Seattle Farmers Get a Year in the Sun

by G. Willow Wilson

The city government of Seattle, Washington has declared 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture. The program, developed through the Department of Neighborhoods, aims to make locally grown produce af­fordable and available to as many of Seattle’s diverse residents as possible, while supporting the urban and exur­ban farmers who grow it. New zon­ing laws will allow backyard farmers greater flexibility in what they grow and raise on residential property. A bold pilot program is in place to cre­ate ten urban farms inside city limits.

This initiative is just the latest stride for a city that has long been the pacesetter for sustainability in the American Northwest. As a transplant to Seattle, I was immediately im­pressed by the vigor of the city’s farm­ers’ markets, where a variety of public benefit programs give struggling fam­ilies access to thehealthiest food for the lowest cost.

Before moving to the Rain City, I spent four years in Egypt – one of the oldest farming societies on Planet Earth – so I was spoiled by a superabundance of locally grown food sold in open air markets, something I missed intensely when I returned to the US and was confronted once again by supermarkets. Luckily, I landed in a good spot for a local-food buff.

“I’ve always believed that food is a critical part of building a sustainable society,” says Councilman Richard Conlin, the point man on city coun­cil for the Year of Urban Ag. Conlin is full of enthusiasm for the improve­ments city council is making to zon­ing laws to benefit backyard farmers.

“You’re permitted to keep goats in Seattle,” he said, when I brought up the zoning difficulties urban farmers have faced in other places. “Chick­ens as well. In fact, this year we will clarify existing laws by increasing the number of chickens you’re allowed to keep. Right now they’re classified as a small domestic animal, limiting the permissible number of animals to three, which is obviously hard to do when it comes to chickens. So we’re moving them to a separate category.”

Additionally, laws regulating planting strips in front of residential buildings will be clarified to legalize growing and selling produce. Though raised beds will still require a city permit, residents can plant the grass strips in front of their homes with summer squash and tomatoes to their hearts’ content – and sell what they harvest.

Urban Farms in the City

The most ambitious aspect of the Year of Urban Agriculture, however, will be the establishment of new ur­ban farms in Seattle. “The pilot pro­gram allows ten live-in buildings to be constructed with flexibility in the land-use code,” says Conlin, “This will allow us to evaluate what regu­lations need to be changed or estab­lished to support sustainable farming in an urban setting.”

While many of the benefits of urban agriculture are intangible – im­provements to public health and qual­ity of life, along with a lighter carbon footprint – there are measurable fi­nancial perks as well. Aside from cre­ating sustainable jobs in Seattle, the urban ag program aims to help protect the small farms in eastern King Coun­ty that supply many of the city’s farm­ers’ markets. By strengthening the relationship between urban and rural communities, the program hopes to expand the local food market, spur­ring more Seattlites to get their pro­duce from King County farms.

There are encouraging signs that Seattle’s urban agricultural projects may be repeated in cities across the US. “The Local Food Action Initiative has been presented at several differ­ent conferences,” says Conlin. “This is an issue that people are increasingly becoming aware of, and there’s a lot of interest in a fresh approach to food production and community wellness.”

Thanks to plentiful rainfall and rich volcanic soil, Seattle is the sort of place where you can drop a seed on the ground and wake up to a garden. By putting the city’s natural and hu­man resources to work together, the Year of Urban Agriculture promises to make the best use of both.


G. Willow Wilson’s articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Magazine.

Originally published at Civil Eats, where you can find many other food resources.

[From WS March/April 2010]

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