By Lornet Turnbull
Special To The Seattle Medium
Growing up in rural Kenya, Dickson Njeri enjoyed sinking his hands into the rich African soil to grow the beans and maize that kept his family fed.
That simple connection to the ground, toiling alongside not just his family but his neighbors, was the thing that he missed most when he moved away to Nairobi and then later to the United States.
So this year when the father of three saw an opportunity to return to farming through a unique partnership in South King County, he not only jumped at the chance to grow food for his own young family but invited others to join in – attempting to mimic the village-like scenario he had in Kenya.
“Farming for me is a passion; it brings me joy,” said Njeri, who moved to Seattle in 2004. “It’s something I want my kids to learn so they can make healthy choices about their eating habits; so they can understand that the food they see in the grocery store came from the soil.”
Njeri is one seven African farmers breathing life back into a sprawling complex of greenhouses in Auburn that have sat dormant for the last decade. The Auburn Adventist Academy, which owns them, last used them for agricultural classes.
The greenhouse the farmers are using is outfitted with automatic sprinklers and climate-controlled fans and lined with boxes of chard, cucumber, cantaloupes, okra, collard greens and other vegetables. Interspersed among those and an assortment of other vegetables are foods from “home,” spider plants and cow peas, what the farmers call “ethnic vegetables’’ and what some experts are calling the newest superfoods.
The farming project, currently in its first year, is run by a South King County collaborative called Living Well Kent. The harvested crops are sold at Living Well Kent’s East Hill Farmers Market, which operates on the last Friday of each month. It’s a way for fellow immigrants to access familiar vegetables and local residents to purchase fresh, healthy and locally grown foods. The farmers also donate a percentage of their haul to Northwest Harvest for distribution to food banks in South King County. That exchange is part of an agreement between Living Well Kent, Northwest Harvest, which leases the greenhouses from the Adventist Academy, and King Conservation District (KCD), which provides the farmers with technical advice as well as supplies and tools.
“There’s the whole dignity aspect of it,” said Jim Procopio, director of operations at Northwest Harvest. The farmers, he said, “aren’t going to a food bank to get food, they are growing their own, which is what they used to do in their home countries and what they’ve been struggling to do here – growing in pots on balconies. Now they can grow it here in the dirt.”
Living Well Kent is a grassroots, volunteer collaborative led almost exclusively by immigrants, refugees and people of colorthat focuses on making healthy foods accessible to all residents. It had been providing space for its farmers to grow vegetables at a small community garden when the opportunity with Northwest Harvest arose this year.
“This is what we always hoped our food-access program would be — allowing immigrants to grow and sell their own food, contributing to the local economy,”said Shamso Issak, executive director of Living Well Kent. “They are not just growing healthyfoods to feed their families, but they are providing foods many in our immigrant community used to have back home.”
The Adventist Academy had been looking for a way to put its farmland to good use in the local community when it entered an agreement with Northwest Harvest. The organization serves 375 food banks across the state, operates one in downtown Seattle and, according to Procopio, is “always struggling to find fresh produce at reasonable prices.”
“This was an opportunity for us to put ourselves into the supply chain at the point where we are generating our own produce,” Procopio said. “The original intent was to run this with Northwest Harvest staff and volunteers and put all the produce that came out of it into the community.”
It’s partnership with Living Well Kent “seemed like a natural fit,” he said.
“We are taking the distribution aspect out of the picture and going direct from farm to table,” Procopio said. “That’s the unique part of this. The connection with Living Well Kent allows us to do that.”
Northwest Harvest is leasing three of eight connected greenhouses from the academy and is in negotiations for 15 adjacent acres of farmland that the farmers would also have access to. The Hall Family Foundation, a local organization, is paying for upgrade and repair of the property, Procopio said.
Food banks often face a challenge providing provide fresh and nutritious foods to their customers. But Procopio said 70 percent of the food his organization distributes to food banks are healthy and nutritious, mostly fruits and vegetables.
Maintaining that commitment becomes more costly in the fall and winter months when those fresh produce have to come from California and Mexico.
“This greenhouse project, when it reaches its full potential, will allow us to offset the cost associated with providing fresh fruits and vegetables year round,” Procopio said. “Our goal is to provide as much healthy nutritious food as possible all the time.”
The farmers say they want to be able to sell fresh vegetables directly from the greenhouses and expand their operation to eventually sell across the state.
Melissa Tatro, community agriculture program coordinator at King Conservation District, said her organization provided technical assistance to the greenhouse farmers as well as equipment and other supplies, like soil and seeds, for them to get the operation off the ground.
“What they’ve been able to pull together proves that you can use the limited resources available to you and still produce great food to feed people,” Tatro said.
“The ingenuity of these farmers is amazing in what they’ve managed to put together and produce,” she added. “I’m excited as they get access to more property to see what they can achieve.”
For David Bulindah, the farmer who heads the growing project, the greenhouse and the vast land around it are a far cry from the small patches of urban land he and his family used to farm when he was a kid growing up in Kenya.
On a recent tour of the greenhouse, Bulindah described the content of each vegetable box, speaking with authority about the nutritional value of the crops he and the other farmers have been growing together since spring. For example, in addition to eating the beans, the leaves of the cowpeas, known in the U.S. as black eyed peas, can be consumed and are great as a salad.
In Kenya land ownership is a privilege, Bulindah and Njeri agree. And Bulindah said growing up poor his large family owned none. He said his mother would find a piece of land that no one else was farming and plant the vegetables her family could eat. If the owners of the land showed up, they were out of luck, Bulindah recalls, laughing. “And if they didn’t, we’d give thanks to God,” he said.
He said his involvement in this Auburn farming project is almost prophetic. Two years ago, when he moved his family from Delaware to the Seattle area following a brief visit, friends back East warned him that the Northwest was wet and dreary.
He said, “I told them ‘that’s great, because I’m going to be a farmer there.’”