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Urban farming improves access to food

By Mary Stamp

As a fifth generation member of his family in agriculture in Eastern Washington, Brian Estes brings a different face to farming from his maternal grandparents who operated the farm their grandparents started in the 1880s for herding sheep.

Brian Estes
Brian Estes with produce of a vendor at the South Perry Market.

“I have begun to rediscover farming.  It did not occur to me that farming was anything other than what my grandparents did.  I didn’t realize I would want this career,” said Brian, who became interested in social justice and environmental issues during college.  “I fell in love with food, good food and eating well,” he said.

Along with promoting urban farming, community gardens and farmers’ markets as parts of urban food production, he has his own small, for-profit farm in Vinegar Flats with a half-acre vegetable garden, a perennial garden, a pasture and experimental projects. 

Brian sells to small, local grocery stores, like Main Market in Spokane, and as far away as Leavenworth, where he recently delivered 100 pounds of sunchokes—also called Jerusalem artichokes.

He likes what he’s doing, from simple, mundane tasks of working with his hands, weeding, harvesting, hauling and selling, to dealing with agriculture policies.  He finds a quality of life in working on building his own farm enterprise to add to the conversation about food systems from personal experience.

Brian also encourages discussion on the justice of food systems in terms of how food is produced, distributed and consumed.

Growing up in Richland, he often visited his grandparents on their wheat farm near Walla Walla and after they moved into town during his teenage years.  Attending Christ the King Catholic Church in Richland, he became interested in philosophy, contemplation and values for living well in the world.

Brian came to Spokane nine years ago to study psychology and environmental studies at Gonzaga University.  After completing his degree in 2007, he decided to stay.

His one-year Jesuit volunteer position with St. Margaret’s Women’s Shelter, part of Catholic Charities of Spokane, grew into his role on staff as garden program coordinator for the shelter’s Vinegar Flats Community Farm.

Brian Estes
Brian Estes manages Vinegar Flats Community Garden

Vinegar Flats Community Garden of St. Margaret’s Shelter was established in 2002 near 27th and Oak close to Latah Creek on a third of an acre pasture behind the home of a family who offered the land to St. Margaret’s.  

It started as a vegetable garden, where some of the 18 shelter residents worked to provide food for the emergency shelter.

Vinegar Flats serves as a community farm for the shelter residents, a place where they may grow and obtain fresh fruits and vegetables. It is a space for women to learn about gardening, gain retail experience and develop a sense of empowerment, while they “grow vegetables, fruit, flowers and community,” he said

The farm also produces for farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sales, a few West Central grocery stores and meal sites.

Brian, who attends St. Ann parish in Spokane, manages the farm in the spring, summer and fall, and does organizing and community development in the winter months.

A Jesuit volunteer and AmeriCorps volunteer assist every year.

“They do hands-on operations of the garden and in the greenhouse, planting starts for the garden, doing plant sales and helping organize other community gardens.  A St. Margaret’s Next Steps trainee is learning to manage the greenhouse, building management and sales experience,” he said.

Some produce is sold at the South Perry and West Central farmers markets, which are now able to accept the EBT—electronic benefits transaction—cards that have taken the place of food stamps, Brian said.

The AmeriCorps and Jesuit volunteers are also doing a worm bin compost project with children at St. Margaret’s.  The Health District is helping with a community kitchen to teach cooking skills. 

The community farm can help meet needs of urban and local food systems, providing food that is affordable and accessible for low-income people, he said.

He expanded the program and production, increasing it to producing 4,500 pounds of food by tripling the size of garden so after four years it now operates as much like a small farm as a traditional community garden.

He also gives his time, energy and expertise to farmers, farmers markets and community gardens, exploring different models such as Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) and plant-a-row options, so backyard gardeners can donate fresh food to food banks.

Setting up CSA sales and being able to accept food stamps dropped barriers to access at farmers’ markets, Brian said.

CSA introduces diverse vegetables—like kale—and teaches customers how to cook them.

He also helps farmers’ markets find ways to extend the season for fresh produce by helping people learn to eat more types of produce. 

Tomatoes, for example, are available fresh for only four to eight weeks.  Early season produce includes greens, cabbage and peas.  People who change their menus to include them can eat fresh produce longer.

“Much of people’s lives comes from their relationship with food,” Brian said. “I was a picky eater and liked junk food until I was 18.  When I was 14, I wanted to open a hamburger stand.”

Drawn to social aspects of food —people eating together—he learned about the history of people as social beings.

More neighborhoods offer resources of fresh, nutritional food at affordable prices, he said, adding that there’s more interest in urban planning around food production and in challenging current farm policies that tend to subsidize large-scale agriculture.

“As cities evolved in the last 50 to 75 years with cars more prevalent, it affected how cities were designed in terms of where people work and live,” he said. 

“Specialty markets where people once bought whole food are drying up in favor of large, buy-all-you-need grocery stores.  People who cannot drive to those supermarkets pay higher prices and have limited options.  These are considerations in revitalizing neighborhoods.

“Can food access be restructured?” he asked.

For example, the Spokane Regional Health District supported development of several West Central Spokane “Healthy Corner Stores” that can sell fresh produce and whole foods at enough profit so that they will stock them.

Brian calls for influencing the macro food system through changing national agricultural policies that subsidize huge farms—for example, to produce corn for soda and highly processed foods—but do not subsidize whole, locally grown or organic foods.

“Policies have influence through direct payments to farmers to grow certain commodities,” he said. 

“As farms have grown bigger and grow single crops or focus on livestock, farmers have lost resources they had in diverse farms, such as food to feed pigs or manure to fertilize.  So many farms rely on transporting waste, rather than using it to fertilize.

“The transition to monoculture production in the 20th century reduced creative options for feeding people,” Brian said.  “Most farmers want to feed people well and care for the land.  We need to challenge the disconnect between large farmers and small organic farmers who distrust each other.

“Immigration and environmental issues also affect farming,” he said.  “How can we operate our food system to mitigate problems, increase quality of life and create more justice?  We will not feed everyone on small plots or small farms on the periphery of cities.  We need to know the challenges.”

Local food systems provide the best way to understand positive or negative outcomes of food production, he said, in contrast to buying food products grown halfway around the world.

“I care about farm workers and farmers,” Brian said.  “We need to be invested in the whole picture based on our values.”

In 2009, the South Perry Farmers’ Market lost its location and manager, so Brian has been helping restructure it.  He has finished a two-year term on the board and continues as an ex-officio advisor.

The Grant Community Garden started in February 2011, when the Parks and Recreation Board opened parks for nonprofit community gardens to use.  The South Perry Business and Neighborhood Association contracts to manage it, and 24 individuals and nonprofits signed up to care for their garden beds organically in 2011.

The Grant Garden Club donates food to the East Central Community Center’s food bank.

Brian also assists the Riverfront Farm and West Central Marketplace.

“I try to be mindful of my beliefs and values in my day-to-day life,” he said.

Brian’s thinking on farming has also been influenced by visits to Central America in 2005, 2007 and 2008.  In 2005, he studied four months in Costa Rica and Nicaragua through a Boston University program on environmental and sustainable development. He also traveled in the West, Southwest and Mexico, visiting farms, learning what communities are doing as people pursue their wellbeing.

He hopes to increase discussion about growing one’s own food and access to safe, nutritious food, but knows discussions can turn controversial when addressing barriers to access safe, fresh food.

“I see enthusiasm about community gardens, raising chickens and knowing the farmers who grow our food,” he said.  “Eating organic, local food is an immediate, approachable argument for change.  The food tastes better.”

The cost of farmland is one part of the reason there are fewer farmers than ever before, he reported.  Because farmers struggle to make a profit, many are drawn into the corporate food production system that relies on genetically modified crops and heavy use of chemicals.

Because farms operate on debt, from which farmers try to recover each year, big farmers are buying up neighbors’ land and leasing it.

Brian said his family now leases their property near Walla Walla for production of wheat, sweet onions and garbanzos.  The choices of crops have become more limited as the markets for commodity crops globalize and local infrastructure is lost.  Many Walla Walla area producers growing asparagus lost their market when processing plants closed and moved to South America.

Farms are dependent on the global system where distributors and marketers influence what they can grow affordably, Brian said.

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