Farmers From the City

by Stefanie Ellis
photographs by Penny De Los Santos

Proof that the concrete jungle is a perfectly reasonable place to grow a garden.

The first time I see Colin McCrate ’00, he is holding a turnip roughly the size of his head. It is a portrait of awkward pride. Awkward because most people have little interest in turnips–not even if it’s big enough to take over their homes–and McCrate isn’t the type to proselytize. Still, I can tell he’s secretly dying to explain why this turnip is so special.

The story goes like this: A man McCrate met in Costa Rica recounted to him the legend of a behemoth heirloom turnip grown during his grandmother’s youth. This was a turnip fit for the Guinness Book of World Records, yet no seed company or seed-saving organization had any record of its seeds, making its existence even more mythical. Then, one day, the man found a jar of the seeds sitting on a windowsill in his grandmother’s house. Miraculously, the seeds were still viable. Even better, the man believed in sharing.

That was just the beginning.

“I don’t think I got into this line of work because I wanted to do people’s gardening for them,” admits Halm. “I wanted to see people getting excited about food on their own.”

As owner of Seattle Urban Farm Company (SUFC)–a business whose primary aim is to create sustainable backyard landscapes–countless fruits, vegetables, and seeds have passed through McCrate’s hands. I am here on this quiet Thursday afternoon at one of SUFC’s sites–a modest one-story home in a middle-class neighborhood a few miles from the Space Needle–to learn how to plant onions, potatoes, and peas in a plot of land no bigger than a plastic baby pool. But McCrate and his business partner, Brad Halm ’02, are here to teach me something beyond the basics. They want me to recognize the value of connecting with food in a more personal way–”It sort of makes eating a whole new experience when you know where your food comes from,” says Halm. That’s the lesson they bring to all their clients, even those who live smack dab in the middle of skyscrapers and ceaseless traffic. Turns out, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you live. Everyone has the power to make something grow.

I am a bit skeptical, however, because I can’t even grow weeds. The SUFC boys, who have won awards for transforming green spaces by installing ready-to-go vegetable gardens complete with clean soil, drip irrigation, and raised beds, can sense my hesitation. “I just don’t understand how something so small can turn into this brilliant, vital thing,” I say, looking down at the fragile stalk of green onion in my hand. McCrate smiles. He knows how.

He knows that the onion starts out weak, its verdant arms spindly and limp, but its roots are strong. It grabs hold of the soil with a dogged ferocity, pushing itself to become something more.

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