Building Green River Farm

By Lia Spaniolo,
Seattle Tilth Farm Works Coordinator

As you speed along the highway just south of Kent, Green River Farm is easy to pass by unnoticed as an ordinary parcel of farmland. But once inside the gates, you notice just how unique this 25 acres is compared to neighboring farms.

Several hand-built wooden sheds dot a landscape of brightly-colored dahlia flowers, the most prominent feature of the farm when it’s in full swing. Look closer and you notice Asian cucumbers, squash and rustling corn stalks mixed in with dozens of other vegetables and herbs. On a clear day, majestic Mt. Rainier dominates the southeast horizon, creating a picturesque view. A row of tall cottonwoods stands between you and the road and for a moment you forget that you’re only minutes away from the center of a bustling city.

Nine families, mostly Hmong refugees, lease plots here and operate individual farm businesses. Seattle Tilth began managing Green River Farm in the spring of 2015. King County owns the property and has leased out parcels since the early 1990s, mostly to ethnic Hmong farmers who grow crops for themselves and to sell at local farmers markets. Two of the families sell at Pike Place Market where people from all over the world buy their seasonal and beautifully arranged floral bouquets.

Many of the Hmong who farm at this site arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s as refugees following the Vietnam War. Their personal histories are harrowing, fleeing their homes in Southeast Asia to escape persecution by the incoming regimes.

20150610_154357The Hmong in the United States continue to practice their rich cultural traditions which include farming and selling their products at markets, an important source of income. Seeing a niche in regional markets, many Hmong refugees taught themselves and their children to grow and sell flower bouquets. While many Hmong farmers also grow vegetables, flower sales can provide more revenue per acre and are also typically more drought-tolerant than vegetables. When land and water are hard to come by, flower farming maximizes production and profits.

Hmong farmers are an important sector of the agricultural workforce in Washington but often lack access to resources that can make the difference between a struggling and a thriving business. Seattle Tilth, King County, Pike Place Preservation and Development Authority, and Washington State University are working together to provide those resources to Hmong and other socially disadvantaged growers.

This partnership offers farmers technical assistance including infrastructure development, organic production methods, market development and accessing USDA assistance programs.

In early spring 2015, the Seattle Tilth Farm Works staff got busy providing support. We added agricultural lime to the soil to improve plant growth, installed a Honey Bucket, cleaned up over 45,000 ft² of blackberry and brush that had encroached on valuable land, repaired the entrance gate and fence that was crumbling under the weight of overgrown blackberry, and reconfigured family plots to bring together piecemeal acreage across the farm.  Last fall, Seattle Tilth staff helped farmers transplant perennial flowers and rebuild storage sheds.

Larger infrastructural problems, like lack of on-site water and seasonal flooding require more creative and long-term solutions. The coming season will allow us to test new ideas to help mitigate these perennial problems that directly impact farmers’ income.

We are also building relationships between the farmers and the Seattle Tilth community. Farmers have operated on this site for many years with little to no oversight or assistance, so Seattle Tilth’s management presents some changes in the short term, but will improve the farmers’ businesses overall. Farmers will have longer term land security and will gain marketing opportunities by incorporating organic production methods.

Two Hmong farmer families have already sold produce through Seattle Tilth’s 300 member community supported agriculture program, earning them higher revenue for sustainably grown products. We’ve introduced and demonstrated organic production methods including cover cropping, and offered organic fertilizers that will bring tangible benefits as well.

IMG_5206Of the many things we have built and plan to build at Green River Farm, our biggest priority is to build strong relationships with the farmers. We’ve come to the site as outsiders, but in earning the farmers’ trust, we hope to cultivate a partnership that will have lasting benefits for years to come.

Stay tuned for updates about Green River Farm and the farmers who make up a special part of Washington’s agricultural community.

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