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UW helps rethink local agriculture

Cory Castagno presents an idea for the Farmers Market at a meeting last week. - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Cory Castagno presents an idea for the Farmers Market at a meeting last week.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo

By NATALIE MARTIN

A group of University of Washington students is putting the finishing touches on several proposals — from revamping the Farmers Market to forming an island farmers co-op — in an effort to strengthen Vashon agriculture.

The project is helping the students reach their goal of earning a Masters degree in urban planning, but those involved say it could also give the island’s agricultural community the boost it needs to take local farming to the next level.

“The big plan is how do we develop Vashon as an agricultural center,” said Nan Wilson, the chair of the Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA) who has been working closely with the group. “It’s got a lot of small agriculture going on, which is all good … but there have been some barriers to growing.”

Among those barriers, Wilson said, is that it’s nearly impossible for Vashon’s small farms to sell their products off-island. In addition, many would like to do better business at the Vashon Farmers Market, which has fluctuating attendance based on the weather and is not well-attended by locals.

Since January, graduate students with the UW’s College of Built Environments have been meeting with representatives of VIGA, officials with the Vashon Maury Island Land Trust and local farmers

to discuss the challenges of farming, the Farmers Market and possible solutions. They also put out a detailed survey taken by more than 100 islanders, about 30 of whom said they were farmers.

Ideas now presented by the students range from somewhat simple — better promotion of the Farmers Market, more covered space at the market or building small cabins to house farm interns — to more ambitious — moving the market to a new location or developing a Vashon farmers co-op that would deliver off-island. They will present a final set of plans with details on how to achieve them at a public meeting in June.

“At this moment, we’re looking for feedback,” Wilson said. “Pretty soon we’ll be looking for people to step up and champion whatever we decide we’re going to move forward on.”

When the UW group first came to the island, students began to consider how community farming on shared land may be a boon to Vashon. They used Misty Isle Farm as a model location and worked with the land trust, which was looking at the property for farmland preservation. However, the students quickly learned that island farmers aren’t interested in collaborating so closely and want to retain separate farms, said Branden Born, an associate professor at the College of Built Environment’s Department of Urban Design and Planning. In addition, he said, the owner of Misty Isle asked that the group stop discussing the property, which is not on the market.

“That was off the table for two reasons,” he said.

Groups of students from UW have been undertaking such community planning projects for years, Born said. Another studio is currently crafting a comprehensive plan for Port Orchard; they’ve worked for the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association in Seattle, and students were recently re-invited to the small town of Buckley to update a comprehensive plan that they wrote there. The department only takes on projects in communities with limited resources.

“We basically do projects that otherwise would not get done,” Born said.

Last week the Vashon group, in its third public presentation on the island, presented the idea of a forming a Vashon growers co-op.

“No one would have to give up their identity as a farmer; you would just come together,” said Sarah Cubillos, one of the students, at the presentation at the Sheffield Building.

The students explained that as part of a co-op, farmers could collaborate on advertising, marketing and distributing their products to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets off-island. Such a group could also lead efforts to make the island more attractive to farm interns and to build a shared commercial kitchen with cold storage, something required to prepare products such as jams and preserves but that few farms could afford by themselves.

A commercial kitchen or refrigerated delivery van for the co-op would likely require buy-in by members, but could then support itself from revenue generated, according to Jake Tracy, a UW student who said the commercial stood out as a priority in their recent survey. The kitchen, which the students estimate would cost as little as $19,000 to build, could be rented out and classes could be held there. Survey respondents suggested they’d be willing to share capital costs of the kitchen, even listing dollar amounts totaling $17,000

“That’s nearly all of the cost for setting up the kitchen right there,” Tracy said.

In 2012 another group from UW proposed a slate of ideas for beautifying Vashon town and other parts of the island. The students, which were studying architecture, put forward ambitious ideas that ranged from remodeling storefronts to reopening Portage and rehabilitating the Beall Greenhouses.

Those involved with this studio class, however, say they’re aiming to present islanders with practical steps they could take and advice how to achieve them. In June the students will leave VIGA with a set of detailed plans for their proposals, which will include step-by-step guidelines, suggestions for organizational structures, estimated costs and potential funding sources.

“We are really more about where the rubber meets the road and what the community can actually do,” said Cory Castagno, another student in the group.

Wilson, with VIGA, said she is looking forward to getting final plans from the group so VIGA can go to its members and the community for feedback. She anticipates that implementing any ideas that Vashon decides to take on could be a multi-year process.

“The real challenge is to get as much participation as we can and make sure this is something the community wants,” she said.

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