In Our View: Growing Community

78th Street Heritage Farm proof urban agriculture vital to its users, volunteers

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It is a “growing” asset — in more ways than one. A couple years into its existence, the operation at Clark County’s 78th Street Heritage Farm continues to be refined and developed, with the latest changes involving streamlined operations that further reflect the benefits of the urban agriculture site.

To understand the purpose of 78th Street Heritage Farm, it is instructive to take a look at the site’s history. From the 1800s to the 1940s, the 79-acre parcel of land — between Northeast 78th and 68th streets, one mile east of Interstate 5 — served as the county’s poor farm. It was the last refuge for the destitute and the downtrodden, and a cemetery on the site became the final resting place for many of the residents.

In 1949, the land was ceded to Washington State University for use as an agricultural research station, but by 2004 the county and WSU were considering selling the land and splitting the proceeds. That’s when residents concerned about expanding sprawl and diminishing open spaces in the urban area stepped in. By 2009, the farmland was repurposed into an elaborate community garden.

Now, about 10 acres of the parcel are used to produce vegetables that make their way to the Clark County Food Bank each year. Primary among the produce is carrots, with potatoes, beets, zucchini, and cucumbers also on the menu. The emphasis is on vegetables with a long shelf life to ensure that they are eaten, but the benefits of the farm extend well beyond the tangible products and to the communal aspect of bringing volunteer organizations together.

“I think the best thing that defines a volunteering experience is feeling needed,” Lauren Shareshian, a teacher at Portland’s Catlin Gable school, recently told Columbian reporter Eric Florip as she led a group of students in working at the farm. “It’s nice to be able to make a difference.”

In ways small and large, the 78th Street Heritage Farm is making a difference, and changes this summer could enhance that impact. The Clark County Food Bank is taking on a larger role in coordinating volunteers who help tend to the crops each week, with the goal being improved efficiency. Farm manager Blair Wolfley said, “There’s opportunities to give people a better product and have more consistencies with the product.” Or, as Sydney Leonard, an AmeriCorps volunteer who is working with the food bank, said, “We didn’t want to be competing for volunteers. We’re all working for the same thing.”

The result is a community asset. Food is produced for the food bank; individuals rent plots and grow food for their tables while learning about farming; and volunteers discover a connection to the land they otherwise might never have experienced. As Wolfley told The Columbian last year, “I visualize this entire farm being demonstrative of food production on the urban fringe.”

That can be a rare commodity as urban areas struggle to balance development with open spaces. Reasonable arguments can be put forth that the land would be better used for increasing population density near the urban core, but there are benefits to retaining some land for its original purpose. As a report from Rutgers University states, “Urban agriculture benefits both individuals and neighborhoods, and thus contributes to overall community health. The benefits of food production transcend the physical, mental and emotional health of the individual to leave lasting change on others and on the physical and social space of the community.”

With that in mind, we hope the 78th Street Heritage Farm keeps growing.