The landscape around the Puget Sound has been in flux since the pioneers felled the forests to open up the bottomlands for agriculture. These loamy soils drew some of the earliest farmers, who were delighted to find the region suited a wide variety of crops.

The South Park neighborhood in South Seattle sprang up on fertile, level farmland adjacent to the Duwamish River. According to historian David Wilma, before the settlers arrived, the spot was occupied by Indians, who grew potatoes, fished, and harvested berries there.

Signs at Terry’s Berries farm in Tacoma
Signs at Terry’s Berries farm in Tacoma (Photo Zach Mazur)

In the 1900s this neighborhood became home to “Contadini,” Italian immigrants who had been born into farming in their native country. This is where Carmine Marra and his wife Maria bought land in 1920 and set up a truck farm that for years to come would be a center for the community. Besides producing a bounty of food to sell in Seattle at Pike Place Market, the farm was a place to meet at the end of the day or play bocce on weekends.

Today the neighborhood is still home to immigrant communities, but much has changed. It sits just behind one of the most industrial and most toxic areas of the city. The Marra Farm, which survived as a community garden, is the only agricultural land left. It seemed inevitable. Development had started before the Contadini arrived. The river was redirected and channelized for improved shipping access. In the 1920s Boeing’s air plant sprang up on the east side of the river, followed by recycling plants, concrete plants, rendering operations, and a foundry.

Besides the pressure of Boeing’s expansions and increased industrial use of the neighborhood, by the 1940s the local farmers were finding it hard to compete with the large-scale California produce farmers. All the while, “the farmlands themselves were becoming too valuable for agricultural use,” wrote the Marras’ nephew Fred Marra.

While the story of the lower Duwamish is extreme, a similar tale can be told for many other fertile areas of the Sound.

Kent, once home to hops farms, dairies, and acres of produce, was known in the 1920s as the Lettuce Capital of the World. The area started to change in the 1960s after the Howard Hanson Dam on the Green River stopped the valley from regularly flooding. The Boeing Aerospace Center was followed by other industry and technology businesses. Today the valley is clogged with warehouses, trucks, and storage units. Is is also home to a variety of corporate headquarters including Oberto Sausage Company and Recreational Equipment Incorporated (REI).

To the east, along the Snoqualmie River, developers are pushing the question of what is a farm by packing the rolling hills with mini-estates complete with their own horse paddocks. Larry Pickering ’68, who grew up among the 40-some dairy farms near Fall City, watches with dismay as these multi-million-dollar homes cover the land around him. “We took it so for granted,” he says. “We didn’t know what we had.” Back in the 1960s, Larry Pickering enrolled at WSU with plans to study animal science and prepare to run the family dairy. But dairy farming was changing and the farms were growing to hold hundreds of cows. “I could see that I would have to become a manager rather than a farmer,” he says. So he changed his course and became a veterinarian. “I figured I could switch to horses and have the life I wanted.”

He watched in the 1980s as King County spent $50 million to preserve agricultural land, and then watched that farmland dissolve into one-acre horse estates. “Thirty years ago, we assumed if you couldn’t put development on land, you would have to farm it,” he says. But that proved wrong. “Now they put a $5 million home on it and some horses and it’s lost to agriculture.”

North of Seattle, in Everett, a similar story plays out along the Snohomish River. And south along the Puyallup, farms have given way to housing developments, warehouses, and shopping malls. In recent years, according to a USDA Natural Resources Inventory report, the state has lost an average of 23,720 acres of farmland per year (an amount about the size of Lake Washington).

But in this river of expansion there’s a countercurrent, a push of agriculture back into the urban and suburban areas around the Sound. Farms are sprouting up on land where industry has stalled. In some areas, instead of selling off to development, old 50- to 100-acre farms are carved up into 10-acre operations that deal directly with consumers.

Farms are spreading back onto lands that have been rezoned for industry. No one’s building warehouses right now, says WSU extension agent Chris Benedict. That means in places like the Green Valley, Renton, and Kent, people are farming again. “From Renton to Puyallup it’s really helter-skelter amongst the warehouses,” he says.

And within the larger urban populations, consumers are more interested in eating local food and knowing the farmer. Whether they’re trying to shrink their carbon footprint or have more control over the sources and safety of their food, people are much more interested in where what they eat is coming from, says Benedict.

And their public leaders are hearing them. This is the year the Seattle City Council has proclaimed the Year of Urban Agriculture. “We are committed to making changes that are better for people and better for the environment,” Mayor Mike McGinn announced in February. “This means making it easier to garden and grow food, to ensure that good food is available in all neighborhoods, and to find innovative ways to encourage local and regional food production.”

It’s not just happening through farm stands and farmers markets. Grocery stores are offering classes on how to find food produced closer to home. And some, like PCC Natural Markets, have established trusts to preserve ag land and support new farmers.

In her 1970 book The Economy of Cities, author and urban theorist Jane Jacobs hypothesizes that cities came first, and rural economies, including agriculture, were built upon city economies. She also points out that the most urbanized countries “are precisely those that produce food most abundantly.” Growing, healthy cities, she argues, carry rural and agricultural productivity in their wake.

Japan, after World War II, reinvented its agriculture, notes Jacobs. It did so on a foundation of city productivity. The result was a more diverse and abundant food supply. It is something other countries could do as well, she suggests.

This time shares much with the early 1970s, when Seattle saw its first community gardens and people were interested in fresh, local food. A new generation of farmers had come to the Northwest to drop out of the industrial culture and get back to the land. The public garden movement started when the families like the Marras sold their land to the city so the people living nearby could garden and grow food there.

Today the sounds of the Marra farm include the roar of airplanes and traffic as well as the voices of children tending their grade school P-patches and buzzing of bees in the hives on the west side of the farm. Here in the city on bits of farmland, neighbors meet over rhubarb plants, tomato seedlings, and rows of lettuce and beans. Since the 1970s these gardens have taken root all over Seattle—Ballard, the 1.3-acre Danny Woo Community Garden in the International District, and Jackson Park to name a few. And thanks to a recent flush of new gardens, Seattle’s list of public P-patches numbers more than 80.

The city’s P-patches provide food for those who garden there, and for food banks and schools. Depending on which garden, the land is owned by the city, the Seattle Housing Authority, King County, a P-Patch Trust, and private interests. The city estimates that more than 4,000 people are gardening in the community plots, with nearly 2,000 more on waiting lists. At the highest-demand sites like
Queen Anne, Fremont, and Capitol Hill, the wait may take three years.

The question today, as agriculture is pushing into the cities, is whether we have returned to a period like the health-food conscious, back-to-the-land 1970s. Or is this something else?

From the perch of her farm above the Skagit Valley, Anne Schwartz ’78 has watched agriculture and consumer demand from the time she harvested her first crop of organic vegetables. Back in the late 1970s, the new farmers were politically active and intent in finding a way to help save the world from industrialization. “In the ’70s it was a general rebellion from things,” she says. Today, when people go back to the land, it’s much more complicated, she says.

Besides running a farm and supplying produce to farmers markets and directly to consumers, Schwartz has ventured into public policy and organized activism. She has served as president of Tilth Producers of Washington and participates in local and state farm and legislative advisory committees.

That movement from the ’70s didn’t disappear, says Schwartz. It matured. The original issues are still in play, but they have broadened to include countering global climate change, protecting farmland from development, securing the food supply, and instilling a sense of community.

“There certainly is enough of a public upswelling,” she says. Add to it that the downturn in the economy is stalling development and that there’s a greater public awareness of the need to preserve farmland. Then factor in a greater desire for fresh, local food. It has all worked together to put farming back near and into cities, she says. “It’s a little bit of a perfect storm.”

The New Farmers

A few miles uphill from the Marra Farm into West Seattle, right in the middle of a brand-new neighborhood, is the High Point Market Garden—where small-scale farmers can raise produce on public land that they sell at farmers’ markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions.

High Point is a born-again neighborhood. In 2003, working-class and immigrant families were moved out of the 60-year-old community and all the roads, homes, and utilities were removed. They were replaced with a mix of 1,600 low-income rentals, single family homes, condominiums, and town homes. And small farms and gardens.

The mixed-income community was completed this year. It houses about 4,000 people including new immigrants and refugees. On a warm spring morning, two Cambodian women water and weed in the High Point Market Garden. As one walks the hose around a raised bed, the other sits down for a break. They tend their portions of more than 70 raised beds. Here none of the soil is sacrificed to weeds. In this brand new farm in this brand new neighborhood, these women and their fellow farmers are using intensive cropping to grow enough produce to fulfill orders of weekly produce for 50 households.

These new farmers are bringing labor and energy to our cities, says Bee Cha, WSU’s small farms agent who works directly with Hmong and refugee and immigrant farmers.

When Cha was 15, his family moved from Laos to Washington. Almost immediately he and his parents and siblings went to work on farms. Among other things, Cha helped his family earn money by picking strawberries. Though they farmed in Laos, “everything is different here—the crops, the system. The only thing that is the same is the willingness to farm and the energy.”

A family member had started farming through WSU’s Indochinese Farm Project and by the late 1980s was turning decent profits. That prompted Cha’s father to grow his own crops in the Sammamish area. For Cha’s family and the nearly 100 Hmong families who are now farming in Washington, agriculture was a means of making a living in their new country. Some of what they did went against their culture and traditions, says Cha. Growing flowers for example—in Seattle, the Hmong farmers are famous for providing gorgeous, affordable bouquets at places like Pike Place Market. “In Laos flowers are considered a nuisance,” says Cha.

It is not a love of their beauty, or a decision to provide an alternative crop at the market that causes Hmong farmers to grow the flowers. It’s a simple equation of labor and economics, says Cha. “Vegetables are much more labor intensive,” he says. They’re harder to pick, you have to be more aggressive with weeds and insects, and you need things like water to irrigate and wash them and to have storage structures, probably cold storage, on site. Flowers, until you get to the market and have to start arranging them, are much easier, he says.

Cha’s understanding of what it means to be a new immigrant, his language skills, and his knowledge of farming gives him a perspective for helping the newest refugees figure out farming in the Puget Sound region. One day this spring he drives down to Kent where a dozen East African farmers are waiting. It’s Cha’s day to teach them how to assemble and use a small seed planting machine. Back at the refugee camp in Somalia they planted everything by hand—and grew food to supplement their rations. Here they’re trying to feed themselves as well as sell produce through small grocery stores.

The refugees’ farm is a 10-acre lot at the base of a hill. At one end is a ramshackle blue shed. At the other, a home and yard littered with cars and appliances. Two groups of refugees are using these acres—a group from Somalia and a group from Burundi. The men gather around as Cha pulls the seeder in parts out of a medium-sized cardboard box. Celestine Sibomana, the farm manager for the project, follows Cha’s instructions and uses the tool to sow a row of beets. “Part of the challenge for them,” says Cha, “is just learning how to farm in the Pacific Northwest.”

Back to the farm

On the day the African farmers in Kent are trying out their seeder, 30 miles north along the Snoqualmie River Siri Erickson-Brown and Jason Salvo spend their morning planting lettuces, tomatoes, and other seedlings.

Salvo and Erickson-Brown are both city kids, graduates of Garfield High School who seemed destined for urban lives. After college, Erickson-Brown went to graduate school in public affairs and Salvo headed to law school. But then while Salvo was studying for the bar, Erickson-Brown interned at a local farm. Why not? Not only did she enjoy farming, Salvo did too. A year later they found a landowner willing to farm with them and broke ground on his property along the Snoqualmie River.

At the same time, points out WSU extension agent Andrew Corbin, they live in one of Seattle’s oldest and most urban neighborhoods, Capitol Hill, and drive a reverse commute out to the farm near Carnation.

“We’re Local Roots in all its meanings,” says Salvo, explaining that when they started selling their produce, they reached out to friends and family in the city. They sold subscriptions for weekly delivery of their produce simply by sending an invitation to everyone on Erickson-Brown’s email address list. “It’s our parents, our relatives, our friends, their friends, and so on,” she says. They also sell their produce to about a dozen Seattle-area restaurants.

They aren’t the small-scale farmers of the ’70s, though, notes Corbin. Their outreach goes beyond farm and family. Each year they take on interns, training the next batch of new farmers. This year, more than 60 people applied for just six positions. Salvo and Erickson-Brown also participate in regional government advisory panels and nonprofit organizations supporting local food systems. And they keep an online blog on the challenges (slug and deer damage) and the pleasures (selling out at the market) of farming.

More and more 10- to 30-acre farms with hundreds of varieties of vegetables and specialty livestock are moving in, says Steve Evans, King County’s farm specialist. Over the years he has seen established farms disappear for a variety of reasons—including encroaching development and increased environmental regulations. But as things like dairies die off, land is now available for smaller farms with high-value crops.

Despite the trend to more small farms, the future of agriculture in King County is uncertain, notes the county’s 2009 Farms Report. While the conversion of farmland has been slowed, agriculture is still threatened by population growth and upslope development that increases the risk of floods in the farmlands. Rezoning and real estate speculation drive up land prices. Still, enough land remains open in King County to grow sufficient produce for its entire population, says Evans.

The push to bring agriculture into the cities is quite organized. Schools are teaching children to grow their own food and nonprofits like Seattle Tilth, Lettuce Link, and City Fruit, a group that harvests fruit from neglected trees throughout the city, are advocating the local production of food. The nonprofit Cascade Harvest Coalition is a collective of farmers, chefs, teachers, land managers, and others who grouped together in 1999 to “re-localize” the food system in Washington.

The movement is pushing south into Pierce County and Tacoma, “which is a good indicator of changes beyond the primary tier consumer,” says WSU extension agent Chris Benedict. In Seattle people will pay more and drive further to get fresh, local food. In Tacoma, where the median income is lower, “it has to be much more economically competitive,” he says.

Terry and Dick ’65 Carkner have managed to maintain their organic berry and produce farm in Tacoma for more than 25 years while the farmland around them has been swallowed into housing developments, warehouses, and a truck driving school. They’ve watched demand increase for their food and have expanded their business by selling CSA shares for their crops.

They’re being joined by new urban farmers, as the City of Tacoma is converting seven city parcels into community gardens with the goal of someday being the city with the most community gardens per capita.

This growth of new farms and the revival of old ones is a pleasing sight to Larry Pickering, who serves on the King County Agricultural Advisory Committee. It’s not just a phase, he says. When diesel reaches $10 a gallon and produce imported from California and beyond becomes too expensive, everything is going to change, he says.

“Local producers close a lot of loops,” says Pickering. They give our region independence from the vagaries of the world market, he adds: “This is going to take off like crazy.”