Horseneck Farm: Preserved for agriculture, now increasing access for diverse growers

Fields at Horseneck Farm

Rows of kale, eggplant, corn, and other late summer vegetables extend for nearly 5 acres across one corner of Horseneck Farm in early September, located just a few miles south of downtown Kent. On a clear day, Mt. Rainier towers behind the trees in the distance. This setting – a small, green retreat within a hub of manufacturing – is just one of five King County-owned farms leased to area farmers through its Farmland Leasing Program.  The goal is for marginalized and beginning farmers to have land access to grow their agricultural businesses despite increasingly expensive property prices across the county.

“Making Horseneck Farm more accessible to farmers of color and immigrant farmers strengthens our local food economy by making it more dynamic and inclusive,” says Christie True, Director of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP). “Our Farmland Leasing Program is one of many ways we’re removing barriers for the next generation of farmers, connecting them with the land they need to produce more of the homegrown goods that the people of King County want.”

Satellite view of Horseneck Farm

Named for the twisting shape of the Green River as it draws the property’s border, Horseneck Farm was part of a once vibrant agricultural landscape in the Kent Valley. Dairy, tobacco, and lettuce farms were common, but the installation of a dam along the Green River and the subsequent end to annual floods made the area more attractive to developers. Today, Kent and nearby cities are more well known for their manufacturing than their farm products.

At Horseneck Farm, the cement foundation pad of an old milk house – a remnant of the property’s history as a dairy – still exists.  

In an effort to protect the farmland that remained, Horseneck was purchased by King County nearly 40 years ago through the Farmland Preservation Program. The total area – around 30 acres – has primarily been leased by a single farm business during that time. This year, 5 of these acres were transitioned to different tenants in a new lease with several South King County nonprofits. This lease agreement is the start of a gradual process to use the full acreage and uplift marginalized farmers, while keeping the land in full production.

Rows of late summer vegetables

“What works really well to address our bigger objectives of providing farmland access to a larger diversity of people is having community-based organizations as part of the process,” says Melissa Borsting, Agricultural Land Use Coordinator with DNRP. “They can outreach to people in their native languages, help them find culturally relevant seeds, help them connect to markets, and all of those pieces that are really hard for King County to do effectively. One of the unique aspects at Horseneck Farm is that we are partnering with multiple organizations there. And that is very exciting in terms of increasing access.”

With the establishment of a new lease, this 5-acre corner of Horseneck Farm is now tended by over a dozen farmers working alongside each other. The nonprofits leasing the property from the County are a coalition called Food Access and Aggregation Community Team (FAACT), a network of South King County organizations which includes the Seattle International Rescue Committee (IRC), South King County Food Coalition, Elk Run Farm, Food Innovation Network, Highline College, Living Well Kent, Wakulima USA, and Shared Soil. A collaborative grant writing process resulted in the group’s partnership that began this year on Horseneck Farm.

The Local Food Initiative Team talked with one of the site managers supporting much of this activity, Kamal Adhikari, senior program specialist with IRC’s New Roots program.

The IRC’s work in agriculture predates the launch at Horseneck, though. Kamal says they started New Roots in 2010 because refugees from Myanmar and Bhutan expressed a strong interest in having access to cultivation space.

“These folks are really interested in gardening because of the generations of farming in their country. After living in refugee camps with no access to land and natural spaces, they were so isolated,” Kamal said. “Having no access to land is really terrible and terrifying for them.”

A farmer with a beet harvest from their Horseneck plot

What began as a small program in the yard of St. Thomas Catholic Church with 30 plots has grown to over 200 garden and farming plots across King County, several of which are located at Horseneck Farm for IRC clients.

A strong connection exists between the New Roots program and IRC’s main work in resettling refugees, Kamal says. Having a small piece of land to grow culturally relevant produce and connect with other immigrants has made the transition to the life in the U.S. easier for many. He describes clients going to American grocery stores for the first time and not recognizing many of the items for sale. At Horseneck Farm, the tables are turned, and these immigrant farmers show off carefully cultivated vegetables that are native to their homelands but hard to find here.

A farmer washes a Daikon radish, a favorite in the Nepalese community

“When they work in the soil, it feels like they’re back in their country. It may be a very small plot, but they have treated it as their backyard or their own farms. It has a lot to do with their mental health,” Kamal says.

New Roots participants also report better physical health outcomes during the growing season, according to Kamal. And while some smaller spaces are available for those who wish to grow food just for their families, many farmers are utilizing their plots at Horseneck Farm to launch agricultural businesses.

“Many folks are on the way to leasing 10 acres for farming because they want to be full-time planting, rather than working side jobs,” Kamal says. “When they record all of [their sales] and share them with us at the end of the market, what they expected originally and what they have made…those numbers give us really great success.”

A farmer shows off their plot at Horseneck Farm

Melissa says that the potential to host larger plots for farmers who are dedicated to commercial growing is an exciting prospect at the Horseneck property, as more of the farm’s 30 acres are transitioned to new lessees.

Along with coordinating land access, IRC also helps the farmers find sales avenues for their produce such as individual buyers, CSAs, and farmers markets. On the Wednesday morning when the Local Food Initiative team visited Horseneck Farm, several farmers were in their plots harvesting for the Tukwila Farmers Market.

The IRC’s New Roots program has a shared vendor table that allows farmers from Horseneck to sell their produce at retail prices without taking on the burden of becoming a vendor by themselves, such as acquiring equipment and insurance. Any unsold produce that IRC has purchased for their table is donated to food banks or given back to the producers for their families.

As the 2021 market season ends, many Horseneck farmers are starting to plan for next year and considering how to make their small farm businesses more profitable. May was the earliest farmers could start planting this year, so they are all looking forward to a full growing season in 2022.

In addition to meeting County goals to increase land access for BIPOC and immigrant farmers and keep agricultural land in production, Horseneck Farm is at the center of many other overarching objectives. Alignment with the County’s Equity and Social Justice Initiative, flood management and fish habitat restoration due to its proximity to the Green River, and Strategic Climate Action Plan all factor into how the land is managed.

When asked how these wide-ranging priorities factor into the farm’s operations, especially with the 2021 lease of land to the FAACT coalition, Melissa says, “In a way, we’ve been pulling the pieces together this year, building the relationships, and I think that’s part of the answer – really trying to have solid relationships with the various partners involved.”

The onsite partners were excited for irrigation to be installed during the farm’s opening season. Central water pipes exist that farmers are able to extend to their plots, which allowed farmers to grow their crops despite the dry conditions this summer. 

Horseneck is modeling a sustainable practice in the form of a solar-powered pump for the well. Three DNRP staff members installed the solar panels, which ultimately allow for potable water on the farm for drinking and washing produce onsite.

Solar panels power the water well pump at Horseneck Farm

King County is awaiting news on a potential grant award that would further improve the productivity of the grounds through additional farm infrastructure improvements. A top priority of the current farmers is permanent, onsite cold storage to replace the small coolers and bags of ice on which they rely currently. This storage would likely also be solar-powered, and it would increase the profitability of each business; less product would spoil before making it into the hands of customers.

Other property improvement plans include the addition of a barn, a shared office, and extended irrigation lines – all in effort to make the site more productive for the farm business tenants.

“Talking to the farmers out there and seeing their enthusiasm for having more space to be growing is so rewarding. The sheer diversity of products they’re growing, and so many of them have been waiting to move up from tiny little garden plots to be able to grow commercially for the first time this year,” Melissa says when asked about her favorite part of managing the Horseneck lease. “And watching the change from May to now.”

A farm team harvests crops for market

Despite this being a learning year for Horseneck Farm as partnerships were built and proper infrastructure was established, Kamal says, “I always have a hope that as much as you put forward – energy and love and care in the soil that you work on – eventually something beautiful happens. Now, when I go, there is this abundance of produce. So many different vegetables from different countries, and folks smiling and sharing seeds.”

Even as the city around it continues to grow, Horseneck Farm – preserved in perpetuity for agriculture – is carrying on the farming history of the Kent Valley and empowering diverse farmers to grow local food for generations to come.

Five additional acres at Horseneck Farm will be available for lease in 2022. To learn more about the lease process and apply to be a new farm tenant, please visit https://www.farmkingcounty.org/finding-farmland.html.

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