Corporate culture has met agriculture at Intel, and the broccoli is amazing.
Employees at the DuPont offices have turned a rocky lot next to the streamlined building into a geek Eden of raised beds, compost heaps and generosity.
They are surprising food banks in Pierce and Thurston counties with deliveries of lettuce, spinach, peas, broccoli and bok choy in a season when many home gardeners are just getting their recently waterlogged soil going.
These techies do not approach gardening the way mere mortals might.
They’ve got next to no experience. They don’t trust luck. They work as teams and research strategies.
Apparently, they’re on to something. In late June they harvested 70 pounds of radishes from a 5-by-6-foot section of a raised bed. Now the peas they planted with the radishes are ready to snap.
“A lot of what takes place here is very experimental,” Stu Vannerson said. “It’s the engineer geek in us.”
Vannerson helped found the garden, then retired from Intel after 30 years. He remains the garden’s godfather.
The idea sprouted in 2008 when Intel celebrated its 40th anniversary by challenging its 80,000 worldwide employees to donate a million hours of community service. (The employees put in 1.3 million hours.)
Vannerson and his team went outside their skill set and hooked up with L’Arche and Mother Earth Farm. The gardens were a refreshing exercise in the tangible after a work week in the abstract world of software.
“We just really got into putting our hands in the soil and creating something as concrete as a squash or a carrot,” Vannerson said.
When the year was out, they wanted more, and figured bringing the garden to work would cut drive time, and give employees the chance to work in it during breaks or lunches.
“In January 2009, we went to all the departments and talked about the vision,” Vannerson said.
Intel is Pierce County’s 22nd largest employer, with about 900 employees. Enough of those people offered support to build the first five beds in Intel’s DuPont Community Garden.
Employee donations paid for it, so they were cheap. Which is another word for innovative.
“The essentials of Intel’s DNA are innovation and experimentation,” Vannerson said. “We’re willing to take risks.”
But not without careful study first.
Volunteers researched raised beds and lumber prices, drew plans and assigned plots to the work groups that requested them.
They asked the FISH and Thurston County food banks what foods they wanted most, and got the data out to teams who then chose their crops.
“I’m compost manager,” Bernie Short said. “Our cafe produces about four buckets of prep waste a day, I’ve been piling it under tarps, turning it into soil.”
Kirsten Hansen’s team went online, found a companion planting formula for radishes and peas, jumped right in, and grew those 70 pounds.
“With the hexagonal planting, you provide a micro-climate,” she said of one element of the success. But now she’s kicking herself for not testing the soil in her team’s bed so they can replicate the formula.
After the first five beds yielded several harvests, some 75 employees agreed to do more.
Team by team, they expanded the garden to 20 beds. Intel contributed fencing and irrigation.
Last week, Hansen laid cardboard between several beds and wet it down.
“We’re experimenting with cardboard as a weed suppressant,” she said.
They’ll record data. They’ll evaluate alternatives. They’ll settle on a best practice.
Across the way, a team was letting its cilantro bolt. They’re doing an experiment on seed collection and propagation that will get more interesting if they raise the money for the greenhouse they want.
Meanwhile, they’re still getting to know their vegetables.
Richard Doyle aimed his Droid at an odd plant among the onions. He ran the image through an app called Goggles to get an identification.
“It’s Shazam for vegetables,” he said referring to software that can name that tune.
“It looks kind of nightshady,” but with eggplant characteristics, Vannerson said of the plant.
Goggles had no idea. Google nailed it later as nightshade.
It was but one lonely weed in a geek’s paradise of beets, chard, broccoli and technology.