Underutilized city-owned land could be leased to commercial farmers if certain provisions of the Seattle Food Action Plan, released yesterday by Mayor McGinn's office in conjunction with Food Day, are enacted.
"I think there are some potentially significant items in this plan," says Seattle Tilth executive director Andrea Dwyer, pointing to recommendations in the 28-page document such as "develop additional site criteria to more readily identify vacant or underused parcels suitable for urban agriculture" and "lease underutilized City-owned land to urban farmers through the Seattle Farms program."
When people think about growing food in the city, Dwyer says, "people think about backyard gardens or P-Patches. It would be a new venture for commercial farmers to grow (in the city) with the idea of building a business. This is a definite departure."
The plan - which builds upon previous city initiatives, including the declaration of 2010 as the Year of Urban Agriculture - contains dozens of recommendations grouped under four goals: "healthy food for all", "grow local", "strengthen the economy" and "prevent food waste." While the recommendations pertaining to urban agriculture are listed under the "grow local" heading, Dwyer believes an uptick in city farming could contribute to the achievement of all four goals.
"Creating viable businesses out of farming will increase access for all people to healthy, nutritious, locally-grown food," she says.
It's unclear how much land is available to be converted for agricultural use. Unlike Midwestern cities, which have acres of empty lots perfect for planting (just this month, Chicago police uncovered a marijuana farm the size of two football fields within city limits), Seattle is hemmed in by water and mountains. Although Dwyer wasn't certain whether the figure included the public land covered by the Food Action Plan, she cited a statistic showing less than 4 percent of Seattle land is unoccupied.
"So that's a really low number," she says. "We just live in an area that's great for growing food, but we have very little vacant land available."
While young farmers nationwide have trouble obtaining land, the city's density amplifies the problem for growers trying to get started in King County. The measures outlined in the action plan could potentially lessen those pressures, Dwyer says. She adds that it's possible to produce thousands of pounds of produce on very small tracts, as Seattle Tilth does in a variety of venues across the city.
"If you're using methods that are intensive, but also sustainable, you can produce a lot of food," she says.
But Dwyer is perhaps most excited by the educational opportunities posed by adding more farms to the urban landscape.
"It provides an opportunity to educate people about nutrition and about cooking," Dwyer says. "We're so accustomed to pulling something out of the freezer and zapping it in the microwave. (Urban farms) connect us to the eating choices we make everyday."