Urban farm has become a vision for community

  • Tue Jun 12th, 2012 8:05pm

By Mina Williams For the Weekly Herald

What started as a garden project, growing vegetables, has blossomed into a community gathering spot in Edmonds where the seasons are celebrated.

The garden plot is located within the quiet Maplewood neighborhood, on a typical suburban street.

“The idea is to grow food in Edmonds for Edmonds,” said Michael Mearns, co-owner of Rubberneck Farms.

But the project has turned into a spot where neighborly ideas are exchanged and generational wisdom imparted. Neighbors bring the couple pies and offer growing advice. Local children watch the plants grow into food.

“It’s becoming a community center,” Mearns said. “The garden attracts people like a community kitchen would, proving that if you plant it, they will come. People stop by all the time to chat while we are out working in the garden. Senior citizens say, ‘This is how I grew up.’”

“The younger neighbors don’t know what some vegetables look like,” said Melissa Mearns, Michael’s wife and co-owner of Rubberneck Farms. “They think broccoli and kale are exotic. Red Russian kale and lemon cucumbers are beyond exotic.”

This year’s 3,000-square-foot plot will repeat last season’s yield of salad greens, beans, squash, beets and carrots. Additions will include eggplants, peas, leeks, butternut squash, edible flowers and garlic braids.

A greenhouse has been added to give heirloom tomatoes and peppers an early start.

The seed is planted

In February 2011, the couple moved into the home Michael’s parents had purchased the previous September. The property is adjacent to the senior Mearns’ home, where Michael grew up.

“We stared at the grass field,” Melissa said, referring to the front yard of the property. “Then we pictured the yard alive, growing food.”

The couple walked about their new neighborhood looking at other single-family homes on large lots, with lawns that were not being used and imagined how much food could be grown right in the neighborhood.

Michael prepared a business plan to illustrate their vision to his parents. With his parents’ blessing the couple began crafting an “L” shaped garden.

They focused on their vision of feeding the neighborhood.

“At first the neighbors thought a new house was going in,” Michael said. “They were relieved when they learned we were starting garden beds.”

Learning to grow

The Mearns’ backgrounds prepared the couple for the work at hand.

Melissa has been growing food for five years, moving around the world from Brazil to Seattle and Providence, R.I. Armed with a degree in ecology and conservation from the University of Washington, she explored how cultures produce their own food locally. She now works at PCC Natural Markets’ Edmonds store in the deli kitchen.

Michael has been a cook for eight years. He now works for Seattle’s celebrity chef Tom Douglas.

The couple met at a retreat center in New Hampshire while serving three meals a day. Melissa was the assistant farmer, Michael worked in the kitchen.

Farm stand sprouts

With the first year’s bounty about to be harvested the couple explored peddling their vegetables at the Edmonds Farmers Market. However Rubberneck Farms could not guarantee the required week-in-and-week-out vegetable supply for the July-through-October Saturday market.

That’s when the Mearns hatched the idea of putting up their own stand, under a tree on a kitchen table in their front yard. Sales grew weekly.

“Our idea was not to supply families with vegetables for an entire week, just enough to fill in,” Melissa said. “We just wanted our neighbors to be able to eat seasonally and locally.”

The Mearnses stood by this conviction earlier this spring as they, and their neighbors, took on City Hall when a license fee of $500 jeopardized the farm stand.

“That’s more than our seed costs for the entire year,” Michael said.

The City Council ultimately voted to forgo the fee for urban farmers.

Growing the goods

Planning for this season, the Mearns are concerned that neighborly demand will outstrip what the single garden plot can grow. Last year the garden netted 1,000 pounds of produce.

Two neighbors volunteered portions of their yards, bringing an additional 3,000 square feet of growing room. In return for sharing their land, the donors will receive a full harvest from the entire system. The Mearns will pay for the water used in the plots.

The additional space means additional work to coax vegetables from the earth. The couple enlisted help from one intern at Edmonds Community College’s horticulture program and three volunteers who are colleagues of Melissa’s from PCC.

The couple looks upon their garden plots as a catalyst for other neighborhoods to grow food.

“We are hoping to get this idea into other neighborhoods,” Melissa said.

Get the goods

WHERE: Rubberneck Farms, 20319 Maplewood Drive, Edmonds

WHEN: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays

MORE INFO: On Facebook at “Rubberneck-Farms” or rubberneckfarms@gmail.com