A wastewater treatment plant as the site for an urban farm may seem unusual, but for Michael Boyle, a professor at Seattle University in the Environmental Studies department and director of the Urban Farm, the pairing is a natural fit. “In our time, there can’t be waste,” Boyle explains, and it is only fitting that GroCo, a locally-produced biosolids compost whose material originates at the treatment plant, is used as fertilizer.
On two acres tucked away in the southern portion of King County’s South Treatment Plant sits Urban Farm, a joint venture between Seattle University and King County Waste Water Division. The partnership came about in 2010 when Casey Plank, a former student working in the Waste Water Division, approached Boyle with the idea of developing a community project. For Boyle, it was easy to agree upon the idea of a community garden. “Service to the community” is the mission of Seattle University, he says, and what better way of being of service than to grow food for people in need. After a suitable site was found and permits secured, the farm officially launched in 2011.
Located on compacted soil that originally contained remnants of cement and was covered with weeds and grass, Urban Farm is “Everything you wouldn’t want” to farm in says Boyle. But, he saw the site as a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the challenges of urban agriculture in a city environment and how a living ecosystem can emerge from even the most challenging soil conditions.
A $100,000 grant from Wells Fargo provided the start-up money to buy the seeds, orchard trees, equipment, and fund the student positions of farm and greenhouse manager. On the two acres, vegetables such as carrots, beets, radishes, and even a pumpkin patch, are grown, but higher value crops are also being developed including figs, asparagus and a hairless kiwi that grows well in the Puget Sound. The reason for this diversity, Boyle explains, is to make the farm financially sustainable and provide revenue throughout the year.
But being financially sustainable is not the only goal for the farm. “Modern farms have to have a triple bottom line” and be sustainable, financially responsible, and socially responsible, says Boyle. Because of this commitment to social responsibility, all the produce grown on the farm is donated to local food banks. While the totals haven’t been calculated for the 2012 growing season, their first season saw 7,000 lbs. donated. People have a “bias about a farm being a big thing,” but even a small piece of land can grow produce, remarks Boyle.
Throughout the year, many Seattle University students volunteer at the farm to complete their service projects. Several students have been with the farm since its beginning, and Boyle is pleased to see “students are back to getting hands back in the dirt.” While Boyle came from a farming background, he recognizes that less than one percent of students have experience with gardening.
In 2016, oversight of the farm transfers from Seattle University to the local community, and “United Way is excited to see this transition” notes Boyle, because the organization hopes to further develop community food production. In the meantime, Boyle’s future goals for the farm include developing sustainable irrigation that includes a solar powered irrigation system, putting in a rain garden, and building soil tilth. Teaching nutrition to children is another goal, and Urban Farm is applying for grants to hire a nutrition educator who can go to community kitchens and teach kids how to cook.
By volunteering at Urban Farm, college students see real examples of private-public partnerships and learn what is required to grow food. For Boyle, the work involved in developing this farm is personal. “It’s knowing that there are so many people in our community that haven’t got access to good food,” he says. “I can’t grow enough … and we need it now.” And while this worry weighs on his mind, he takes comfort in knowing he is doing his part to teach students how to develop that access and contribute to growing that fresh local food.