Hidden behind the single-family homes lining South Cloverdale Street, and amid the tall trees of Beer Sheva Park, is an urban farm owned by the city of Seattle and operated by community members with support from Seattle Tilth, an agriculture and environmental nonprofit.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the small farm and wetlands was populated with more than a dozen East African elders who were working on the wetlands surrounding the small farming space. A few carted wheelbarrows full of mulch around the property, while volunteers and staff directed a wetlands restoration project.
They laid down cardboard, burlap and then mulch to cover up an area that has been taken over by invasive plants. Morning glory — a winding, thin vine — crept up and wrapped around the stalks of young dogwoods that volunteers and staff had planted. Nearby, reed canary grass covered a low point in the farm’s wetlands. These plants use up all the water needed for native plants, said Chris Hoffer, environmental programs coordinator for Seattle Tilth.
It was a warm day of hard work as the volunteers ripped up the grass and laid down the layers to restore the wetlands. Their work would be rewarded soon. Inside an on-site kitchen, other elders were taking greens and carrots from the garden and cooking a meal the group would eat together at noon.
They have met here every Friday for the past four years, and they love it. Many were farmers when they were younger.
“They’re exchanging culture, language; they work together, and they eat together,” said Michael Neguse, program coordinator for Seattle Neighborhood Group, which organizes the weekly work party.
Soon, their space will be under construction as the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is remodeled and expanded with $2.5 million in donations and grants. Seattle Tilth, the Seattle Parks Foundation and the Friends of the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands have been raising the money over the last couple of years to build classroom space and new greenhouses, improve the wetlands and expand the production of the farm.
The city still owns the land, so the Seattle City Council appropriated the funds in a unanimous vote May 11. Supporters of the farm are pursuing further funding later this year.
The community had a grand vision for this 7 1/2 acres of lands five years ago, and this funding makes it a reality. The space will have a children’s garden, a farm stand, native wetlands, in-ground crops and a trail, among other amenities.
It’s well in line with the mission of Seattle Tilth, which works at the intersection of the environment and agriculture.
“I think our mission there is broader than just teaching people to become urban farmers,” said Andrea Dwyer, executive director of Seattle Tilth, at a Seattle City Council hearing on the project and funding. “It’s helping them understand the importance of a healthy environment.”
In one area of the farm, kale and carrots sprout near the taller leeks that have grown over the winter. Just a few yards away are the wetlands that support a healthy ecosystem. In one 7 1/2-acre property, food and sustainable environments are growing side-by-side.
Up until 2008, the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation operated the Atlantic City Nursery on this land. The city used the space to grow plants for other parks. Most of the space was covered in gravel; city staff grew the plants in pots above ground.
When the city closed the nursery, the late Harry Hoffman rallied his neighbors and helped convince the city to open the land up for an urban farm. The Friends of the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands and Seattle Tilth secured $500,000 grant from the city Department of Neighborhoods to operate the site.
The community wanted it to be a farm, first and foremost, said Peter Masundire, a Rainier Beach resident and member of the Friends of the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands.
“We were very clear from the start in saying this was going to be a proper functioning farm and not a pea patch,” he said. “We wanted to create an asset that the community could be proud of. That’s why we made sure that Rainier Beach is included in the name.”
The farm has lived up to its name. In 2014, staff and volunteers harvested 9,086 pounds of produce and obtained and distributed another 11,571 pounds.
The food is distributed to a number of community groups. The farm provided produce for more than 6,000 meals served at community centers in the area and provided 3,100 “Good Food Bags,” fresh produce bags provided to low-income families in the area.
In addition to the meal the East African elders cook every Friday, the farm provides produce for the elders to serve meals at Yesler Terrace during the week.
The farm provides community as well. In 2014, 490 volunteers contributed 3,195 hours of work at the farm.
The existing work of the farm helped the fundraising efforts, said Thatcher Bailey, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation. People were eager to support the farm when they saw it in action.
“I like the huge range of people who attach themselves to that project,” Bailey said. “I think it was a reminder of how parks can function to ignite community passion and connect different people and different communities. It’s fantastic when you see that in action.”
Construction begins in July and will take six to eight months to complete. Supporters and staff of the farm are waiting to see if portions of the space can remain open during construction to allow people to continue to meet and work together.
Neguse, who organizes the East African elders on Fridays, hopes they can continue to meet in July.
“That’s the best time of year,” he said. “We want to be here. For us, it’s getting out of the house.”
Berhane Ghidey, one of the elders, described why he comes out every Friday: “First of all, physical exercise. I love urban gardening. Here we are eating food — good food, healthy food — and we are taking food to our home.”
It’s an attractive proposition, being in community, working, eating and bringing home food for the week. It’s what’s drawn this group of elders to the farm from as far north as Shoreline and as far east as Issaquah.