SEARCHING FOR a healthful, delicious lunch place in the University District? Look no farther than the bright, modern restaurant Cultivate (1218 N.E. Campus Parkway) where the wait staff are University of Washington students and the fresh, seasonal food is as local as it gets.
The UW now has a working farm that provides some of Cultivate’s fresh produce and stocks the shelves at the adjacent store. “Universities are discovering they need to be competitive in bringing better food to students,” says Sarah Reichard, director of the UW Botanic Gardens. “The program has been totally bottom-up; the students asked for it.”
When the small farm on campus needed more space, Reichard welcomed the program to the Center for Urban Horticulture’s campus. She hired Sarah Geurkink to run the farm and to offer community workshops. Funding comes from UW sources (the College of the Environment, the School of Public Health, Housing and Food Services), grants, donations and the revenue from food sales.
The UW faculty is developing a new interdisciplinary food studies minor. For now, students take a “farm ed” class every week, taught by a botany professor, on topics ranging from how to make fertilizer to the business of farming, from food distribution to irrigation. Geurkink takes a broad view. “My goal is to cultivate a community of eaters aware of where their food comes from,” she says. “We’re not an agriculture school . . . we focus on the development of people.”
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The UW farm has two locations, where more than 60 graduate and undergraduate students, along with volunteers and interns, plant, tend and harvest fruit and vegetables. The main location is a sunny, scenic, acre and a half between the Center for Urban Horticulture and Union Bay. Then there’s a multilevel farm at the new Mercer Court dorm. “The students wanted a satellite farm,” says Reichard of the very urban location where lettuces thrive between wings of the dorm, and blueberries and strawberries grow along the sidewalk.
Most of the produce is grown at the Union Bay campus. “We need to satisfy our customers, like Cultivate, the UW Housing and Food Services, and our 15 new CSA (community supported agriculture) subscribers,” says Geurkink. She piques student interest by planting unusual vegetables such as celeriac and with projects like inoculating mushrooms. “We’re experimenting with companion planting and crop rotation,” she says. A UW landscape architecture design/build class provided the handsome little shelter for storage and group gatherings. A composting fence and overflowing compost heaps run along the back of the shelter.
Still to come is a heated hoop house for vegetable starts. The first CSA food box went out to subscribers in June. Geurkink is excited about building a cobb oven for community-building pizza dinners. Kids from the Seattle Tilth program for homeless and underserved youth, known as Seattle Youth Garden Works, join in the community events. The program is headquartered on the Union Bay campus and has its own three-quarter-acre garden within the UW one.
Why do busy students choose to spend time digging in the dirt? “Some want to become farmers, others have discovered food justice and other food issues,” says Geurkink. The students enjoy the social connections, and the physical work of farming. “It’s an antidote to all that time spent in class and at the computer,” she explains. “It’s therapeutic.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.