Teach Out! at Jubilee and Local Roots
A Reflection by Valentina de la Fuente
At today’s Teach Out to Jubilee and Local Roots farms in Carnation, we hear from farmers on their experiences farming in the Snoqualmie Valley, one of the last remaining regions in King County designated specifically as farm land. Some themes that emerge from both of the farms are their feelings on organic certification, and the impacts of institutional bodies such as the Agricultural Commission Board and FEMA on small farmers. They both share thoughtful reflections on how they see their farms relating to social justice and sustainability in both practice and thinking.
Local Roots, sitting right above the banks of the Snoqualmie River is our first farm to visit. Jason and Siri are the farmers of Local Roots, along with a handful of young interns that live in trailers nestle in coves of bamboo. The young couple explains how they found themselves as farmers somewhat coincidentally. Each step in their lives brought them closer to being farmers, until they were in the position of leasing land and supporting themselves solely from what they were able to grow. Siri did an internship on a farm that brought her in connection with Dan, the owner of the land; Jason went through law school until realizing that his heart was in farming. They took the leap from growing a large healthy vegetable garden to growing a successful business of their own. Although they lead full time jobs as farmers, they also live in a small apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle that they commute from regularly.
We are a group of about twenty, and Jason is very receptive to answering questions that range from inquiries about their original spark and interest in farming, to questions about what compels them to grow what they grow. Although Jason and Siri seem to be well established at Local Roots, I wonder how their relationship would change with the land if they were able to own it themselves. They seem very grounded in the moment with their operation, but perhaps more flexible and not as permanently rooted.
Jason is very expressive about his experience with the pressure from institutions such as the Agricultural Commission and FEMA. As we walked through rows of kale and brussel sprouts, he explains his experience with farming in a flood plain. Much like the floods of the Nile that bring rich silt into the Fertile Crescent, the flooding of the Snoqualmie River brings fertile top soil each year with the rising waters. Alluvial soil enables them to reduce their intake of outside composts, and to focus less energy on building up the soil, a main focus for farmers dedicated to a healthy, vibrant farm. Jason explains that the soil is everything for a farm. Without healthy living soil, the farm can support no life, especially for farmers not pumping the ground with synthetic fertilizers.
Despite the benefits of farming on a flood plain, there are also obstacles that other farmers on higher ground don’t have to face. Jason says that after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA mandated a universal national policy that restricted all vegetables from being sold on the market that had been touched by flood waters. In New Orleans, there were tests that showed the presence of toxins on vegetables exposed to flood waters. The tests had been done downstream of huge cities, and so it was not surprising that the vegetables had absorbed the trace chemicals into the fibers of the plant. Jason expresses that it makes sense in New Orleans to restrict these vegetables for sale on the market in fear of contamination. In the Snoqualmie Valley however, the yearly floods are essential to the health of the farm. They are not downstream from any major cities like the farms in New Orleans.
The law prevents them from selling any vegetables even if the flood waters don’t directly come in contact with the harvested part of the plant. For example, if the water barely grazes the base of a kale plant but doesn’t touch the leaves, the plant cannot go to market.
For the most part, people generally (or sometimes) disregard the law, and proceed to sell their crops. The most ridiculous part of the whole situation is that many farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley pump water out of the river anyways. If the river was contaminated, it would be absorbed directly by the vegetables on a daily basis! This conundrum demonstrates the absurdity of universal institutional policies that hold no intrinsic meaning within regional systems.
Jason and Siri decide to water their crops from a well instead of pumping from the river, which is more unusual in the valley. The discussion transitions into their feelings about organic certification. Jason expresses that they choose not to certify because the organic certification label is too weak to want to certify; it does not reflect their practices, which could never be reflected by a certification process. The organic label restricts what can be applied to the farm, but it incorporates nothing about soil health, waste output, and other practices that impact the health of the land and the people working. The only reason they would choose to certify is if his customers would be turned off by their lack of a label. When interacting personally with shoppers, and relaying his feelings about the organic label, there is a relationship built on trust that allows them to circumvent the bureaucracies of certification.
Our group has the opportunity to meet and hang out with the interns working on Local Roots. Although they make very little money on the farm, they work willingly in exchange for a meaningful learning experience, good food, and a summer in the warmth with other young people. Communal lunches and dinners are prepared at the large outdoor kitchen from food on the farm.
In a further discussion about sustainability and social justice Jason expresses the importance of maintaining the financial health of the farm. Through financial security can come an embodied stewardship of the land, the river, and the people who eat the food they grow. They hope that one day down the road, they will have the capacity to pay their workers a living wage, and is a goal they are working towards.
The next farm we visit is Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, a short distance down the road from Local Roots. Today is CSA day at Jubilee and the farm is buzzing and “jubilant” with kids and families that come every week to pick up their produce share and play in the flowers and trees.
Jubilee is in the process of transitioning to biodynamic, a holistic approach to agriculture based on the teachings of the Austrian philosopher, Rudolph Steiner. The biodynamic approach sees the farm as a self containing, living organism, in which all organic materials are produced on the farm with very limited external input.
Eric, the founding father of Jubilee Farms integrates a deeply philosophical approach into his practices. As Eric tells the story of Jubilee, and his experiences as a farmer, he casually integrates quotes and principles from Plato, Socrates, Rudolph Steiner, and many others. They slip smoothly into his teachings.
Eric is a farmer, a philosopher, and an activist. He speaks lucidly and seriously about the politics with the Agricultural Commission in the Snoqualmie Valley, and how the polices of the board impact his farm. It is a constant battle with him, and it greatly shapes his experience as a farmer. He says his face is no longer welcome in the board office after the years of contesting the policies that constantly put pressure on them to grant small farmers more rights and autonomy over their operations.
A main obstacle facing Eric and other farmers is centered on the definition of agriculture in King Country that includes equestrian ranches. Although this may seem like a trivial fact, the result of this definition means that equestrian ranches, or even families with one horse have the same rights as farmers in regions that are supposedly designated exclusively for farming. This significantly hikes up the price of land, putting significant pressure on small farmers already struggling to keep their work profitable. Horses used for recreational purposes are taking away from the production of food, especially food going to Seattle. Farmers that are hurt most by this policy are the ones growing food more so than farmers growing commodity crops such as corn, as those larger businesses are more resilient to price hikes.
As Eric discusses more about his relationship with farming, he speaks about the way in which he thinks about social justice. He says that to him, social justice means fertility. It means working towards fostering a farm that is prosperous, healthy, and fertile in all of its facets, much similar to how Jason spoke about the soil. The social family dynamics of Jubilee contributes to a tangible and wholesome experience of farming that many other farms are starved of. Jubilee is more than just a business; it is growing, alive, jubilant, social, and fun.