Chickens, Organic Farming all at Seattle Tilth

Grant ChenAugust 13th, 2008
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I'm sitting in the historic Good Sheperd Center, a brick and ivy coated community center located in the quaint Wallingford district. This happens to be the weekend for Seafair, which is drawing thousands of locals out to downtown and Lake Washington, yet sitting indoors on this sunny Saturday afternoon are twenty or so Seattlites anxiously awaiting, of all things, a class on raising chickens.

Present are the typical Seattle formal wear of fleece, jeans and birkenstocks (or Keens, as is now all the rage), though any outwardly similarities stop there. In fact, the class breaks down into seemingly unclassifiable groups: the attentive Microsoftie, an enamored college couple, a Bourgeois woman in faux Pradas and furry slippers, dusty REI clad hippies, and myself, the (overly) caffeinated guy taking zealous notes. If one thing can be said about Seattlites raising chickens, it's that Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore.

The class is hosted by Seattle Tilth, a local non-profit whose mission is to promote both urban agriculture and organic practices. Leading our flock of students is Paul Farley, a soft spoken instructor that has been raising chickens for over 50 years. In his other life, Farley doubles as a cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson, though his faded jeans and worn boots would suggest that Farley is one of those types that happens to work rather than the other way around.

Over the next few hours, we learn about the origins of chickens, their behavior, building a shelter, the types of feed, how many eggs to expect (200 the first year) and even how to deal with annoyed neighbors (bribing them with eggs). "Chickens are not rocket science," Farley explains with a smile. "If you can take care of a dog or cat, you can be successful [at raising chickens]." Farley goes on to explain that though raising chickens may seem like a novel idea, the practice has been with humans for centuries and only in the last few decades did we actually "abandoned the technology".

It's ironic that Farley mentions this fact, as my Mom grew up on farm and wished, as most parents do, of a better future for her own offspring. Having been rooted in the tech industry for over a decade now, I can almost imagine the bewildered look on my parents' faces as I bring up the fact that I've decided to raise chickens at our next family gathering. Of course, I know my parents will realize the fundamental difference of raising food for sustenance during their era compared to modern times, where raising food is more often a complex choice of personal ethics, politics and health.

As with animal husbandry, the practice of organic farming is something that Americans have recently begin to rediscover. Formed in the mid-1970s by a collaboration of minds, Seattle Tilth was created to address the rapid industrialization of food by educating local farmers of the benefits of organic farming and practices. Similar tilth groups sprung out of this same collaboration, which includes Snoqualmie-Valley Tilth, South Widbey Tilth and even Oregon Tilth, an internationally recognized organic certifier.

In current times, the mission of Seattle Tilth has grown beyond farm education. In fact, the organization's current agenda focuses heavily on urban agriculture, a concept that embraces city-living along with food sustainability. Through workshops and classes, the hope is to show that small space gardening is not only achievable, but doable with the right organic practices.

Among the offerings are a class on growing salads in containers, sheet mulching, composting for apartment dwellers, herb gardening, and even a four week, comprehensive organic gardening program for the truly passionate. Some of the classes, such as the chickens 101 class, take place in the Good Shepherd Center, while the majority are hands-on workshops. Many take advantage of Seattle Tilth's two demonstration gardens, which showcase a complete organic garden at work.

The organization is even making in-roads into the Eastside by holding events at the Pickering Barn in Issaquah, located across from the Costco. Families will be happy to know that many of the workshops at the Issaquah location are designed as group activities for parents and their 2-5 year olds. Workshops include a ladybug picnic, a teas and bees get together and a "slimy creatures" class. Another popular offering that fills up fast is a summer camp that Seattle Tilth's hosts, which caters to kids 2 to 12 and enables both parents and kids to learn and interact together.

Though their workshops are popular, the organization's most used service is their Garden Hotline, which is sponsored by the Seattle Public Utilities commission. Staffed by Seattle Tilth horticulturalists, the hotline offers free gardening advice to residents in the city at all business hours (and now Saturdays) for those in need of assistance. Questions range from the common, "Why does my worm bin smell like rot?' to the less frequent, but more pressing, "Is it safe to dump hazardous waste on my lawn?" While I imagine the hotline is used primarily for gardening purposes, I can't help but imagine the reaction if I call in a few months from today, telling them my chicken is stuck in a tree and won't come down.

As my class is wrapping up, I'm already planning out a coup in my head and the necessary materials at the local hardware store. Imaginations of delivering cartons of eggs to friends and neighbors start running wild to the point that I have to pepper my enthusiasm with thoughts of mundane tasks like cleaning and feeding instead.

So, Mom, if you're reading this, I apologize, but it looks like I might be spending my adult life cleaning chicken crap after all.


To learn more about Seattle Tilth or register for upcoming classes, please visit their website at: http://www.seattletilth.org. You can also find details about the upcoming Harvest Fair on September 6th, where you will also be able to meet representatives from Chef Seattle.

To contact the Garden hotline, visit http://www.gardenhotline.org or call them at (206) 633-0224.

Urban chicken farming is rising in popularity
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