After renovations, Seattle's largest urban farm now boasts a community kitchen and classroom, an office building, and three new greenhouses for the Rainier Beach community to enjoy.
Egigayehu Dulume has been coming to the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands every Friday for the past five years. “For my health,” he says, somewhat incredulous that this may not be obvious. “The first thing, the health is important. I have to move, I have to work, I have to exercise. Otherwise everything will diminish.”
Dulume is part of a group of seniors, most originally from the Horn of Africa, who have been weeding, harvesting, planting and helping to restore the wetlands during the farm’s Friday work parties, almost since the beginning.
Seattle Parks and Recreation owns the farm’s eight acres, which was once operated as the Atlantic City Nursery. When the department announced its plan to give up the nursery in 2009, community organizer Harry Hoffman came up with the idea to convert the land into an urban farm.
“Harry was not a gardener but he had the idea,” said Sue Gibbs, a board member of the Friends of the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands. “He planted that seed and that came to fruition. But he was an organizer. He was like, ‘Wouldn’t that be a great place for a community urban farm?’ and he knew what to do to start to make it happen, even though he didn’t know squat about growing food.” Gibbs’ smile quietly fades as she remembers Hoffman, who died in 2014.
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Gibbs, Hoffman and Hoffman’s partner, Wendy Jans, formed the Friends in 2009, later partnering with the Tilth Alliance in an effort to restore the wetlands area for public use and create a place where Rainier Beach residents could come to learn, grow food, find community or just be outdoors. Gibbs herself comes to the farm and gets her hands in the dirt as often as she can, sometimes bringing along her young grandson.
Gibbs smiles as she talks about her grandson and his penchant for playing in the dirt. A similar smile emerges as she walks the farm grounds and finds blueberries that are starting to ripen, notes signs that a beaver has made the wetlands his stomping grounds or checks the progress of “the Living Room,” a living willow tree bird-blind being built by students from South Shore School.
“That’s what we’re about here. We want to help people renew their connection to the Earth and to each other,” says Gibbs. “Get off of devices and talk to people, and eat together, and cook together, and grow things together, and build something together.”
The project initially faced some pushback from homeowners in the Pritchard Island community who were concerned about a possible rise in theft with increased traffic to the site, but the Friends were able to convince the community that the farm would bring a positive change.
And it has. Since Seattle Parks handed the land over to the Friends and the Tilth Alliance, the farm has become a place where seniors like Dulume can stay healthy and find community, high-school students can learn about the environment, middle-school students discover a liking for kale and community members come simply to be out in nature.
Laura Tyler, a science teacher at South Shore, takes students on a walking field trip to the farm every week. They’ve done everything from removing invasive species to making balm of Gilead from a fallen cottonwood tree to working with the University of Washington’s Landscape Architecture Department to design and build environmental and food-related projects.
“There’s a lot of ownership when you work on those kind of things, and the kids get to kind of pass down stuff,” said Tyler. “So there’s a lot, a lot of work to do at that farm … for them to come back and see all the changes that have been made and see the progress that’s done and that they contributed to healing our land.”
The farm also hosts programs like Bridges, which builds connections between youngsters with disabilities and programs that help them develop vocational skills, and Momentia, which pairs elderly community members with dementia-friendly activities.
You don’t have to be part of an organization to work with the farm.
A few years ago, Rainier Beach resident Omaretta Sharpley simply walked onto the farm and asked how she could get the food growing there into the hands of community members who needed it. Soon, Sharpley was bringing bags of certified organic produce from the farm to her church for community members to pick up. Sharpley’s project grew to become Tilth Alliance’s Good Food Bags program, which now brings organically grown fruits and vegetables to 34 public preschools and 15 other community sites.
Lois Martin, director of the Community Day Center for Children in Seattle’s Central Area, has coordinated the distribution of the Good Food Bags to Central neighborhood families at the Day Center since 2016.
“The parents are really happy about it,” he said. “When you think about it, $10 worth of organic produce for $5 delivered right to your child’s school, and there’s really nothing that you have to do but pick it up at the end of the day. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Due to construction and limited access to the farm in the past couple of years, Tilth Alliance has had to find alternative spaces for programs like Good Food Bags. But now that construction is complete, the farm boasts three new greenhouses, an office building, and a community kitchen and classroom. Tilth and the Friends hope these new additions will allow even more community groups to engage with the farm and wetlands. There are plans for an official grand reopening on July 21st and increased staffed hours when local residents can enjoy the public land.
“There’s so much opportunity at this site, and so now that we finally have all these facilities and will be able to have staff who work down here in that office … It really is the community farm, like we’re here to help, you know, keep it functioning and operating and managing, and share our expertise that we have around growing food and these types of things, but it’s only so much as what groups are interested in doing here,” says Chris Hoffer, a project manager with the Tilth Alliance.
Despite the limited access and reduced programming for the last few years, seniors from the community have still been hard at work every Friday. On the Friday I visited, the Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo languages mixed as the elders talked. One participant, Tadesse Gebrehiwot, called over to Hoffer in English, showing him a dulled hoe and telling him, with the supportive nods and mumbles of the group of elders gathered around him, that the tools needed sharpening. Hoffer agreed and suggested that it might be time for new tools altogether.
Michael Neguse, the Southeast & East African program coordinator with the Seattle Neighborhood Group, saw how the farm could be helpful to some of the older residents in the neighborhood who lack a sense of community or are struggling with the ramifications of the difficult situations they fled in their home countries.
“They came from a lot of war-torn countries, and when you come sometimes you have PTSD … and gardening brings healing,” said Neguse. “And … so when they are here, I can see these people are singing and happy and their mood is changing. Even my mood is changing.”
On the opposite side of the willow trees that the seniors planted just a few years ago, about fifteen Amazon employees were planting squash under the supervision of Carey Thornton, a program educator with the Tilth Alliance. Thornton and Neguse interjected and agreed enthusiastically with each other as they talked about the curative effects of being outdoors. Neguse nodded in agreement next to her, calling out “I know,” “Exactly,” “Yes,” as she relates the stresses of her former work in the restaurant industry, and how working at the farm has helped ease that stress.
“For me, even the physical exchange of the plants — we are breathing each other’s air,” said Thornton. “There’s more oxygen here because of all the plants. It’s a physical thing, it’s not just a psychological thing.”
When the work was done for the day, the Amazon volunteers were energized as they headed back to their cars. The elders were more casual, putting away their tools and making their way to the farm’s newly constructed kitchen, where Turunesh Gura and Jemanesh Demmisie had worked all morning to prepare a meal for everyone using some of the ingredients from the farm. Everyone was invited, but only a couple of the Amazon volunteers stayed for lunch; the Tilth Alliance staff lingered over their work a little longer before heading in to fix their plates, when most of the seniors were already loading their second servings of injera with misr wat (or as the Tigrinya speakers at the table call it, “timtimo”), laughing and talking as they passed each other napkins and coffee refills.
Hoffer admitted that the seniors, many of whom have been working the farm and wetlands for close to a decade, have a great deal of ownership over the land. “They manage us,” he said. “We’ll say, ‘We think we want to do that,’ and they’re like, ‘No …’ So we listen. Especially because they’ve been here more than just about every staff member. Over that many years, they really, they know this site.”