Caitlin Ames waters plant starts for the Land Trust at Matsuda Farm. (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo)

Caitlin Ames waters plant starts for the Land Trust at Matsuda Farm. (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo)

At Matsuda Farm, produce grows for food bank, community

Standing behind a field mottled with sprouts of crimson clover at Matsuda Farm last week, Caitlin Ames guided a hose over dozens of neatly arranged plant starts that will soon yield fresh produce for sale to the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank and Vashon Fresh online food marketplace, which launched last June.

Rolling acres once emblazoned with ripe strawberries were earmarked for a new era of planting when the Land Trust bought the property in 2015, but after proposing to lease the land for farming, they reversed course, opting to reach development milestones at the farm themselves. Ames, a Vashon Island Growers Association board member who joined the Land Trust in 2016, said that the trust’s autonomy allows it to form valuable partnerships on the island and to pursue the work it most wants to. Namely, that work is a marriage between ongoing conservation at the historic Matsuda Farm homestead and community-driven agriculture that provides for Vashon and its residents.

“Of course you want to start growing [plant] starts for the food bank. I think it’s a really simple way to be able to give back to community,” she said. “We are taking it on as a project in order to be a benefit for the community, so we’re growing food.”

The trial crops for this growing season include kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and beets. An irrigation system has been installed. Behind Ames was a newly erected high tunnel greenhouse funded by the United States Department of Agriculture where more produce will be grown, maintained with help from four recently appointed interns who joined the trust’s stewardship program this year.

The crimson clover was deliberately planted by the Land Trust to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Other cover crops such as cereal rye and vetch were planted last year to increase overall soil health, reduce erosion and control weeds. With 3 acres now designated for crops, the Land Trust can afford to spread out, and expansion is in progress. In conjunction with the school district, the Land Trust is seeking an additional grant from the USDA that would connect the island’s schools with the farm, aiding strategies that would improve the access students have to local, fresh produce.

“The reason we’re starting up a wholesale model is because we would like to provide food to the school district. So we’ve got an application in to the USDA for a planning grant to create a farm-to-school program, which would just better equip the schools,” said Ames. “It’s not really about Matsuda. It’s more about getting schools equipped for buying locally. We would like to be able to be a reliable provider for that system, given that the goal for that system is to allow us to step into markets that aren’t currently being served.”

The Farm-To-School Grant from the USDA allocates more than $5 million each year to support accessibility to local, healthy foods for students across the nation.

“The school district has already done the hard work of converting to whole food production,” said Tom Dean, executive director of the Land Trust, in an email. “The next step is to see if Matsuda Farm can become a significant supplier.”

In the fall, Dean said that the Land Trust will consider choices that will allow it to boost production as it broadens the capacity of the farm.

For the time being, the first pick of crops grown at Matsuda will be sold wholesale to the food bank, and the surplus to Vashon Fresh.

“Nobody on Vashon sells wholesale, at least not as their primary market,” said Dean. “This is one of the main public benefits we are trying to offer to the island.”

Food bank executive director Robbie Rohr believes this approach is commensurate with the values of her organization and feels optimistic about what is to come.

“I think it’s really cool for nonprofits to work together,” she said. “About a year and a half ago, the board of the food bank really committed to having fresh produce for customers. This, of course, will be locally grown and organic, and those are both pluses. Of course, you can’t get much closer than Matsuda Farm.”

Ames said that proximity is one of the greatest impediments discouraging most from regularly seeking out fresh produce at farm stands and markets, especially when hectic schedules outweigh consistent, healthy alternatives.

“Minimizing stops in town is really important when you’re juggling a lot of things on your plate,” she said. “When you get to eat produce that was just harvested that day or the day before, it just tastes better.”

To Rohr, that matters tremendously.

“The whole movement for food banks and pantries is to provide enough food for people. The whole model of our work is to try to provide nutritious food to more people,” she said.

Rohr emphasized that as more people find themselves stretched thin, such burdens underscore the need for additional resourcefulness.

“People use food banks for all kinds of reasons. The need is certainly exacerbated because of the high cost of living in places like Vashon,” she said. “People are spending more than they can afford to on housing, leaving their budget smaller for everything else. Access to healthy food is more critical than ever.”

Having worked in nonprofits for the majority of her career, Rohr added that cooperation with Matsuda Farm poses a rare opportunity to unite the primary sectors of the economy — service, manufacturing and raw material extraction — for the benefit of all islanders.

“Sometimes people also talk about a fourth sector called the civic sector, and the model for a healthy community, for a healthy life, is when all 4 of those sectors come together,” she said. “I find it very hopeful that Vashon can be a model for those coming together.”

Ames worked closely with the development of Vashon Fresh before it launched and remarked about how devoted she is to elevating it, and related causes, further.

“We saw positive results in the first year and said, ‘Yeah, let’s keep this going.’ We need a more reliable supply of produce there, so I’m hoping to be able to contribute to that,” she said. “This is our pilot year at Matsuda, so we’re starting up a little small, but since we’ve got 3 acres we can grow on, to be able to be a reliable wholesale provider, I think, is feasible for us in the next few years.”

Ames said these contributions to the island agriculture economy have the potential of extending access to produce in ways that have not existed here before.

“Contributing to that market through Matsuda, I think, is the best approach,” she said.

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