UW News

August 18, 2016

From White House to Tacoma, WA, urban agriculture is growing

UW News

For University of Washington professor Sally Brown, it’s always been about food in cities.

Sally Brown

Sally Brown

She got her start as a chef in New York City, then ran a wholesale vegetable business selling only locally grown vegetables in the New York area. Brown then went to graduate school to learn how city waste could be used to enrich soils on nearby farms.

Now a research associate professor in the UW’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, Brown and collaborators have published the most extensive compilation to date explaining how to grow urban agriculture, and how doing so could save American cities.

The compilation, titled “Sowing Seeds in the City,” includes articles by academics, journalists, avid gardeners — and even a former White House pastry chef who helped plant the vegetable garden on the White House lawn. The two-book series was published by Springer in April, with co-editors Elizabeth Hodges Snyder of the University of Alaska Anchorage and Kristen McIvor with Harvest Pierce County.

UW Today sat down with Brown to learn more about the books, urban agriculture as a movement and what our cities could look like if they fully embraced urban farming.

You have an interesting background in food and cities. How did that influence your current work?

SB: Growing up in New York City, I realized that most people weren’t aware that there was commercial agriculture pretty close by. Having farms close to the city was a gift, something that I thought was important to preserve. I went back to graduate school as a way to see if we could use some of the waste from the city to make near-urban agriculture more permanent — and less likely to be lost to suburbia.

What brought urban agriculture front and center for you more recently?

SB: It was through my former graduate student Kristen McIvor’s work that I began to recognize, urban agriculture is something — this is not just a feel-good fad, or about who can grow the coolest variety of cherry tomato. This is potentially a really powerful movement on a number of different levels with a huge range of benefits. In order to reach its potential, it needs to be nurtured. Like a plant, you need to nurture it.

Can you give some examples of cities embracing urban farming?

Tacoma Mayor Strickland, center, addresses gardeners at an event.

Tacoma Mayor Strickland, center, addresses gardeners at an event.Kristen McIvor

SB: Tacoma, Washington, is my favorite example. You can read about it in the last chapter of the second book. The mayor of Tacoma, Marilyn Strickland, considers expanding urban agriculture as one of her missions while she is in office. She wants Tacoma to have more urban gardens per capita than any other city in the U.S. There are concerns about soil contamination in Tacoma from the former smelter. Most people garden in raised beds. The recycled cardboard from the city is used to cover ground in between the beds. Wood waste is chipped and used as mulch. The beds are filled with Tagro potting soil — the award-winning soil made from the solids from the city’s wastewater treatment plant. Tacoma also helps to support Harvest Pierce County, the organization that helps tend to the gardens as well as their gleaning program. Washington, D.C. and Chicago are just now starting to provide soil blends for their gardens, also from the solids from wastewater.

Where do these books fit in?

Kids get creative with kale in an urban garden in Tacoma, Washington.

Kids get creative with kale in an urban garden in Tacoma, Washington.Kristen McIvor

SB: Urban agriculture is many things to many people. It’s becoming recognized as an issue of scholarly importance, it’s starting to be integrated into different academic curricula and it’s something that municipal managers are starting to consider on some level as we now see farms and community gardens in every city. We are also seeing an increased emphasis on experiential learning with getting kids outside, and there’s the realization that diet and activity are critical for people’s health. There wasn’t any resource out there that addressed all of these aspects of urban agriculture.

Who are the books for?

SB: The writing is a mix of styles and isn’t purely academic. We wanted our books to be interesting and useful to people at organizations like Seattle Tilth, for people in master gardener programs and even as required reading for municipal managers.

What are the differences between the two volumes?

SB: The first book is more of a how-to manual for urban agriculture. The second one tells stories about what happens if you do it. We started the first book with exploring what life could look like if a city really adopted urban farming. We then began the second book with stories about why people are coming to urban agriculture and what are they getting from it.

You have many favorite chapters, but can you share a couple of highlights?

SB: In the first book, the McGoodwin family from Seattle describes lessons learned from tending their urban garden. Their story is just amazing, because they literally measured their entire annual produce yield, did taste tests and were so skilled in their advice. If you have a garden plot and you want to grow a lot of food, you need to read that chapter.

Bill Yosses, left, tending to the White House garden with staff and student volunteers.

Bill Yosses, left, tending to the White House garden with staff and student volunteers.

In the second book, the first chapter is a beautiful story about former White House pastry chef William Yosses­ who helped start Michelle Obama’s garden. It will make you cry. The last chapter in the book is about Tacoma, which is the only city I know that is really practicing urban agriculture with more of the pieces all tied in. That chapter starts with an interview with the city’s mayor saying, “I need to do this.” You will start this book with tears and end it with tears, but they’re all good tears.

What does the future look like for urban agriculture?

SB: Everybody now thinks, wow, cool, but it’s going to go through a lot of growing pains and changes. You can envision a situation where helping urban farms is an integral part of a city’s job, like police and fire. It fits because of the public health benefits, the crime reduction and the food security benefits. Climate change is a big threat to our largescale-production agriculture, so this can be a way to make our communities more resilient in the face of climate change. But will we get there? I don’t know. It’s a lot of communication and teaching people to take responsibility for the whole deal, ranging from growing a portion of their food to properly dealing with their food waste.

A number of UW-affiliated authors contributed to these books. McIvor and Andrew Trlica are former graduate students of Brown’s; John Marzluff is a professor in environmental and forest sciences; Michael McGoodwin is a former faculty member in the School of Medicine; and Megan Bang is an associate professor in the College of Education. Daniel Thompson, whose interview appears in the final piece in the second volume, is one of Tacoma’s wastewater managers and received his doctorate in silviculture from the UW.


For more information, contact Brown at slb@uw.edu.

Read more about Brown’s work in her blog entries for the Huffington Post.