In the Community | Land Access

Despite land access barriers, BIPOC-led groups breathe life into King County ag community

As King County’s population and urban density has grown at an incredible speed – farmland, especially that with high quality soil – has become much harder to secure. In addition to affordability issues, farmers must also contend with the pressures of climate change, narrow profit margins, tough working conditions, and more. While farmers across King County face these challenges, land access barriers disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color (BIPOC) due to centuries of systemic racism and discrimination. This very discrimination has kept marginalized communities from accessing land historically and continues to serve as a land access barrier today.

Even in the face of struggle, communities and farmers of color are creating a more resilient and just food system that builds off of their strengths, knowledge, cultures, and lived experiences. We are deeply inspired by this work in King County, where we have been aiming to listen to the needs and understand the barriers of marginalized communities through our role in the Working Farmland Partnership (WFP). For three years, Washington Farmland Trust has served as a key participant in the WFP, a collaboration between the local conservation district, farmer training and advocacy organizations, county government, and land trusts. As a collaborative, we aim to provide a suite of services to farmers and land holders in King County, aligning our strategies and tools to keep land in agricultural production and increase farmland access for new and expanding producers.

We are inspired by the important work happening in King County agriculture, from community gardens run by refugees to BIPOC-led farmer training programs. We are thankful to share their stories with you today.

New Roots gardeners harvest vegetables. Photo courtesy of International Rescue Committee.

International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program

Each year, thousands of refugees are welcomed to Washington to begin a new chapter of their lives. During this critical transition, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) New Roots Program plays an integral role in helping members settle into new communities by connecting them to available land that is shared with other refugees and immigrants.

In collaboration with the Working Farmland Partnership, the New Roots Program identifies potential farming sites and works to connect community members to existing plots of land and commercial farming opportunities. They also provide technical gardening assistance for members on their plots and host small business trainings to help farmers scale up, if they’re looking to expand.

Growing food can be a nourishing and revolutionary act for IRC’s community members. “Farming has helped many members reconnect with the land,” said Deepa Iyer, New Root’s Senior Program Coordinator. “It allows them to support their families and regain a sense of purpose while transitioning to a new life.”

If you visit the bustling Tukwila Farmers Market on a summer day, one of the vendors you’ll spot is Namaste Community Garden. Namaste Community Garden was brought to life in 2017 by Bhutanese and Nepali community members thanks to the New Roots program. While younger family members were busy working or attending school, community elders were typically confined to their homes in a new neighborhood and felt like they had “lost their sense of purpose,” according to Deepa. After recognizing these feelings of isolation and loneliness amongst community elders, the group came together to create a community garden. In no time, the elders began working the land and bringing food home to their families.

In partnership with St. Thomas Parish church and others, the community garden launched with 30 plots in 2010. In 2017, the New Roots program began to host community programs at the garden, manage the tool shed, and increase language accessibility. Even as the New Roots program increased capacity to support the garden, Deepa emphasized that “this garden has been and will always be led and owned by the community who tends the land.” Today, the garden includes more than 90 plots.

In 2018 and 2019, IRC graduated a total of 25 students from their farm business training program at New Roots. A large percentage of graduates expressed interest in focusing on farming full-time if they had access to land and local markets. While there is evidence of interest from the community to advance their farming pursuits, land access barriers remain high.

“Many community members can’t afford to buy or lease their own land, or don’t want to for various reasons,” Deepa said. “We are one of many organizations who are hoping to bring land access and training opportunities to the county to serve marginalized communities.”

Farm Manager Hannah Wilson stands in front of YES Farm in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Black Farmers Collective.

Black Farmers Collective’s YES Farm

Overlooking Downtown Seattle skyscrapers and the Olympic mountains sits YES Farm, a small but mighty farm in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace neighborhood. Founded by the Black Farmers Collective (BFC), a group of food system activists, YES Farm operates as a cooperative urban farm that provides food, education, and community building to the neighborhood and surrounding BIPOC communities and organizations.

For Hannah Wilson, the opportunity to serve as YES Farm’s first Farm Manager has been both exciting and healing.

“I’ve worked for years in very white spaces, both in academia and in the environmental field, and those spaces tend to be extremely rigid in what they allow the scope of their work to be,” said Hannah. “They also tend to have cultures of silencing people of color or deprioritizing environmental justice work.”

As an organization grounded in trust and a shared understanding of one another’s lived experience, Hannah says that working for YES Farm is liberating.

Hannah and the team at BFC recently launched a farmer training program on Small Axe Farm, a 4 acre property in Woodinville that they are leasing from King County. Thanks to generous donors, volunteers, and staff, BFC now has the resources they need to grow the program. Masra Clamoungou was recently hired as the Farm Manager at Small Axe. The BFC team hopes to recruit an Indigenous farmer to work alongside Masra in the coming months.

In the long-term, Hannah hopes that Small Axe Farm will provide critical resources for BIPOC-led organizations who are fighting for food sovereignty. “Our hope is to make farmers successful enough economically that they can expand their operations, and continue to train new BIPOC farmers over time,” said Hannah. “Building this essential infrastructure will lower the barriers for BIPOC farmers to gain experience in farming and be successful.”

Hmong and Mien farmers have been selling tulips at Pike Place and other markets around the region since 1982.

Hmong and Mien Flower Farmers of Washington   

If you’ve ever visited Pike Place Market, you can surely conjure up the iconic image of a wall of colorful flowers. A large majority of the vendors who meticulously cut, wrap, and display their bouquets are members of the Hmong and Mien communities, and have been selling at Pike Place Market and the region’s farmers markets since 1982.

The Hmong and Mien are minority groups from Laos who immigrated as refugees to the United States after the Vietnam war. When they arrived in the 1970’s, they utilized their deep farming knowledge and skills to establish new livelihoods in the Puget Sound region. In 1982, the Indochinese Farm Project was established along the Sammamish River, east of Seattle, with funding by King County, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, and Washington State University. The vision for this land co-op was to help transition the newly settled refugees to life in the Puget Sound and dedicate a space for the community to become self-sufficient through farming. Over time, the farmers began specializing in flowers and their bouquets attracted attention at farmer markets across the region. 

In 1986, the co-op’s funding ended and the farmers fanned out across the region to establish their own businesses. Today, of the 80 or so families across King and Snohomish Counties, only four members of the community own their own land. According to Bee Cha, a Hmong community member who works for the King County Agricultural Program, the main barrier is affordability.

“It’s almost impossible to own land in King County as the prices are ridiculously high,” said Bee. “Farmers in the Hmong community are operating on an average of four acres of land and making $500 dollars a day.”

When markets across the County began to close due to COVID-19 restrictions last year, the Hmong community’s main source of income essentially disappeared. These closures have hit the community especially hard, as markets have served as stable and consistent revenue channels and spaces where the community has already overcome language barriers.

“The pandemic has hit the aging, illiterate farmers of the community hardest as the majority of them don’t have the language skills to navigate many of the challenges the pandemic brings,” said Bee. Fortunately, with the help of younger, social media savvy community members, many of the Hmong flower businesses have been able to stay afloat by reaching customers through new online channels. The Hmong Association of Washington also started a GoFundMe to assist struggling farmers with financing, and to help them explore new channels.

Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, communities of color across King County are drawing on their wisdom and lived experiences to lead critical efforts to create a more just and resilient food system. We are proud to support their efforts through the Working Farmland Partnership and our Farm to Farmer program and look forward to collaborating to create land access opportunities for new, beginning, and other marginalized farmers in the years to come.

Header image features a group of New Roots community members gathered together after a harvest party at Namaste Garden. Photo courtesy of International Rescue Committee.