Marra Farm serves with seeds, soil and sunshine

Harvesting chard at Marra Farm

Nutrition & Garden Educator Pamela Ronson, Dani Ladyka from Apple Corps and volunteer Sarah Rehdner harvest chard at Marra Farm.

Recently, I bused to the South Park neighborhood to volunteer at Solid Ground’s Giving Garden at Marra Farm, a project run by our Lettuce Link program. Farmer Scott Behmer wasn’t surprised when I arrived late: “This is a really underserved area, regarding transportation and lots of other services. And really, that’s why we’re here.”

Scott explained that the farm has two main functions: food production and education, or in other words, “fighting the symptoms and fighting the causes.” He added, “Food banks are really important, but they won’t end hunger. Education is one of the ways we can change the system.”

I witnessed the education side of Lettuce Link’s work when a 5th grade class arrived from Salmon Bay K-8 School, an alternative public school located in Ballard. The group gathered around Scott for a brief orientation, and he explained the origins of Marra Farm: “All the land around the city used to be farmland to feed the city. This bit of land has stayed farmland.” The farm is named after the Marra family, who used to own and work the land.

He gave the students a brief intro to the food industry as well, explaining that each bite of food travels an average of 1,500 miles. “Some of it is food that we can grow here, and we still get it from far away.”

Throughout the year, the farm produces 25-30 different vegetables, which last year resulted in 15,000 pounds of food (not including another 8,000 pounds from our Seattle Community Farm in the Rainier Valley). That day the harvest included parsley, loose-leaf lettuce, chard and squash.

The many colors of Swiss chard

Colorful Swiss chard, ready to be harvested

The produce is mostly donated to food banks in the area, as well as the South Park Senior Center and South Park Community Kitchen. Lettuce Link also offers Work Trade opportunities, where volunteers can help maintain the farm in exchange for produce.

The day I volunteered, Providence Regina House – a food and clothing bank that serves four zip codes from South Park to Des Moines – came to collect food. Jack Wagstaff, Providence Regina House Program Manager, echoed Scott, saying that their food bank is intentionally located in that area, because “it’s radically underserved by anyone else.”

Before the food bank truck arrived, the students were each able to harvest two acorn squash. “We all have times where we get to help others, and we all have times where we get to be helped by others,” Scott told them. “Today, you get to be the helpers.”

Acorn squash, harvested by the 5th-grade volunteers

Acorn squash, harvested by the 5th-grade volunteers

The class teacher, Nicolette Jensen, said she has brought her class to the farm for the last three years. She feels it’s important for the students to “learn about the food industry and about how food used to be in the city. I think that little bit of education goes a long way.”

After harvesting, we washed the produce and stacked it in crates, ready for pickup. As the students ate their lunch, volunteers and employees gathered under the tent; Jack from Providence Regina House shared some snacks, and a neighbor joined us from across the street. Though everyone came from different places and had different levels of experience, a sense of community and shared purpose was clear at Marra Farm.

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The Giving Gardener: Plant cover crops now for healthy veggies next year

This post was contributed by Scott Behmer, Seattle Community Farm Coordinator.

2015-03-24 SCF Cover Crop ready to be tilled in

This cover crop, planted winter 2014, was ready to be tilled by March 2015.

Unlike veggies that we grow to feed us, we grow cover crops to feed the soil. They do many wonderful things like preventing erosion and water runoff, providing nutrients to the soil, and suppressing weeds.

When planting cover crop for winter, September is ideal and October is okay. The basics are similar for planting in either summer or winter. For winter, plant the cover crop in September. It will grow throughout the winter, competing with the weeds that would otherwise grow, holding the soil in place to prevent erosion and some runoff, as well as soak up lots of water to prevent more runoff.

When spring rolls around, till (mix) the cover crop into the soil where it will decompose and add their nutrients to the soil. It’s like composting, but directly in your garden bed. For nutrients, the ideal time to till cover crop in is as soon as it starts to flower. After that, the plants will instead be putting their nutrients into their seeds where they are less available to the soil, and if you wait until the seeds are produced it may become a weed itself.

You should allow two or three weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting. If you run out of time before planting there are two options. You can either till in the cover crop early, or yank it out and compost it in your compost pile instead. If planting cover crop for the summer, the process is the same except it will grow much more quickly.

There are many different plants that are well suited to be a cover crop and many times of the year that you can plant them. They are most widely used over the winter when many veggies aren’t growing anyway, but you can also plant them in summer if you have a space that won’t be used for a while.

One of the most popular summer varieties is buckwheat. Buckwheat is fast growing and produces a lot of plant matter quickly. Over-the-winter popular varieties include field peas, vetch, clover, fava beans, and cereal rye (not perennial rye). It’s also very common to mix a few varieties together.

Cover crop photos by Steve Tracey

DukeEngage: The Mountain Movers

Duke engage photo

Left to right: Motin Yeung, Kyle Harvey, Kristen Bailey, Annie Apple

DukeEngage is a Duke University undergraduate program that provides an immersive service experience in either a domestic or international location. Funded by the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, over 3,000 Duke students have served 600 community organizations, in 78 nations, on six continents. The expressed mission of DukeEngage is to educate students through civic engagement and encourage them to share those learned values with the university community.

The 2015 DukeEngage Seattle group came up with our own mission statement: to service the Seattle community through authentic partnerships and meaningful reflection. During the next two months, 15 students will work at 11 placements around the city, aspiring to develop an understanding for nonprofit service work .

For the past several  years, Solid Ground has had a strong relationship with the DukeEngage program and will host the following four students working in various positions this summer:

  • Kyle Harvey’s experience as an editor and writer for the university paper made him a good fit for working with the Communications team at Solid Ground. He will write and edit blog posts, help manage the social media accounts, and potentially create and edit videos.
  • Motin Yeung will work with the Financial Fitness Boot Camp to develop curricula and tools to help low-income households increase financial stability. At school, he concentrates in Markets and Management studies and has a deep appreciation for how financial wellness contributes to stable living.
  • Annie Apple will work with Lettuce Link, splitting her time between helping on the two farm sites, working at the food bank, and performing administrative tasks. Her ongoing interest in public health, social justice, and youth empowerment inspired her to take on this unique combination of work.
  • Kristen Bailey also works with Lettuce Link at Marra Farm. Her work helping to harvest the Farm diverges from her past experiences in Chicago. However as an EMT, Kristen’s seen firsthand how food accessibility creates health disparities between communities.

We named our DukeEngage group the Mountain Movers, as testimony to the substantial challenges Solid Ground and other nonprofits take on, and their ability to incrementally make a large difference.

Food Justice: What does it mean to learn it, grow it, live it?

PrintFor some, Chefs Night Out has been a longstanding tradition of food, fun and fundraising. Local food and wine enthusiasts gather for a cocktail hour, auction, and a much anticipated dinner prepared tableside by one of 10 locally celebrated chefs featured at the event. This year the celebration continues on November 16 at the beautiful Seattle Design Center in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

In addition to having the opportunity to savor a gourmet four-course meal with fine wine pairings, attendees partaking in these festivities also get to do so while contributing to a cause that challenges the root causes of hunger. All proceeds from the event go toward Solid Ground’s work to achieve food justice through the Hunger & Food Resources department and its subsidiary programs. But this year is a little different; the focus is not only on food justice, it’s also on the development of food justice as a living mantra for the local community. A mantra built on the tenets of learning it, growing it, and living it.

LEARN IT
The Apple Corps program, a team of National Service members dedicated to nutrition education, works within local schools to combine standard subjects like math, science, literacy and art with cooking, wellness and physical activity. Gerald Wright, Hunger & Food Resources Director at Solid Ground, firmly believes that nutritional knowledge is power:

Apple Corps 2008The whole idea around nutrition education is that if we can really train children from an early age in all aspects of healthy eating, in understanding the value and benefit of eating balanced, nutritional meals, if we can help children at that young age really start to fall in love with healthy foods – taste it, experience it, and see that it’s good – that enables them to start making healthier choices. That is supportive of food justice.”

GROW IT
Developing an urban farm in a rapidly sprawling city like Seattle can be difficult. But the Lettuce Link program, which has been gardening and giving since 1988, is still going strong. By cooperatively operating two lively farms with their adjacent communities and collaborating with over 64 P-Patch community gardens and 18 other giving gardens, Lettuce Link manages to donate an average of 50,000 pounds of produce per year to those who need it! Marra Farm’s ¾-acre Giving Garden utilizes the dwindling farming space in Seattle and encourages folks in the South Park neighborhood to invest in growing organic food and the environment around them. Seattle Community Farm‘s repurposed sliver of land in the Rainier Vista housing community is also open to local residents and volunteers, with produce going to the Rainier Valley Food Bank and neighborhood residents with lower incomes.

Lettuce Link 1988“Lettuce Link is all about being a community place where people can not only come and learn about growing food, but they can actually experience it,” Gerald says.

The program aims to offer experiential knowledge and hands-on learning as a means of informing and encouraging the local community to grow its own food. The objective is to offer people the tools needed to ensure that price and availability don’t become the barrier to choosing fresh and healthy options. By showing people that you can grow your own food with a little bit of space and some water, that’s putting control over access and quality back into the hands of the folks who need it most. With all of the opportunities that Lettuce Link offers to stay connected to the food we eat by learning how to grow it, this element is a critical cornerstone of food justice.

LIVE IT

Eating is necessary to sustain life. Cooking, however, is not – and not everyone has equal access to the knowledge or skills to cook the vegetables they’ve been told are good for them.

Cooking Matters 1994 (by John Bolivar)

Photo by John Bolivar

Maybe people have a concept of what constitutes healthy eating. Someone goes to the doctor and their doctor tells them to go on a low-sodium diet. But they may not know how to cook foods within their new diet. We want people to be in a position of power over their eating. Knowing vegetables are healthy is different from knowing how to cook them,” offers Gerald.

This is where the Cooking Matters program comes into play. With generous in-kind donations from Charlie’s Produce and Whole Foods Market, Cooking Matters students (from kindergartners to seniors) attend hands-on cooking lessons and receive take-home groceries to continue cooking healthy recipes at home. Participants also receive food and nutrition expertise from community volunteer chefs, nutritionists and class assistants. Because “it’s not enough just to know what is nutritious and how to grow it, but also how to cook it,” Gerald says.

We’re turning the page on a community exercising the right to know, grow and eat healthy and culturally relevant foods. And while shopping, weeding or cooking can seem like laborious tasks, they empower individuals to make healthy and sustainable choices that feed their bodies and their communities.

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New additions to Marra Farm!

The children's shed got a makeover!

The children’s shed got a makeover!

If you haven’t been to Marra Farm lately, things might look a lot different next time you visit! Lettuce Link has some incredible recent additions to the farm, thanks to our amazing partners and hardworking volunteers.

Compost Bins

Young’s Market donated their time and money installing six new compost bins at Marra. Lettuce Link is thrilled to have these new bins, as they will help us build compost onsite and move us away from importing compost from other locations. By the start of next growing season, there will be lots of compost ready to add great nutrients to the soil.

Mushroom Hut

Marra has a brand new mushroom hut and mobile farm stand courtesy of Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA). The engineers at MKA designed the building and came to the farm en masse on Saturday, September 13 to bring their vision to life. Produce from Lettuce Link’s giving Garden at Marra Farm is available through a work trade program to anyone who has trouble affording and accessing fresh vegetables. The new mushroom hut will allow Lettuce Link to meet diversified interests from individuals in the community, at our partnering food banks, and at South Park’s Community Kitchen nights, and is a great educational tool for children and adults who are growing food for fun or to become self-reliant.

Mobile Farm Stand

One of Lettuce Link’s areas of emphasis is creating access points in the south end of Seattle for fresh produce. For individuals who don’t have time or capacity to participate in our work trade program, the mobile farm stand is a particularly exciting project. The stand creates a space directly in the middle of South Park at the farm for people to find affordable, organic produce. Local growers in the Marra Farm Coalition can sell their produce directly onsite. Stop by Saturdays from 11am-2pm to pick up some veggies from Marra Farm’s collective of growers!

Children’s Shed Addition & Makeover

South Park Arts gave our children’s shed a great makeover, complete with chalkboards on the walls! This group has worked with children at Marra for years on many art projects, and it’s wonderful to see this lasting, colorful piece thanks to them.

Hamm Creek Signage

Lastly, a very exciting, beautiful new project this year was made possible due to the King County Conservation District, Subaru Foundation, and the Russell Family Foundation. Brand new multilingual signs (in English, Spanish and Vietnamese) about the Hamm Creek Loop were installed along the perimeter of the farm on beautiful cedar posts. Come by for a walk around Marra and you’ll read about the animals you might find in and around the creek, take a peek into the water with a periscope, and learn about foraging native edible berries and the history of the creek.

If you or a group are interested in volunteering with Lettuce Link, please contact volunteers@solid-ground.org.

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Solid Ground Board members get their hands dirty at Marra Farm

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Solid Ground’s Board of Directors‘ visit to Marra Farm on Saturday, 9/13/14 was more than just a quick stop by and tour. Board members rolled up their sleeves, turned compost, pulled weeds and invested in Marra Farm. Each Board member in attendance last Saturday now has a story to tell to friends, coworkers and potential funders about the investment they made in Marra Farm. The farm is no longer a place that exists on paper or in their minds; it’s something real and something to be excited about! The visit to Marra marks a shift in how each Board member thinks about the farm; they are connected and engaged.

As a former Executive Director of a small nonprofit, I know the value of an engaged Board of Directors. Gordon McHenry, Jr., no doubt, was proud of his team, and I am personally grateful for the time and effort each Board member contributed.

On behalf of the Lettuce Link team and the entire Marra Farm community, we thank all of the Board members in attendance and those that contributed in the planning and logistics of the day.

Hamm Creek Restoration: Would you believe this is Seattle?

The rushing waters of Hamm Creek

The rushing waters of Hamm Creek

Harmony. Lots can come to mind when you really think about it. But I’m talking environmental harmony. I visited, photographed, chatted at and volunteered on the Marra Farm Giving Garden for the first time a couple weeks ago. It was one of those rare Seattle spring days where the sun lingers all day and the temperature is just right. While I poked around the farm (before getting down and dirty planting tomatoes), I kept the idea of Hamm Creek in the back of my mind.

About three days before my visit, I talked to Nate Moxley, Lettuce Link Program Manager at Solid Ground, about where I might find the creek once I arrived at the farm. He explained to me exactly where I could find it. I mean, the exact placement of the creek from any standing position, whether you’re facing north, south, east or west; are 300 feet from 4th Avenue South; next to the tallest scarecrow, etc. Let me tell you: I still missed it. After slowly exploring the farm, I finally circled back to where I’d started.

Kyong Soh, Lettuce Link’s Marra Farm Coordinator, was actively running around, filling new compost bins here and checking on tomato plants there. I asked her where I might find Hamm Creek.

“Oh, it’s right behind you!” she said. I did a mental face palm. How could I miss it? Was it that obvious? But when I turned around, I didn’t feel so dumb: No, in fact, it is not visible at all. Many people could be and are presently oblivious to this creek. Although it runs above ground (or has been “daylighted”) for about 200 feet right next to the popular neighborhood farm, it is shrouded by large bushes, smallish trees and tall grasses.

First, Kyong led me about 15 feet to the left of the main entrance, where we crouched down beneath shrubbery in order to avoid nettles in our faces and any exposed skin. This small clearing afforded us a view of darkened, lightly rushing water. The second entryway was a little more open, but still unassuming from the outside and didn’t provide much light for observing the critters and plant life contained within. The third entrance to the creek was by far my favorite: The short walk down requires little squatting or cautionary walking. A little sun peeked in through the overgrown greenery and a modest tree arched its thin branches over the stream, protecting it from daylight.

Best of all, we witnessed this tranquil setting at its finest, part of why the creek was daylighted in the first place: A man, no older than 25, sat by the creek with his bike perched next to him, relaxing and snacking in the shade, apparently taking a break from the day and choosing to do so in this serene environment – a sliver of green land in the otherwise largely industrial neighborhood of South Park, Seattle. A neighborhood with a rich history in activism and community gardening, but also known for continuously polluted air and topsoil from surrounding manufacturing facilities – and known for the contaminated Duwamish River, a superfund site which it is estimated will take 27 years to clean up.

The project to restore this creek has been a long one: What started as a trash and litter cleanup in the 1980s turned into a multi-objective restorative project spearheaded by the late environmental activist John Beal. The goals? To reestablish the Lost Fork of Hamm Creek at Marra Farm, part of the larger Hamm Creek watershed which encompasses at least an acre of land, as an ecosystem, complete with native plants, bugs, birds and even salmon rearing. Although a lot has been done over a span of over 30 years, Nate points out that after the energy put into the Lost Fork of Hamm Creek by John Beal and the daylighting process in 2000, “Over the last few years, there hasn’t been ongoing stewardship. Until now.”

Alas, after years of hard work from the community and beyond, salmon fry cannot survive in this ecosystem if people still litter or pollute the water. Alternatively, residents of the South Park community cannot enjoy the benefits of the creek if the water quality is unsafe. So now, Solid Ground has taken on the task of ongoing restorative efforts. Thanks to a generous grant from King Conservation District, as well as additional support from the Subaru of America Foundation and Russell Family Foundation, Lettuce Link staff are building ecosystems and community around the Lost Fork. By integrating our existing partnership with Concord International Elementary School, the creek is a learning tool for students. Last spring, Lettuce Link’s Education Coordinator Amelia Swinton used science-based curricula put together by Mountains to Sound Greenway with 5th graders during classes at Marra Farm, incorporating water quality safety testing including measuring the pH levels, temperature and turbidity.

There have also been ongoing discussions between Lettuce Link staff and community members about the design and content for new signage around the creek in order to enhance general knowledge about the safety and history of the creek. “We want to increase awareness about it. People have passively used the creek. You know, on a hot day they might stick their feet in it or kids might be playing in it. So we wanted to make sure that the water was safe,” Nate says.

Regarding the future, “We plan to take out invasive species like English ivy and Himalayan Blackberry and plant over 200 native plants in October,” Nate tells me.  And as for releasing fry into the streams, “The pipes downstream might be too clogged with sediment for the salmon to successfully pass through. Hatcheries may not give up their fry unless they’re sure the salmon can thrive.” But there’s still a possibility for another salmon run in Seattle’s backyard. “Right now, we’re doing more research on the conditions downstream,” he assures me.

I hope it is possible to have a living, breathing ecosystem, one where plants, animals and humans can live in harmony. If one can build community with the help of a 200-foot-long splinter of running water, then I’m a believer.

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Want to help with the Hamm Creek Restoration Project? Join us on South Park Saturdays, the 1st Saturday of every month, to get involved at Hamm Creek and the Marra Farm Giving Garden or contact lettucelink@solid-ground.org for more information.

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