Seattle urban farmAlleycat Acres breaks ground on one of its donated lots.Photo courtesy e_pants via Flickr

chicken coopTo roost or roast: Chickens at the Esbhani residence in Seattle.Photo: Tyler FalkAsif and Adila Esbhani let four chickens out of their coop and watch them search for bugs down the long, narrow dirt path next to the couple’s Seattle home.

The sleek new structure represents no small feat for the Esbhanis. “We never owned a saw until we decided to build the coop. It was our first trip to the lumber store,” Adila told me on a chicken coop tour hosted recently by Seattle Tilth, a sustainable gardening education organization.

“We’ve never been on a farm. We’ve always lived in cities and we didn’t think we’d be able to [raise chickens],” Adila said. “Having fresh eggs is just amazing,” her husband added.

Down the street, Kent Brookover and his wife, Karen Lewis, showed visitors around their untamed yard, where tall grasses and flowers mingle with asparagus stalks, raised beds, a beehive, and chickens nibbling small patches of lawn grass under a large shade tree. The couple has raised chickens for four years. But unlike the Esbhanis, Brookover grew up on a farm in Kansas and worried the birds’ noise and smell would be too much. That hasn’t been the case, he was pleased to report.

Josh Parkinson, Magic Bean FarmLettuce plant, please! Josh Parkinson tends to his backyard farm in West Seattle.Photo: Magic Bean FarmOver in West Seattle, Josh Parkinson tends Magic Bean Farm, which he and his significant other, Shabnam Basmani, started earlier this year — in someone else’s backyard.

That’s the irony underlying Seattle’s urban agriculture scene: the city is one of the friendliest to chicken fanciers and backyard farmers, but bottle-necked as it is by water, Seattle can be no breadbasket. Unlike in cities such as Detroit, vacant land is expensive and scarce; what there is gets quickly snatched up for parks and open spaces.  

But Parkinson is resourceful. He connects with people who have empty land using Urban Garden Share — a website started in Seattle that hooks up gardeners with unused yards or vacant lots. Through the site and word of mouth, the farm is spreading quickly, and more and more vacant lawn space is coming his way. Magic Bean Farm currently works on 10 spots totaling about a half-acre.

From this tiny network, Parkinson is feeding members for the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program — people who pay in advance for a share of the harvest — along with the owners of the land he farms.

Now that’s magic.

Fertilizing the city farm

Technically, however, Parkinson has been working in a gray area this year. Until yesterday, it was illegal to run a commercial farm from private, non-agriculturally designated property.

Magic Bean FarmJolly giant greenness: The Magic Bean backyard farm is technically illegal, but Seattle code is about to change.Photo: Darby Minow SmithBut Seattle has been quickly working to improve the urban farming landscape in the city. This year was declared the “year of urban agriculture” by new Mayor Mike McGinn. And on August 16, the Seattle City Council approved new legislation that allows urban farmers (meaning anyone) to grow and sell food in all zones and on private property. Also, to please the more garden-variety backyard farmers, the city is increasing the number of allowed domestic fowl from three to eight — a much requested change.

“We found that [the code] was silent like many major cities. It’s just, we don’t address urban agriculture,” said Andrea Petzel, a senior urban planner with Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development who headed up the policy changes. “The whole point of zoning was to separate these kinds of uses particularly agriculture and industrial away from where people lived. And now the trend is, with places like Magic Bean Farm and Alleycat Acres, to bring agriculture into the city more. It’s completely rethinking the way cities use land.”

But as the city has been working to pass these initiatives, a groundswell of people, organizations, and businesses haven’t been waiting for official support, they’re plowing along just fine. In fact, they have been for decades.

Deep roots in urban ag

Unsurprisingly for a city that boasts an early 20th-century farmers market as one of its most popular tourist attractions, there are organizations in Seattle that have been promoting local urban food for years.

Seattle seeded its first P-Patch community garden — plots of land divided up into individual plots for gardening — in 1973, during the height of back-to-the-land fervor. The U.S. was in the middle of an energy crisis, and Boeing, the largest company in Seattle at the time, cut more than half of its 80,000 employees, leaving Seattle in a deep recession. (One famous sign announced, “Would the last person leaving Seattle … turn out the lights?”) The economic downturn combined with the social activism scene of the ’70s to jump-start programs and organizations that are still active and thriving. Today there are 73 P-Patch community gardens in Seattle, comprising more than 23 acres of the city’s precious land and feeding more than 2,000 households. (See P-Patch spotlight, below.)

A few years later, in 1978, Seattle Tilth broke through a concrete play area to construct its first garden to educate people about growing their own produce. Today, there are three community learning gardens in the city, open to the public, that demonstrate year-round vegetable gardening, soil building techniques, and composting, among other things.

And starting in 1988, the nonprofit Solid Ground has worked to provide low-income residents with access to fresh organic produce, seeds, and gardening information through its Lettuce Link program. The group encourages community gardeners to plant an extra row of organic produce to donate to food banks and other meals programs. In 2009, over 27,000 pounds of produce was donated by P-Patch community gardens across the city.

Starting from scratch

A fresh crop of creative and innovative urban-ag projects are sprouting up in the Emerald City. Earlier this year, Sean Conroe gathered up like-minded Seattleites interested in urban farming and sta
rted the nonprofit Alleycat Acres. The urban farming collective works with volunteers to turn empty donated private land into urban farms, and the produce is biked to local food banks. (Learn more in the Alleycat spotlight, next page.)

City Fruit makes sure the abundance of fruit on Seattle’s trees doesn’t go to waste. Using Google Maps, it shows where 650 fruit trees are located. Though many of the trees are on private land, you can find some trees where the fruit is up for grabs. And the group helps fruit tree owners harvest and find use for their excess. In its first year, the group harvested more than 5 tons of fruit from 100-plus households.

This year, Harvest Collective is working on an online marketplace for backyard farmers in Seattle to sell their produce. And a new landscaping company, Cascadian Edible Landscapes, is working to develop underutilized land into places that can produce food for individuals, businesses, and governments. Cascadian uses a sliding scale for fees, to make sure their services are available to broader populations.

The city is doing its best to keep up with this groundswell of people, organizations, and businesses growing food in the city while making money, feeding those in need, and finding uses for vacant, but valuable land.

“Detroit’s kind of famous right now for urban ag stuff, but they don’t have the city codes to match up with that. And that’s mostly what’s happening with other cities,” said Petzel. “Seattle is one of the first cities to really look at their codes to try to match up with what the pressure is from the community.”

Next: A closer look at the Seattle urban-ag projects P-Patch, Alleycat Acres, and Goat Hill Giving Garden >