Farm Partner Highlight: Songbird Haven Farm

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. This month, we spoke to Noa Kay of Songbird Haven Farm, who started partnering with us last year to provide fresh produce at our food banks year-round:

Tell us a little bit about who you are, and what Songbird Haven is all about:

Mark and I are both married and farming partners, and we started Songbird Haven Farm in 2019. That was our first season. Both of us have backgrounds in health, and that’s sort of where we started. I had a background in public health and had worked in nonprofits in the public sector, and Mark had supported research teams at UW and Fred Hutch. And you know both of us wanted some way to be more directly involved with that type of work, rather than kind of do that work from a distance, you know in a helpful way, but from a distance.

So we bounced around a lot ideas, you know, “What would work well for us?” We stumbled, and really stumbled upon — and I’m so happy that we did, because we both like food, good food and nutritious food, but farming wasn’t really on our radar until we stumbled upon YouTube videos of some farmers who were doing this very small-scale, market garden approach to organic farming. And you know, none of us come from farming backgrounds, we had a P-Patch in Seattle for a while, but this was new to us, even though it’s definitely not new. It’s new to us and it sort of opened our eyes to the fact that “we could do this!” It felt possible.

So we volunteered at 21 Acres Farm which is also in Woodinville, and we started taking workshops and classes. And we have been lucky to be at the Incubator site at Viva Farms in Woodinville.

Can you tell us a little more about the Viva Farms Incubator site?

Yes, so Viva Farms is a non-profit organization, and they started in Skagit years ago. I think they’ve been operating out of Skagit for at least a decade. They do a few things. They offer education, so we took their Practicum in Sustainable Agriculture class, which is like classroom and on-farm experience. And they offer farm space to folks who’ve gone through their Practicum program. So we lease our half-acre that we farm through Viva. And it’s such a great setup because we have farm neighbors who are such an invaluable resource and community for us. We have some shared infrastructure that Viva manages, like we all share a wash station, cold storage, propagation houses for our seedlings, and some key equipment like a tractor and walk-behind tractor. Those are all so helpful for getting started so you don’t have to build all that infrastructure from scratch. You can kind of test out what works well and get ideas for what you’d do differently if you built it yourself, and all of that.

It’s great. They also have a CSA, so they purchase in from Incubating farmers for that CSA. They help with some marketing for new farmers and they do some very low-cost loans to incubating farmers who need capital at the beginning of the season.

How many neighbors do you have around your farm?

I think that this year there might… I’m looking at the farm now… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… I think there are 10 small farms! I might not be counting that right but around 10, at Viva King County. And then Viva Skagit County has another incubator site which is much bigger. And I don’t have a sense of the scale but they have more farms and farms can grow a bit bigger in that space. There are farms out there that have incubating farmers on like 20 acres. Whereas in King County, we have a couple farms that are 1-2 acres, but a lot of us are at like a ¼-1/2 an acre.

So when did you get involved with FamilyWorks? How did that relationship start?

Oh gosh, I think Tobey [Solomon-Auger, Food Bank Manager] reached out! And I don’t know how she found us. But Toby reached out in the middle of last season, which was really great timing. And she said one of things that caught her eye.. let me take a step back.

So a couple of the things that are really important to us on our scale, is we do no-till practices for the most part, which is pretty important out here in Woodinville in really wet, wet soil. We set-up our beds once, with the help of a tractor and walk-behind tractor, and now we don’t turn those beds over. We just cut out the last crop and plant right in with the next one. Which means we can get into our fields really early.

Because you don’t have to do the extra work of tilling?

Because it’s so wet out here, you just have to wait before you can get a tractor in! It’ll get stuck, and it’s also not really good, when the soil is that wet and you try to work with it, it’ll just get compacted. If you’re not having to do much other than cut out the last plant, you’re just not creating that disruption in the same way, which would make it compacted but which would also… what we’re really interested in is we’re trying not to disturb all that good soil life that’s in there.

Right so when you till, you’re in effect killing microbes or other things, there’s like a small ecosystem or something in there?

Absolutely, and kinda like how, this has gotten so much buzz and it’s really important to be recognizing how our human microbiome works with our own selves, but it’s very similar. There are such close relationships between that soil, microbial and fungal life. And there’s all those tiny arthropods and beneficial insects that have important relationships with the plants. So we are trying our best to kind of foster that healthy soil.

So part of that for us is “no-till” and another part, which I think caught Tobey’s eye, is we grow year-round. It’s a really mild climate here, and we’re still working on this, you know we’re pretty new, but we’re learning what varieties and what crops do really well here. And we’re narrowing in on some crops that do great throughout the winter. Some of them are in tunnels for us that are covered with plastic, so they have a little extra protection, but some crops do great in the open field throughout the winter.

What kind of vegetables did you grow this past winter?

We grew kale, chard, cabbage, brussels sprouts, escarole, we can do carrots through a lot of the winter out here. Spinach does pretty well. Asian greens like pak choi do pretty well out here, and even like, lettuce, with the right variety, can do really well. And collard greens! Those do great out here in the winter.

And so the challenge is just trying to find the varieties that are able to withstand the slightly lower temperature and extra rain?

Yeah the challenges are both finding the right varieties, and for us as new farmers, it’s definitely challenging to find the right planting dates, because plants have to be big enough by the time that the daylight decreases that they can survive. So figuring the right planting dates, and, we didn’t really get much snow in Winter of 2020, so it’s good to see how things did in the winter of 2021. Mustard greens do great out here, even uncovered, so we’re definitely learning a ton but really excited. I think that’s where we want to grow our farm is upping our winter production.

I feel like I’m fairly representative of the public in that I’m pretty disconnected from my food in general. And I have a pretty stereotypical image of what farming looks like, with big tractors pulling throw fields, so it’s really interesting to hear the different ways you can do it more healthily.

Yeah! And we can grow a lot of food, and we’re hoping to get more and more efficient, but we can grow a lot of food on a half an acre. We’re gonna have a 30-40 person CSA this year, and distribute through some food access and wholesale outlets, and that’s just on a half an acre.

To go back to the no-till farming, tilling is meant to aerate the soil is that true?

Yeah so tilling helps with a couple different things on the short term. It aerates the soil and chops it up into a pretty nice texture, because that texture is pretty important especially when you’re direct seeding. It’s hard to direct seed when there are big chunks of soil. Having really fine soil that the seeds will be in nice contact with is really helpful. And the other reason why people till is to help with weeds.

So we get around that in two ways. We do use something called a broadfork, which is pretty typical in the size of farming that we do. And basically, it’s got 1ft long tines and it’s really hefty steel. You can step on it, those tines go into the soil, and then you pull back a little bit. So it does that aeration in a really gentle way. It’s pretty manual [labor], but it’s not that hard cause we can step on it. So we do some aeration using hand tools.

And then for weed suppression. Well, people till to get rid of their weeds and it’s a pretty short-term solution. Because when you have no-till soil, you’re not churning up those weed seeds that were deeper and bringing them to the surface. There are also a lot of weeds that really thrive in that recently disturbed soil, so we’re trying to make a long-term investment in weed suppression by going no-till even though it might be a little bit more tedious in the short term.

So you’re just having to pull weeds by hand?

Yep! And you know we use hoes, there’s no perfect, and we know we’re not striving for any sort of perfect. We do want to keep in mind that we want to disturb the soil as little as possible because every time you do that you’re disrupting that soil life that helps support your plants.

What are you looking forward to this year?

You know we’re still new at this, so we’re really looking forward to building off those things we’re been working on, and then you always get new ideas. So one thing we’re really excited about is we’re going to try and incorporate more flowers into our farm systems. Not necessarily for cut flowers, because that requires a lot of knowledge and infrastructure that we don’t have. But as pollinators and for some more edible flowers. Because that diversity is really important. There are a lot of low growing flowers we can plant between our kale.

Right, I was going to ask about that actually. I did a tiny bit of research on no-till farming before this interview and I did see that some folks do mix in other plants into their beds.

Yeah and, exactly like you said, one of those things we want to build on in the small-scale farming world is called interplanting. The kale kind of takes a while to get really big and take over the bed, so if we plant lettuce inbetween the kale, and the lettuce only takes a month to mature, the lettuce has time to get to full-size before the kale needs that extra space. So doing more of that interplanting with both the flowers, which will be new for us, and building on what we did last year. Lettuce has worked great in between other plants.

Well that is basically all the questions I had thought of. Is there message you’d like to give to the FamilyWorks community?

I think that one thing that people might not realize is that it makes a huge difference for us to have even just one new relationship or one new CSA member. I know that it’s kind of overwhelming to think about how you can influence the food system. And it is, it’s hard to impact the whole, giant food system as one person. But it makes huge difference for small farmers to just shift some of their purchasing locally. We can definitely see and feel, and very much appreciate it. It’s huge to have Tobey say, “sure we can take anywhere between 5 and 25 pounds of kale.” I mean that’s amazing for us, because it gives us flexibility and we know it’s going to a good spot, and we’ve been able to get paid for it. That’s awesome! And same thing with having people join our one-time CSA boxes, that gives people a chance to experience that direct-to-farm experience. Just doing that once, and we offer that but there are tons of farmers that offer those one-time preorder boxes. Especially, that has been a big thing during COVID, to preorder from the farmers at the Farmers’ Market. And that makes huge, huge difference for those small farms.

So even though it’s hard to change the whole system, we feel it and it’s been great to have a lot of that this past year.

Awesome. Well thank you for that, your perspective, your wealth of knowledge, and we’re looking forward to seeing all the produce you send in this year.

Yeah, yeah! It’s been super fun to connect with you guys. We live in Fremont so you’re like our neighborhood food bank, so it feels good to be participating!