Soundings: Store wants to be a hub for urban gardeners

April 17, 2014 

Eastside Urban Farm & Garden Center co-owner Brighida deVargas

JOHN DODGE — Staff writer

Building community and self-sufficiency through urban farming and gardening is what the Eastside Urban Farm & Garden Center is all about.

Since its soft opening in early March and grand opening April 5, the retail garden center with an eco-friendly, organic theme has steadily grown its clientele in the old Curtis Lumber Co. building at 2326 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.

On my first visit to the 6,000-square-foot store Tuesday I ran into everyone from longtime South Bay horse trainer-boarder Betty Jo Watkins to a young Eastside family looking to build a community garden in the city-vacated alleyway behind their home.

Chicks and ducks are selling like hotcakes, heading to urban chicken coops in a city that revamped its urban agriculture ordinance last year to make it easier for city dwellers to own small livestock.

The store features a classroom that is home to a reference library that patrons are welcome to peruse over a cup of coffee, or attend weekend workshops such as “Beekeeping 101” taught by Kellie Shincke of Working Girls Urban Bee Co. from 1-3 p.m. April 26.

The wares of local farm and country artisans are on display, including leather dog leashes handwoven by 85-year-old Billy G. Jackson, a farrier, welder and rodeo veteran who happens to be the grandfather of one of the store’s co-owners, Billy Jackson, who is joined in the new enterprise by his wife, Michelle Jackson, and Brighida deVargas.

I popped into the store unannounced, but deVargas quickly offered to give me a tour and talk to me about their hopes and dreams for the new business.

“My goal is to help as many people as possible to create beautiful and productive gardens, urban farms and homesteads,” she said, adding that the store’s location on Olympia’s east side supports an until now underserved population of novice and experienced gardeners and farmers.

“I believe that growing and eating food grown close to home is one of the most important things anyone can do on so many levels,” she said in a brief biography she posted on the center’s website. It makes for more livable and sustainable cities, healthier, connected families, strong local economies, she said.

A longtime landscaper specializing in edible and eco-friendly landscapes, deVargas and her family live just a couple of blocks from the store on an urban farm on a small city lot alive with vegetables, herbs, fruits, miniature goats, quail and chickens. If you’re looking for a manicured lawn, look somewhere else.

Billy and Michelle Jackson own a small farm about 2 miles from the store that is home to rare-breed poultry, mini-La Mancha goats, small pigs and honeybees. Gardening, brewing, foraging and making cheese, milk and butter are some of the components of their cottage industry. These activities and more are what the Jacksons want to share with and teach to their customers.

The Eastside farm and garden center is not a place to find flats of mass-produced annual flowers, which are often placed on sale at big-box stores before the weather here in South Sound warms up enough to nurture them.

What you will find are bare root and potted fruit trees and bushes, edible ground covers such as elfin thyme and Corsican mint, vegetable starts grown at Rising River and Spring Creek — two Rochester organic farms — and cover-crop seeds, soils and compost displayed in metal pails so customers can see them and touch them before buying them.

I returned to the store as the after-work crowd started to gather around 4:30 p.m. I eavesdropped — then joined in — conversations about the local food economy and grow-your-own mentality that is growing faster than dandelions in the spring.

Eastside resident Brian Mark is excited by the level of urban farming and gardening he sees on his side of town. He’s already helped friends and family install four gardens this year. His next project? Convert a vacated alleyway into a community garden in his neighborhood.

Joel Hansen, a member of the city of Olympia Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee liked Mark’s plan and encouraged him to present it to the parks board for city support.

One of the goals in the proposed city comprehensive land-use plan is to have food growing within walking and biking distance of all city residents, Hansen said.

I told deVargas about the interactions I was overhearing in the store.

“We have tons of conversations happening here,” she said. “If we can be a hub to bring people together, that’s awesome.”

Watkins said the store will be a handy place to grab a few bales of hay and other livestock supplies for rural residents in the South Bay area north of the store.

Taking advantage of the spacious exterior of the former lumber yard, deVargas said an Eastside Farmers Market and small-scale livestock exhibits are scheduled for this summer.

For more on the Eastside Urban Farm & Garden, visit eastsideurbanfarm

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