To explore the global concepts, trends, and agricultural systems that I’ve been learning about on a smaller scale, I sought to understand what’s happening in my own community. I reached out to some professors at the University of Washington (UW) and had the privilege of interviewing two, Eli Wheat (Ph.D.) and Yona Sipos (Ph.D.). Eli is a lecturer for the UW Program on the Environment and Yona is a lecturer for the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences. My hopes for these informal interviews were to discuss agroecology, urban farming, and food sovereignty specifically in the Seattle-King County area.
Eli grew up in rural America, which led to his fascination with biology and the environment. After receiving a Bachelor’s in Biology and Master’s in Education, Eli taught at Northwest Youth Corps, which is an outdoor high school in Oregon for at-risk youth. There, Eli saw the benefits of farming education for youth; farming or the “focused discipline towards growing life” was a way to heal trauma. He explained it as, “the farm belonged to them and they belonged to it, and these kids were not used to having relationships like this.” At Northwest Youth Corps, Eli learned from colleagues on how to incorporate farm learning into the curriculum. Later on in his career at the UW, Eli co-founded the UW Farm in the early 2000s.
Eli explained to me that Seattle has a temperate climate agreeable with farming. Therefore, it’s important for there to be a place in the city to teach about agriculture. As Eli put it, “Why wouldn’t you be teaching about food production?” Farming is a physically embodied profession, so academics look down on it because it doesn’t outwardly involve the brain. As a nation, the work of food production has been placed in fewer and fewer hands. Farm owners are synonymous with rich white folk and farm workers are synonymous with migrant workers. These migrant workers, who are severely underpaid, represent an invisible piece of our food system. What we need is more people involved in agriculture, more farmers, and more diversity. Farms can be incredibly rich areas of biodiversity, but the way industrial agriculture is feeding us literally destroys the planet; we underpin food ecology with production. Therefore, having urban people involved in regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty movements creates resilience in the food system. Urban farming is a gateway to empowerment because it’s a gateway to becoming a farmer, feeding your neighbors and community. Eli mentioned that he could previously never afford to eat the way he does now as a farmer. Currently, Eli owns a 20 acre farm on Whidbey Island where he incorporates regenerative agriculture and agroecology practices into his farming. Some examples of these practices include no tilling, the use of occultation tarps, compost, goat grazing, and ducks as a form of pest management (slugs). Over time, even the use of organic fertilizers for nitrogen fixation becomes less and less necessary as the soil microbiome built diversity and resiliency. Eli has managed to phase out harmful farming practices without having to sacrifice crop yield or productivity.
The last question I asked Eli was how might we be able to change agriculture on a national level? He said that we need to be focusing on the policies that incentivize small producers to use sustainable practices. First, the U.S. government shouldn’t subsidize grain production, they should subsidize vegetable production. Grain subsidies incentivize mono-culturing acres and acres of land solely to increase exportation profits. What if we paid farmers for restoring habitats or sequestering carbon? Farmers are business people, and right now they are economically incentivized to abuse and extract the Earth’s resources. Second, policy should aim to build resilience into the system, like getting farmers markets into food deserts and putting people of color into positions of agricultural leadership. We also need communities across the country investing in farms and first generation farmers. In Seattle, Puget Consumers Co-opt (PCC) is already doing this with their farmland trust. The third and last answer Eli gave was that states need a larger role in the management of meat production. Federal policy makes it hard to sustainably produce meat because it protects large businesses. There should be livestock farms partnered with produce farms rather than a separation between industries. Our interview concluded on a note of hope for the future. Great strides are being made today in the realm of regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty, all we need to do is keep pushing for a better food system.
Speaking of food systems, The University of Washington has a new major: Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health! Yona Sipos teaches classes in this major as well as a seminar with recorded video available to the public.
I had less time to speak with Yona, but the conversation was no less engaging. I first asked for her definition of agroecology, as it’s not stagnant. She described it as regionally-based ecology practices with an emphasis on indigenous agriculture. Agroecology is all based on similar principles but adapted to the specific ecological environments and based in community ownership of land. Agroecology is about working in harmony with ecological systems and protecting ecological boundaries, an idea based in indigenous world-views. Next, I asked specifically about regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty trends in Seattle over the last decade. Yona said that food systems have actually become a hot topic since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a new development. People have a newfound interest in learning about supply chains and gaps in social issues. Food systems in Seattle is finally being treated as an interdisciplinary issue that involves agriculture, nutrition, and community health, hence the new UW major. She states that Seattle specifically has a vested interest in agriculture because of its temperate climate and concern for social issues, such as climate change. Lastly, she mentioned how the 2008 crisis was an important turning point for a lot of folks because it exposed vulnerabilities in the system.
The last question I asked Yona regarded agricultural policy and solutions for the road ahead. She began by stating how agricultural policy is highly inequitable but that “food is economic and food is health.” It’s vital that we fight inequities in agriculture as a means of pursuing social justice. She continued by saying that Black land ownership has decreased precipitously and farmers are older and whiter. Why can’t we imagine anything other than an old white farmer as the baseline and what should we imagine future farmers looking like? Levers for change are all multi-dimensional; appreciating and honoring the ecological, economic, and social benefits of agriculture is vital moving forward. Agricultural policy should consider the true costs of food and producing food rather than ignoring externalities, such as migrant farm workers. Here is where our time to chat was up, however, I still gathered tons of perspective on the future of Seattle’s food and agricultural system.
In conclusion, Seattle is an urban community that has made positive strides towards sustainable farming practices and food sovereignty. There are pragmatic and realistic policy solutions to industrial agriculture that we must advocate for and push. These policy changes will inevitably become vital to social justice, equity, and human health, not to mention our very existence as a species on this Earth. It was a pleasure interviewing two experts from the UW on topics of food systems, agroecology, and food sovereignty movements. And I am thankful to both Eli Wheat and Yona Sipos for their time and knowledge.