Grade A: Study Agriculture at the UW Farm

“I’m from Michigan, which used to be the asparagus capital of the world until globalization,” says UW Farm Manager Sarah Geurkink. “Now it’s Peru.” Actually, China precedes Peru, but Geurkink’s point is the same: As with most produce, the U.S. imports more asparagus than it grows. She says this as we walk by a bed of shoots with feathery tops. In their unharvested state they resemble delicate bamboo more than the green stalks that arrive at dinner tables slathered in butter.

UW Farm with students

Students working the fields at the Center for Urban Horticulture location of the UW Farm.

The UW Farm began in 2004 as a small (1/3 acre) outcrop of the Botany Greenhouse. “Biology and ecology professors were astounded that students didn’t know what the top of a carrot looked like,” Geurkink says plainly. By 2010 student interest and crop variety had exceeded the tiny plot.

In 2011, the Farm applied for a Campus Sustainability Fund grant for new fields to plant in addition to the Botany Greenhouse location. The space at the Center for Urban Horticulture is 1 1/2 acres, includes an irrigation system and contains over 70 types of crops. A Design Build class created an angular shed for the site, and Engineers without Borders built a hoop house that extends the season for tomatoes, okra, eggplant and other plants.

“This is a Poona Kheera cucumber,” Geurkink says, handling a golden, kidney-shaped vegetable. They grow in a small field with cantaloupe and watermelons. “All from the same family,” she explains.

Of the UW Farm’s locations, the Center for Urban Horticulture has the most plants. Shaded by surrounding buildings, the Farm’s Mercer Court property grows the most carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables. Each of the three facilities provides produce to Housing and Food Services, the University of Washington Club and Cultivate, a campus restaurant located in Elm Hall. During the summer the Farm also runs a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) service, for which the public is welcome to sign up in March. And on Fridays, beginning in mid-July, a farm stand will sell UW Farm foods on the Burke-Gilman Trail near Gasworks Park.

Garlic at the UW Farm

UW Farm manager Sarah Geurkink shows how the Farm cross-pollinates its garlic.

Year-round UW student staff and volunteers, as well as members of the community, help in the fields. Quarterly the Farm hosts a pizza bake in an onsite cob oven (the next one will happen in August and feature honey from the University’s bees). Following that bake, near the end of August, the UW Botanic Gardens will host a public cob-oven-building workshop in part to replace the Farm’s current model. Other public classes on a variety of topics are available throughout the year—many are free.

Students weed pea vines that have been overgrown by winter squash near tomato trellises, while Geurkink explains how the Farm is saving seed and cross-pollinating different varieties of garlic, which involves picking out the bulbils so the garlic flowers can be pollinated.

“Do you want a head of lettuce?” she asks giddily kneeling down to cup a frothy head of butter leaves. “The best thing about growing food is sharing it.” And she slides it into a produce bag like any you’d find at a grocery store.

Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st Street, Seattle, WA 98195; 206-543-8616.