You are what you eat. This has been a common saying among health enthusiasts for years. But how often do you question where your food comes from, how it was grown, or who was involved in its process? The bigger question is whether or not you even care. With a food system poisoned by GMOs, agricultural pollution, tainted water, and chemical preservatives, it’s time to become aware of what we are putting in our bodies and make conscious decisions about what we eat. The true problem is that as a society we have become so detached from our environments that we have been conditioned to rely on third parties to provide our food. But there is a solution and it may be more local than you think.
Food forests are popping up in cities throughout the country. These are man-made ecosystems rich in biodiversity that mimic the architecture and beneficial relationships within a natural forest. Often these food forests have a wide range of trees, shrubs, and cover crops that compliment each other and provide a variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts to local communities. One of the most progressive of these nourishing landscapes is the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Washington. With 7 acres of designated city land, this community project is making it possible for the residents of Seattle to understand the importance of local ecology. Glenn Herlihy, cofounder of the Beacon Food Forest, spoke with MiLLENNiAL to share how every city in the U.S. can benefit from this model.
Setting the precedence for permaculture in urban environments, Herlihy and his cofounders have established a neighborhood farm complete with open harvest areas, collective gardens for organizations, P-Patches for family units, tool sheds, beehives, terraced land, water systems, accessible pathways, and an educational community gathering plaza. With no fences or security guarding the land, Herlihy proudly states, “It’s completely open. It’s the people’s garden.”
Promoting different harvesting ethics to ensure the safety of each plot, the Beacon Food Forest will teach community gardeners how to harvest, how to respect the land, and how to honor each other’s crops, in addition to using signage as directives to stay away from private plots. “What’s great about a food forest is you’re not only creating a local food system or food source by a local community who is getting to know each other, but you’re sort of rehabilitating the land.”
The difference between a community garden and a food forest comes down to the ownership of the harvest. Community gardens offer space to individual farmers within a collective plot of land, but have rules about sharing, often require dues, and have strict policies about the use of land. Food forests on the other hand are inherently open. They are based on a natural bounty of vegetation and are designed for feeding neighborhoods. Volunteers contribute to the maintenance and community donations keep the forest flourishing.
The Beacon Food Forest Model
The Beacon Food Forest has turned a non-conductive recreational area across from the recently constructed 50-acre Jefferson Park into a functioning neighborhood farm. With $200,000 invested into the project from various grants and donations, Herlihy and his team of enthusiastic volunteers first broke ground in September of 2012 and started turning their idea of a thriving community eco-habitat into a reality. “This is taking public land and making public food,” Herilhy says of his project.
Phase 1 was scheduled for its public debut in early 2014 and consisted of 1 acre for collective gardening and 1 acre for private gardening. “We are farmers of trees, shrubs, and perennials…so we’re looking at a lot of fruit and nut trees… shrubs with berries, grapes, and vines…and a lot of medicinal herbs and edible herbs” to spread throughout the forest.
This forest doesn’t just strike accord with those who are well-versed gardeners like Herlihy, but mostly with those who want to “get their hands in the soil and play.” He confirms that the majority of people who volunteer their time in the garden are interested in “sharing in the efforts of creating food for their community” and wandering through a park that has different varieties of crops that you “don’t see in the grocery store.”
There is a heavy emphasis on experimenting with what can be grown. Since the garden is home to a diverse group of people as well as plants, “we want to involve as many cultural foods as we can.” Testing non-native crops is part of the fun in establishing the rudimentary foundation. Ultimately, a unique plant could be a lifesaver for the area. If something does well, it can replace plants that are suffering. And in order to provide enough food for the community, Herlihy suggests the trick is planting in abundance and then evaluating demand once harvested. As a “wilder garden based on the natural woodland ecosystem” the objective behind planting is to lower the maintenance hours by having the plants do most of the work. Cover crops like Clover and Alfalfa fix nitrogen in the soil and will eventually be chopped and dropped as mulch.
The Beacon Food Forest is keeping it’s physical labor needs relatively low as well by only requiring 100 volunteers to give 8 hours a year. Regarding how much money it takes to maintain a food forest, Herlihy says, “Garden projects like this are all about people management. Plants and structures are easy. People are harder to make show up…nobody is getting paid. Having a good concept helps.”
Community Working Together
In the next year, the Beacon Food Forest will be growing a lot of food, but Herlihy says that the biggest yield won’t be the harvest, it will be the community education behind propagating food. Depending on how well the land is maintained and how engaged the city and Seattle Public Utility are with the garden’s efforts, the community will dictate the next phase of expansion. Phase 2 will be based on demand – “Do they want more P-Patches, more food forest, or bigger collective gardens?”
Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest is setting an example for how all cities can reclaim health standards by instating local food systems. “When you look for success in starting a project like this you want to look to the land first.” Herlihy encourages communities to start evaluating properties from a gardening perspective. “What does it offer? Is it communal? Is it in an area that has good sun exposure? Is it easy to get to?” These are essential elements to consider when scouting for a location to build an abundant food forest.
Next is community. “Many people don’t like gardening by themselves, but you’d be surprised how many people actually love to come out and garden in a group. It’s far more fun. At our parties we have drums going and we feed everybody, and it’s always a great time.” Creating an educational program within your garden will also enable you to receive grant money, in addition to building a “powerful community around food.” By understanding our agricultural food system and knowing how to work with it, we will not only be creating a healthier society, but will also be less of a burden on our planet.
To reclaim your health, start by eating vegetables and getting accustomed to the varieties that best serve you. Then learn about the vital properties that each crop provides your body. Once you’ve taken these steps, maybe you’ll want to know where your food is grown. It takes a little effort to actually look up the company, but knowing the distance your food traveled will motivate your buying habits. The final measure requires your active involvement in localizing your food consumption. Whether that’s starting your own garden, joining a community plot, or petitioning for a citywide food forest, you have the power to be the solution to our food crisis.