From the street, you can’t really tell how much is going on in the backyards of these homes. In place of tightly kempt lawns are elaborate urban farms, ripe with goats and chickens and enough fruits and vegetables to supply a produce aisle.
“I always wanted to have a farm,” says Joan Engelmeyer, whose City Art Farm in southeast Seattle is a flurry of activity with gardens, goats, chickens, and after-school programs for kids. “When I walk in my neighborhood, it’s as if it’s not really in Seattle. There’s no sidewalk and it has that gravelly feel. So I started pretending that I lived in the country.”
City Art Farm was among the more than twenty urban farms to recently take part in Seattle Tilth’s 2014 Chicken Coop and Urban Farm Tour, highlighting some of the best in the city. There are hundreds of urban farms all over Seattle. In addition to chickens and goats, many house ducks, rabbits, honey bees, mason bees, aquaponics, and edible gardens, which are much healthier than the edible gardens in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
At Feathered Fish Farm in Ballard, run by Amanda Cohn and Koji Yugawa, the aquaponic garden is a Rube Goldberg machine of sustainability. After the fish are fed and poop, the water is pumped through grow beds which act as a biofilter, ultimately feeding the plants and resupplying the fish with clean water.
“It’s a lot of work to get it started,” says Cohn, “but once it’s started, the idea of being able to grow so much with so little work was really appealing. No more weeding, no fertilizing, and no watering.”
Like many urban farms, Feathered Fish Farm started with chickens. “They’re kind of called the ‘gateway drug’ to urban farming,” says Cohn. I ask why her chickens are named after Shakespearean women. “Because I think Shakespearean women are kind of chicken,” she says. “You know, ‘Save me,’ and all that.”
If chickens are the gateway drug into urban farming, goats are a hardcore commitment. Just down the street from Feathered Fish Farm, Ingela Wanerstrand and Brian Genung have an urban farm that’s a bit of a neighborhood attraction with its goats and little chicken house and edible gardens. It won the People’s Choice Award on the tour.
“I felt bad,” says Wanerstrand, “because we also won it last year.”
Wanerstrand, who specializes in garden design, initially decided to keep goats because she was allergic to cow milk, not goat milk. “I also like furry animals,” she adds, laughing. “We’re a neighborhood petting zoo.”
The city legalized goats a few years ago (it didn’t get the fanfare marijuana did), and allows regular-sized lots to have up to “three small animals,” which can include dogs, goats, rabbits, cats, and a potbelly pig–in various combinations too lengthy to detail here.
I would tell you more about goat ownership, but as I was reading a paper sign at the Wanerstrand farm entitled “What do goats need?,” one of the goats ate it.
Over at City Art Farm, managed by artist Engelmeyer and her husband, it feels a bit like Shangri-La, and I found myself hanging around for much longer than necessary in a vague attempt to reverse the aging process.
The garden at the side of the house is bursting with kale, lettuce, beans, bamboo, spinach, chard, yarrow, zucchini, beets, herbs, and little watermelon cucumbers, which look like tiny watermelons, but taste like cucumbers. Most of the crops are grown for the Rainer Valley Food Bank. In the corner is a catnip bush. “The cats like to sleep there and space out,” says Engelmeyer.
Along with goats, the farm has a lengthy chicken coop which stretches along the fence. How many chickens are there? “Whatever’s legal–that’s what we have,” she says, smiling.
Inside the airy studio out back is a long wooden table surrounded by innumerable crafts on multiple shelves, where Engelmeyer teaches art classes to adults and children. The small attached gallery features theirs and Engelmeyer’s work, and is reminiscent of the Insider Art you’d see in the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
When I visited, kids were spread about working on their various creations. A little girl ran up to Engelmeyer and asked if she could put her clay sculpture in the oven.
“That’s very pretty,” says Engelmeyer.
“It will be pretty,” corrects the girl.
Operating for 35 years, Seattle Tilth has been at the center of the organic gardening movement in the region, and offers regular classes with names like “City Chickens 101” and “Raise City Goats.”
“Our first chicken coop tour was in 1999 — it was the first in the nation and is the longest standing coop tour as far as we know,” says Tilth Communications Director Liza Burke. She suggests people start small when considering urban farming.
“Don’t try to do everything at once! Try growing some easy crops and learn about building healthy soil,” says Burke. “Experiment – farmers spend a lifetime or generations doing that — try things out and see what happens.”
The process is certainly a gradual one, but often rewarding. I ask Engelmeyer if she has any future projects in mind for the farm.
“A hot tub,” she says, laughing. “That’s just a dream, though. Plans are different from dreams, but they’re very close to being the same thing here.”
Don’t want to wait for next year’s Seattle Tilth Chicken Coop and Urban Farm Tour?
Ingela Wanerstrand and Brian Genung will be offering classes at their award-winning garden: https://www.facebook.com/LittleGreenFarmSchool
City Art Farm has year-round after school art classes, open studios on Thursdays from 2 to 6 where kids can drop in and make things, and space can also be rented for parties for kids and adults: http://www.cityartfarm.com/City_Art_Farm/Home.html
Want to find out more about urban gardening? Visit Seattle Tilth’s website for info and classes: