COLIN MCCRATE co-founded Seattle Urban Farm Company with partner Brad Halm in 2007 and has been a leader in the grow-your-own-food trend ever since. The company now has 14 urban farmers maintaining more than 70 Seattle-area gardens.
“My interests aligned with a greater cultural shift,” says McCrate by way of explaining his uncanny ability to be ahead of the curve. “Our whole thing has been to try and make projects happen for clients who see value in functional and productive landscapes,” he says. Most of those clients are first-time homeowners in their 30s and 40s who want to transform the rhodie-and-lawn yard they’ve purchased into a raised-bed food garden.
In 2009, the owners of Bastille Café & Bar hired McCrate to design, plant and tend a garden on the roof of their vintage Ballard building. The goal was to create a garden that was productive year-round. It’s since been doubled in size to 1,200 square feet, with room to grow lots of herbs and short-season crops such as radishes, lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes and bush beans. And beehives, whose management has been taken over by the Bastille chef.
McCrate, 35, has come to see urban farming as a balance between aesthetics and getting the maximum harvest out of limited space. He’s expert at sequencing crops and continues to experiment with what grows best in our climate. McCrate has become more interested in design over the years, hiring team members with landscape architecture degrees.
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“We’re really into systems and tracking production,” he says. “Gardeners could easily quadruple their yield with systemizing and sequencing.” He and Halm have co-written a book due out next year from Storey Books. The working title? “High Yield Vegetable Gardening.”
Last spring Seattle Urban Farm Company started another venture. “Lots of restaurants want to serve fresh, local food to build their brands but don’t have space to farm in the city,” explains McCrate. So he and Halm are renting farmland as close to the city as they could find. Three restaurants have their own plots at the new 4.5-acre Redmond Farm, where the urban farm crew plants the herbs and vegetables the chefs request, then harvests and delivers it all to the restaurants.
What’s the future of farming in our city? “People are interested in perennial edibles, native plants and easy-care perennials to attract pollinators,” McCrate says. Hence he’s been planting lots of dwarf fruit trees, evergreen huckleberries, rhubarb, blueberries, raspberries, coneflowers, rudbeckia and helenium. Raised vegetable beds are no longer relegated to the back corner of the garden. “When I walk out the back door, I want to see food,” says McCrate. He also finds that people are very intentional about what varieties of vegetables they choose to grow. “Our plant list expands every year as clients ask for new varieties.”
And what’s in the future for this food-gardening visionary? McCrate is excited about the idea of integrating urban agriculture into the new generation of buildings going up in Seattle. He sees the opportunity for raised vegetable beds on rooftops, hydroponics and greenhouses. “Growing food in the city is still an afterthought for most architects,” he says. “We need to find out who to talk with, how to get our foot in the door.”
Is there an urban agriculture lobbyist out there ready to team up with McCrate to help green and feed urban Seattle?
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.