Seattle’s Free Food Experiment

Can food be free, fresh and easily accessible? That’s the bold question that the city of Seattle is hoping to answer with a new experimental farm not far from the city’s downtown that will have fruits and vegetables for anyone to harvest this fall.

On Beacon Hill, just south of central Seattle, landscape developers and a few affordable-food advocates are building an edible food forest. Everything grown in the area, from the tree canopies to the roots, will be edible. And it’ll be open around the clock to anyone who wants to come and pick some fresh blueberries or pears. In its first phase, the farm will be 1.5 acres. But if it’s successful, the public land it’ll sit on—currently owned by Seattle Public Utilities—will be able to accommodate 5.5 more acres of growth.

Photo by Beacon Food Forest
Photo by Beacon Food Forest

One thing that’s striking about the idea (other than the idea in itself to have essentially a public farm that anyone can use—or abuse) is how the selection came together. Organizers shared with National Geographic a list of the crop offerings. Many are expected: apples, berries, row vegetables like lettuce or tomatoes. But others are pretty far out. A large Asian community in the area suggested things like Asian pears and honeyberries. A European influence led to the planting of medlar trees.

The concept is modeled on permaculture, a design system and school of thought aimed at returning some land to its own devices. Offering people free, fresh food is one motivation, but making the land useful and ecologically enriched is the larger goal.

That all said, some potential problems come to mind. What if all of one fruit is gone the first weekend its ripe? What if people pick things too early and spoil the potential for everyone? Or even worse: what if a colony of squirrels moves in and gorges while the rest of us are sleeping?

Organizers aren’t concerned about those first two questions (the third is a problem, of course, anywhere organic food is grown). “We’ve had many discussions about what would happen if someone comes and picks all the blueberries?” says Margarett Harrison, the landscape architect designing the project. “But that’s been perceived as a good thing. We’ll just plant more.”

As with anything related to agriculture and good food—in large quantities—take time. Most of the trees won’t be mature enough for a few more years. But a few decades could turn the area impressively productive.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But it’s the kind of idealism that anyone who likes to eat fresh things from time to time can get behind. And that’s the type of motivation that organizers hope will keep it going. After it’s finished, organizers will offer classes on things like canning fruit or pruning trees. All they’ll ask for in exchange are a few hours volunteering at the farm.

Changing Planet