Home Harvest

The Black Farmers Collective Grows Food and Community Above I-5

A new walking tour opens a window to urban farming and the neighborhoods it can serve.

By Erin Wong June 17, 2021

Yes Farm welcomes volunteers at all levels—and if you don't have gardening gloves, they'll lend you a pair.

Image: Erin Wong

Ray Williams, managing director of the Black Farmers Collective, straightens up to survey the tomatoes. There’s over a dozen sprigs freshly planted along the row. Volunteers kneel on either side, patting the composted earth. “Wow, look at this!” Williams, a perennial science teacher, exclaims. “This is a real gift.”

We’re basking in the soil of Yes Farm, a 1.5-acre stretch overlooking I-5, just west of Yesler Terrace. It’s technically part of the highway, leased from the state Department of Transportation by the Seattle Housing Authority and Black Farmers Collective. But instead of a tangle of blackberries, this splash of green feels like an oasis. Fruit trees line the western edge, against mounded rows of garlic and herbs. Stadiums glint in the distance, while the sound of traffic is softened by the brush.

The five tomato planters—three women, one of their sons, and myself—are new here. We’re halfway through a tour titled the Power of Community Gardens, a partnership between the Black Farmers Collective, a group of food systems activists, and Global Family Travels, a company focused on regenerative tourism. During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Black farmers and Black-led community gardens, including Black Star Farmers, Nurturing Roots, and Yes Farm, experienced a wave of media attention and an outpouring of volunteers. This tour, born of the same wave, joins an ongoing effort to raise platforms for Seattle’s communities of color—and to build a bridge between our immediate circles and those with greater diversity.

Kent-based Global Family Travels, which largely focuses on international trips, also offers Seattle-area walking tours that explore local community.

Image: Erin Wong

For $50, participants join a two-hour tour, complete with hands-on gardening and a pre-departure reading list. According to Global Family Travels, 80 percent of that cost will go straight to the Black Farmers Collective—or more, if there are enough attendees to outweigh the cost of operation.

Devon Williams, one of our guides, says the tours also give him the opportunity to practice public speaking. He and James King Jr. welcome us as we settle onto the smooth benches of the Danny Woo Garden, Chinatown–International District’s 100-plot community garden. Williams and King nod to key concepts: food sovereignty (the right to healthy, culturally appropriate, sustainably produced food) and food justice (a movement that tackles social issues across the food system). They acknowledge Bob Santos, the civil rights activist who fought for the development of this garden, and the Duwamish Tribe and Coast Salish as original stewards of the land.

The most powerful piece of their introduction, however, is Williams’s own testimony of growing up in a food desert outside Chicago. Here, the harvest from Yes Farm gets distributed across Seattle through food banks, mutual aid groups, and nearby Black-owned businesses.

After a brief Q&A, we rise along the hill, winding past chickens and fenced-in gardens to trek along the Yesler Way bridge, across the raging river of I-5. It used to be easier to travel between these two neighborhoods, King points out, and the farm's proximity to both is a classic example of environmental injustice.

We’re handed gloves, shovels, and a wheelbarrow of compost. We till, we weed, and we prep the mound for planting. For a few minutes, I’m lost entirely to the task, digging like a child in the sand. We massage little stems from plastic cups, like popping ice cubes from silicon trays.

“Farming is really intuitive, I think, if you do it in the ecologically sound way,” says Hannah Wilson, the manager of Yes Farm. When she first signed onto the role, she didn’t know how to plant a rose garden or prune a blueberry bush, but volunteers showed her how. “What matters is that you can engage people and bring community and be humble enough to learn alongside people.”

That’s exactly what she’s doing here, on this luminous Saturday morning. Volunteers stroll up and down the narrow farm, grinning at each other behind their masks. Hannah delegates to drop-ins and regulars from the nonprofit EarthCorps. Ray’s flitting between tour members, showing us how to break up the roots. Before long, he’s tugging us toward the southern edge, where wooden beehives sit in the shade.

Ray Williams, managing director of the Black Farmers Collective, shows off a tomato plant.

Image: Erin Wong

If there’s one resounding takeaway from this tour, it’s that Yes Farm is a hive itself, a hub where research, education, and activism collaboratively thrive. Bastyr University runs a polished plot, while Seattle University engineers set up solar panels to power the greenhouse. The greenhouse was built by Rebuilding Together Seattle, and was painted by an art teacher commissioned by Hannah. All the projects at Yes Farm must center BIPOC communities, she says firmly, with educators and students from marginalized groups. But from there, the sky’s the limit: If you want to lead a project, just ask and bring the materials.

Jennifer Spatz, founder and CEO of Global Family Travels, believes in the power of travel to help people see the similarities between each other. It’s why she developed tours to learn about street art on Capitol Hill or salmon habitats on the Olympic Peninsula. “What biases do we put in our suitcases that are constructed by society?” Spatz asks, “And how do we unpack that?”

As I trace our steps back across the bridge, I consider what the tour is trying to accomplish. The mission: “to learn, immerse, and serve.” It’s hard to say that this tour does more good than a direct donation or volunteering on a regular basis would (drop-ins are welcome every Tuesday and Saturday). It’s hard to beat immediate economic gains or the long-term advantages of relationship-building. But in two hours, the guided experience provides an entry point: structure, designated teachers, and ample resources to self-educate. It gives big-picture reasons to come back.  

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