Over the years through our work at our food banks, we’ve become acquainted with some amazing local farmers. In our new Farm Partner Highlight series, we’ll be speaking with some of our recent partners at our food banks. Our first highlighted partner is Jon the Farmer – Urban Farmer, who donated over 1,000 pounds of beautiful produce to our food banks in 2020. We had the pleasure of talking to Jon Larson about the work he and his wife Dawn have been doing in our community:
How long have you been farming?
We are going into our 4th year of farming in the city of Seattle. I grew up on a farm, raised on a dairy farm in Monroe, WA.
How many people work with you?
Right now it’s myself and my wife [Dawn]. Last year we were able to hire two employees for the summer. But basically, it’s a one man, one woman show! I can’t say that actually. The landowners, the people who own the locations where we grow the food, they participate so it’s not just me, it’s the community.
Can you talk about how you got into urban farming?
It started with the fact that I didn’t have a yard, and I wanted to grow and get my hands in the soil. I put out a little feeler and a couple of people popped up, “Hey, I’d love to convert my yard.” I think last year, we had 19 yards. We’re gonna pare it down a little bit this year to be a little more efficient. We’ve been partnering with people all over, South Seattle, North Seattle. We’ve collaborated with some smaller farms a little further out, helping them get produce to the communities and such.
How does this decentralized farming style change the way you approach growing food?
One of the challenges is that every yard is different. Every garden plot has a different sun exposure, micro-climate, so we have to assess the soil with the involvement of the landowner. Some people aren’t too involved, they just want to see it grow you know? We have a lot of yards where there are preschoolers, so we do a little educational component. Kids plant kale, they eat kale. They plant tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.
So, some yards are just for educational purposes and for the homeowners. We have other great landowners, who are just all about “let’s get the food out to the community!” Growing a lawn is the most resource draining, non-productive crop in the US. It’s silly to me. So the sizes range from a couple of garden beds to full-on, typical Seattle lawns. And every case is unique, so other than logistics, it’s just sorting through all the moving parts.
When did you start partnering with FamilyWorks?
We did a couple drop-offs the year before last, but we didn’t really know the avenues. It was just “let’s see if they’ll take it,” since we had an abundance of food. Last year, I made it intentional, with COVID and everything, it’s not just CSA members who should benefit but the community as a whole.
I’d love to grow food in areas where it’s more needed, to be accessed. But there are significant factors to be overcome with that, the main one being water costs. It costs quite a bit, almost $800-900 a year to irrigate a little garden, which is really not feasible for a lot of people. We do have a couple landowners who grow food in their yard, and then want to sponsor another yard. So we do have a couple yards where we grow and it’s no cost to the landowner.
As we enter growing season, what are you looking forward to growing this year?
Well everything! It’s more the actions of it. There are certain crops we grow that I don’t personally eat or I’m not a big fan of, but I just like connecting with the community. You know, I’ve had people tell me that we’ve changed their lives, the way they eat. They come out in their garden and pick their fresh tomatoes, their kale, their cucumbers. You know, food, once picked, it starts to lose nutritional value 10 to 15 minutes after picking. So, even if you’re getting the best organic produce in the grocery store, it’s still a couple days off the vine or the plant, and it just tastes different. You know, you eat less when your food’s full of nutrients and the body gets what it needs, it’s like “alright, I’m full.” So you eat less and healthier. It has changed diets.
I like to encourage people, at minimum, to get out there and have a cup of coffee out there in your garden, watching the insects and the hummingbirds and all that. It’s a simple way to connect people with the earth and community. Horticultural therapy, I call it. You know there are studies about having your hand in the soil, and what connecting with the earth and the microbes do to you and all that, but it’s real! Get out there and get your hands dirty! Especially with everything going on, you build your immune system by interacting with all these microbes, which, the same microbes in the soil are basically what humans are made of, so we’re really connected.
Anything you’d like to say to our community?
We really enjoy partnering with the FamilyWorks community. I like to consider it social capital. We’re not in this to make money. I mean obviously we want to sustain ourselves, but you know, you give people good healthy food, they make good healthy choices, and the world improves. And that’s what it comes down to. Everyone needs food, and with COVID, it really became apparent to me that if there’s different levels of essential careers and work, I know for a fact that I need a farmer everyday cause I eat. And that really struck home.
And people really want to connect with who’s really growing their food, there’s lots of big things, GMOs, and all that out there. And, you know, I’m not certified [organic]. To go through the whole process of organic certification… there are a lot of hoops and it’s not quite as beneficial as it might seem. But we use nothing but natural fertilizers, like I said seaweed is huge in our gardens. No pesticides ever, we’re really big on that. And people thrive on it.
[Before starting the interview, Jon mentioned that he’d just returned from collecting seaweed on the Washington coast.]
Can you tell me more about the seaweed collecting you were talking about before the interview?
We go out to the coast, and you have to have a certain shellfish fishing license, and basically, we beachcomb. After high tide you can harvest seaweed that’s washed ashore. And basically, it has 90-something minerals and elements that are needed by your human body and plant bodies. I wouldn’t harvest seaweed from the [Puget] Sound [laughs], but it’s great and kids love it. You bring some fresh seaweed in, kids wanna play with it, smell it, it’s so tactile. Then you throw it in the garden and it stinks for a day then everything blooms.
I think that’s the future. If you wanna change mindsets you have to start with the children. I’m gonna paraphrase a quote, someone said “it’s easier to teach a child then fix a broken man” you know. I have two kids, a 7 year old and 12 year old, and they come with me for some of the donation runs. And I’m exposing them to, “hey there’s another world out there that’s not just ‘Me, me, me, me’.” And I love what you guys do. Every time we’ve been there it’s been well received and you guys are excited. And, you know, I’m just a small, little operation compared to the big guys, but I feel like it’s appreciated and I pass that on to the landowners who are providing the land. We connect people with the knowledge, people with the land, and people with the time. If we can arrange some sort of educational program, we’re working on that, then we might get into a non-profit status ourselves, because that’s the future.