Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is a community-sustained organic farm and demonstration wetlands restoration site.
STORY BY CORINNE WHITING
ILLUSTRATION BY SONYA MONTENEGRO
On the day we visit Seattle’s largest urban farm, this unexpected oasis on the south side of Seattle bustles with activity. Here, at Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands (RBUFW), a group of University of Washington students are already hard at work in various garden plots, as my friend and I join a crew of coworkers, happily “out of office” for an alfresco team-building day. While we wait for instructions on our individual assignments, I tap into the sounds of the buzzing property: the creak of a wheelbarrow, the hum of an airplane engine, the laughter of volunteers, the calls of birds swirling overhead.
After we’ve all signed in and selected garden gloves from colorful boxes, Community Education Program Manager Chris Hoffer gathers us for a brief history lesson and rundown on how the morning will run. We go around the circle, sharing our names, home neighborhoods (from Snoqualmie to Magnolia) and, the fun part, the most recent vegetable we’ve consumed (kale, squash, avocado, arugula, peppers).
In preparation for the upcoming Farm Fest celebration happening that weekend, Chris asks for our help with weeding projects to beautify the space. We learn that during the weekend festivities, visitors can pick blueberries, make spring rolls, explore the wetlands, plant seeds to take home, take self-guided tours, listen to live music, and enjoy fare from local food trucks. Chris explains that this event serves as an open house of sorts; the site has been partially closed for the past year and a half during a major renovation project that was a successful, three-year-long capital campaign that raised money in partnership with Seattle Parks Foundation.
This impressive operation of RBUFW is owned by Seattle Parks and Recreation and co-operated by Tilth Alliance and Friends of Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands. With eight acres of farmland plus several acres of protected wetlands located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood, the venue serves as an anchor in Rainier Beach’s Food Innovation District.
Here, community members of all ages get involved in educational activities that teach them how to grow food by using practices that are healthy for the environment. Participants also help to restore the natural wetlands habitat that runs down the middle of the farm, eat farm-fresh food, learn about nutrition, and supply fresh produce to the surrounding community.
We learn that where we’re standing would have been underwater 100 years ago, when Lake Washington measured eight or nine feet higher than it does today. Because of this, modern-day farmers find incredibly rich soil that they predict leading to the annual production of 10,000-plus pounds of food. The bounty of goods grown here is used for the on-site cooking program, which offers a variety of culinary, nutrition, and farm-to-table experiences for the Rainier Beach community, and is donated to local food banks, too.
The RBUFW team says they’re happy to follow organic practices, meaning they use no chemicals or pesticides. Their land supports an array of fruit trees (cherry and plum, for example), as well as crops ranging from asparagus and tomatoes to collards, blueberries, and edible weeds, to name a few. Sometimes, they also take requests and grow produce suggested by the community, like golden purslane, which can be eaten raw on salads.
Results of the recent renovations include three greenhouses, a circle drive, an improved site layout, the build-out of a learning farm, outdoor and indoor classroom spaces, a food forest, apiary, and a green connection between Beer Sheva Park and Pritchard Island Beach Park. Additionally, a teaching kitchen was designed for cooking workshops and group dinners held one Sunday a month, during which volunteers come together to prepare a meal for 75 to 100 community members. Currently, RBUFW also partners with the East African Senior Meal program to host a farm work party and community lunch every Friday.
Chris explains that the RBUFW staff strives to teach farming in a way that helps visitors translate skills to their own gardens. “We’re trying to show different ways of growing food,” he comments. “If it’s a children’s garden, for example, we can get the whole family involved.”
Thanks to its proximity to schools like Rainier High, students often come to RBUFW on field trips that offer hands-on experience. Towering sunflowers mark the youth farm area, and a small job program gives youngsters the opportunity to dig their hands into the earth. Older volunteers come here to work, too, providing them with movement and exercise, as well as the opportunity to connect with others in their community.
When asked what he loves most about this thriving plot of land, Chris replies, “I love the community coming here and loving it; it’s so peaceful just watching everything.”
As we’re chatting, an osprey soars overhead — “The original Seahawk,” Chris jokes. He says that this land has become a hub for beavers, swallows, and pollinators, as evidenced by the omnipresent bees buzzing around vibrant flower bunches.
“It’s a nice place to get nature right here in the city,” he continues, proudly scanning the property and its crew of urban farmers old and new. “This all exists because of community members who had the vision.”
*Volunteer at RBUFW, in the gardens, office, or at specials events — or by signing up online for regularly occurring community work parties. These friendly gatherings allow participants of all skill and expertise levels to learn about organic gardening and wetlands restoration, while making a difference in the community at the same time. (Donations to Tilth Alliance can be made online, as well.)
Corinne Whiting thoroughly enjoyed discovering this hidden gem where dedicated gardeners and urban farmers work with the earth to produce fresh, delicious food for the greater community.