“I want to see small gardens all over the city,” says Victoria Plumage, coordinator at Sovereignty Farm.
Located near Tukwila, Sovereignty Farm is a new project of the Chief Seattle Club’s Native Works program. The farm launched this year with the goals of providing a space for Native American residents of King County to grow culturally significant foods and employing several members of the Chief Seattle Club as apprentices.
Victoria says her role during this pilot year has been multifaceted.
“It feels very much like we have had to start from scratch – that’s involved event planning, coordinating people’s different schedules, and then with COVID trying to keep our group size limited, while we try to take the right precautions,” Victoria says. “And then, since it’s outdoor work, you have to work with the seasons, too, and be mindful of the weather.”
From a Plains tribe in Montana, Victoria found her passion for working outdoors early in her career and has an affinity for the plants that grow here on the historic lands of the Coast Salish peoples.
“I first started urban farming because as a youth in Indian education programs, they always teach us about weaving and traditional practices and medicines,” she says. “But we always had really limited access to these plants, and so that is what launched me towards farming, thinking, ‘I need access to these plants to do these cool projects.’ Since 2017, I’ve worked with different local Native organizations and the public school systems to develop educational activities and just increase our communities’ time outside.”
Her work with Chief Seattle Club began in 2019 conducting workshops for members. From art room sessions making salve, to tasting traditional teas, Victoria garnered interest among the participants in using native plants and helped motivate members to join Native Works’ apprenticeship program which now includes opportunities at the new Sovereignty Farm. The program employs Victoria, one farm mentor, and six apprentices who are members of Chief Seattle Club, a Native-led housing and human services agency.
Describing how the project launched, Victoria says, “Luckily there are a lot of people that believe in Chief Seattle Club’s mission, and someone contacted it about using some of their property to house the farm. That was key to making all this happen. It’s really hard to find a green space available in Seattle.”
With a cultivation space established, the farm’s apprentices went through an interview process and were required to meet Chief Seattle Club’s guidelines for participating. Victoria says the program can pay them for up to 16 hours of work each week, but in this first year of building out the structure, the goal has been to have the apprentices onsite at least once per week.
On the farm, the team’s work depends largely on the season. Watering and finding the right amount of shade was critical during the hot and dry summer, especially, Victoria notes, for native plants. Apprentices have also helped assemble the garden beds. And then another major task has been identifying the plants that already exist on the property and clearing invasive species.
“There are a lot of blackberries here, so we have to reclaim the space,” Victoria says. “That’s taking a bit longer than expected, but it’s good practice for us. And we hope to replace it with more native berries down the line. And there are a lot of trees on the property that need some care, and so we want to incorporate the trees into our plant learning because some of it can be used for dye, as environmental snags for wildlife habitat, or we can make wood chips for the berries. Some of it could be used to line the garden walkways. So it’s using what’s available to us to create this unique space.”
Victoria hopes the farm helps the apprentices with their physical, mental, and social health through time spent outdoors, too. Soon, she and the farm mentor will be compiling the results of a months-long wellness survey of the apprentices.
Another goal is providing meaningful work and a path toward “re-entering the labor force” for the participants, many of whom have experienced unemployment or homelessness.
“A big part of creating the program was trying to create these alternate job opportunities, so that they could have some income and find housing stability,” Victoria says. “Because the reality is our society demands you pay rent to have housing, which is so important for your overall health. It’s really hard to be a part of the community if you don’t have a place to live and rest and recuperate and regenerate.”
One way Victoria ensures the apprentices have a robust experience is through a continual focus on education. She sees it as key to her role in building a better food system.
“I’ve worked to encourage [Native communities] from a really early age to care about our foods,” she says. “You can learn in more than just a classroom.” True to her roots in K-12 school programs, Victoria says she enjoys relating the apprentices’ work with plants to concepts from Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. She also enhances their experience by hosting guest speakers about topics that are less familiar to her. Often these are Native community members with new, complementary skills. Earlier this year, a metalworker led a workshop on creating plant markers that will be durable in the face of the upcoming rainy season.
These unique connections to others in the Native community are helping Victoria and the team to build a space that furthers the farm’s mission and reflects the name chosen for the program.
Victoria says, “Food sovereignty is about being a part of the food production process. Historically, Native people have been separated from their traditional foods. So how do we reclaim that? There’s a lot of modern factors affecting how we can access our foods such as climate change, and the introduction of so many other plants to the area. So, how can we continue to be a part of those efforts to grow our own food and share that with the community?”
Patience has been critical to pursuing this mission for the new space. “The farm has a way of making you feel like there’s work to do, every day,” Victoria says. “You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere until you take that moment to really reflect.”
With the end of the farm’s first year approaching, Victoria says she enjoys seeing the apprentices become more knowledgeable in identifying plants themselves. While the goals for whether and how the apprentices might officially complete the program are still being developed with Native Works, Victoria says she can see clear paths to career opportunities in green jobs, such as tree trimming and care.
The apprentices were also recently invited to participate in local community planning, which Victoria believes could be a good option for older participants to share the knowledge they have gained in a less physically demanding way.
As the farm becomes more productive, Victoria is excited for the possibility to supply its produce to different parts of the Chief Seattle Club’s operations.
“I really want to increase access to healthy foods,” she says. “And we hope to be a part of this process where we’re growing the foods and when the Good Medicine Cafe opens, give what we have produced to that cafe to share with the larger community. And also to have produce to share back to the kitchens that prepare meals for any homeless members of our community.
“People need locally produced food, and I think that’s one of the ways we can deal with climate change,” she says. “If there are a lot of people moving to Seattle, how much do we have to produce to support the amount of people that live here, and how do we strengthen those networks?”
Victoria says she hopes Sovereignty Farm challenges conventional approaches to importing food from other places and gives people the opportunity “to rethink growing food in an urban setting.”
To learn more about Sovereignty Farm and how you can support its mission, visit www.chiefseattleclub.org/sovereignty-farm.