).
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Because Seattle is more concrete jungle than fertile farmland its food issues extend well beyond its borders. So the city is teaming up with King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties to create a much-needed Regional Food Policy Council, which replaces a smaller Seattle-King County Acting Food Policy Council that was formed in 2006. The council’s priorities will include strengthening the policies and infrastructure related to growing, processing, transporting, and distributing food across the counties. It will also work to make sure that low-income and minority communities have access to fresh, healthy foods.
(Quick aside: the importance of boosting local food production to ensure food security was highlighted for me following the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Among the stories about canceled flights and stranded passengers were tales of produce from Brazil and Africa rotting on runways.)
Where does Portland stand on food councils? Portland and Multnomah County formed its Food Policy Council in 2002 and has taken on some good projects. The group has helped encourage the use of local foods at schools and protect farmland. It’s connected immigrant farmers with available land and markets for their goods.
One factor shared among Northwest cities is a high demand for public p-patches. In Victoria, university students got a touch impatient waiting for the creation of officially sanctioned garden plots on campus and resorted to guerrilla gardening. City residents are pushing Victoria’s officials to create more p-patches in vacant lots, parks, and along boulevards. The city of Tacoma this spring launched a community gardens initiative that’s focused on establishing new public p-patches.
A graduate student working with the city of Seattle recently did a survey of public lands and identified approximately 200 sites that might be suitable for p-patches. On-the-ground research is needed to verify which would really be practical for farming, and the Department of Neighborhoods is supposed to look into this further.
Back in 2004, Portland went through a similar exercise, resulting in a report called “The Diggable City: Making Urban Agriculture a Planning Priority.” The project identified hundreds of potentially farmable sites, though additional research revealed that all but a dozen or so were unsuitable for various reasons.
Given the huge proportion of false leads that turned up in the Portland effort, Seattleites shouldn’t get their hopes up that p-patches will be spring up right and left.
Shifting to buying local foods, King County recently released a report on its farmers markets, taking a pulse of their economic contributions and looking at challenges to growing and expanding the venues. (Hat tip to Rebekah Denn and eatallaboutit for bringing this to our attention.) Portland did its own farmers market assessment in 2008.
Both regions are showing humongous growth in their farmers markets over the past decade, and they share similar challenges, including uncertainty over the permanence of their locations. Portland was dinged for the lack of city support for the markets. King County was struggling to figure out how to grow its customer base and get a diversity of growers in the markets, including immigrant farmers.
One of the interesting, and likely growing, challenges mentioned in the King County report is with “vendor integrity.” Farmers market participants are required to sell only the food that they grow, but in some cases sellers are getting produce from a packing house or another farm, and often offering it for cheaper prices. As the markets keep expanding, this sort of practice gets harder to police, but it threatens to erode one of the underlying selling points of the markets, which is trust.
So where does Seattle come out ahead in urban ag? In the dating game. That’s right, Seattle was first to have Urban Garden Share, the green-thumb equivalent of Match.com. But Urban Garden Share’s founder, Amy Pennington, said that she’s starting up a version of the site in Portland in the next week or two (plus sites in Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky).