TESC helps provide vision for sustainable local food systems

This week marks the end of winter quarter at The Evergreen State College. We used to call it finals week when I was a student at the University of Washington and Western Washington University 45 years ago. Old-timers remember the drill around finals: Lots of all-nighters and last-minute cramming trying to second-guess what the professor would conjure up for a test.

Finals week has a different form and feel at Evergreen. In many of the classes, students at the end of the quarter present their research projects in front of teachers and classmates, often relying on

PowerPoint presentations that last roughly 15 minutes.

Such was the case Tuesday in a partitioned-off room at the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center where just 10 days earlier I had joined some 400 members of the community who gathered to celebrate the life of pioneer TESC professor Carolyn Dobbs, who died Feb. 3 after an almost three-year fight with brain cancer.

I think Dobbs, who helped create the TESC Organic Farm and believed in the importance of students getting engaged in their community, would have found much to like, listening to the students in the yearlong program titled: “Ecological Agriculture: The Science and Policy of Food Systems.” The winter quarter emphasis and the theme running through many of the research projects was an exploration of ways to grow a more sustainable food system in Thurston County.

About 50 students are enrolled in the program, taught winter quarter by TESC professor Martha Rosemeyer and adjunct faculty member and local food activist TJ Johnson.

The projects ranged from practical to fanciful. Some dug into state and local policies governing food carts and home-based commercial kitchen policies. Others lobbied for more support for community gardens, urban agriculture rooftop gardens and silvopasture, which is a farm technique that mingles livestock with forestry, or even orchards.

Here’s some of what I learned in my three hours back in the classroom:

Alexandria Banks explored an alternative to large-scale industrial composting of food waste. She drew largely from a successful program in Victoria, B.C., called “Pedal to Petal.”

The business launched in 2008 by a few community activists is a compost pickup service that uses bicycles to pickup pails of food waste from residences, banks, schools, government offices and other sites. The food scraps are composted at a small-scale composting site and the finished product is sold or donated to urban farmers and community gardens.

Banks wants to form a collective with like-minded people and launch a compost pickup service on Olympia’s west side. Stay tuned for more on this neighborhood composting model.

Emily Woody reviewed the status of community gardens in Thurston County. A community garden assessment by the Thurston County Public Health and Social Service Department identified 11 gardens in 2012 that met the definition of a community garden (a shared, collaborative open space accessible to residents of the community who are gardeners). Seven of those gardens were in Olympia. The 11 gardens served 235 households.

The Health Department set a goal of adding five more community gardens by September 2014. The current tally is four new ones ready for the 2014 growing season, noted Chris Hawkins, the department’s coordinator of healthy, active communities.

The goal is to locate the fifth garden in Tumwater, which currently doesn’t have one.

One of Woody’s recommendations is to create more community gardens in public parks.

Student Miles McCreary looked at the state of food system infrastructure in Thurston County. He found that two-thirds of the agricultural land in the county is used to grow feed crops for livestock. He also identified a pent-up demand among farmers for more food processing opportunities in Thurston County.

Tessa Wogan searched for commercial farms in Thurston County operated by women. She found 12, including five farms in the Independence Valley near Rochester.

She said women accounted for 21 percent of the county’s commercial farms, compared with 14 percent nationwide.

Someone asked: Why so many more women-run farms in Thurston County?

Rosemeyer suggested, and I agree, that much of the answer rests with the long-standing academic support for sustainable agriculture found at TESC.

Greeners get hooked on farming, then go forth with the energy and ideas it will take to build more resilient local food systems. Some of that vision was on display this week in the Longhouse.