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Harbor Roots: restoring land and people together

Emily Lardner

“We are building a new story for Grays Harbor County. We are reclaiming our right to fresh food, to sustainable use of the land, and to an economy that benefits all of us, not just the few at the top.”

How can a tiny vegetable farm change the economy? That’s the question Hannah Jones and I discussed as we tromped the grounds of Harbor Roots, a three-acre vegetable farm in the Wynoochee Valley, about ten miles east of Aberdeen.

Harbor Roots  is a project of Chaplains on the Harbor, a group founded by the Reverend Sarah Monroe in 2013, dedicated to “pastoring, organizing, and empowering the leadership of poor people in Grays Harbor County.” One aim of Chaplains on the Harbor is to build “regenerative community ownership through community-led social enterprise and job creation”. This small CSA, which aspires to sell 50 shares this season, represents a step in that direction.

The Wynoochee Valley was once lush. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the valley was heavily logged. Logging led to erosion along the banks of the Wynoochee River as well as landslides. Soils near logging roads and landing areas compacted and became more dense. That increased density in soils prevents rainwater from soaking in. Instead, the water runs off and carries topsoil away from the forest.

As Hannah explained to me, not only did the logging take away the trees, it also robbed the valley of its topsoil. An important goal of Harbor Roots farm is to regenerate the soil. As we walked, the smell of fish emulsion hung in the air, evidence of early soil enrichment.

CSA as social enterprise

The vision for Harbor Roots is a bold one: living wage jobs for people in poverty with wrap-around support, and ultimately, a sustainable economic solution to the persistent poverty that characterizes Grays Harbor County.

Poverty in Grays Harbor County is significant: according to the Office of Financial Management, in average per capita personal income ($36,824 in 2017), Grays Harbor ranks 35th of the 39 counties in the state. Both Chaplains on the Harbor and the Community Health Report published by Grays Harbor Hospital report that for every dollar earned in Washington, workers in Grays Harbor receive 72 cents.  Just over 22% of county residents use the state basic food program in 2017, the third highest usage rate among all counties in the state. In county health rankings, based on a mix of variables that include high school graduation rates, unemployment, children in poverty, and income inequality, Grays Harbor County ranks 36th again. There’s a lot of work for one small farm to do.

Produce for the tables of Aberdeen, Olympia and Westport

Harbor Roots CSA currently employs one half-time farm manager and three apprentices. They’ve raised $11,885 so far through an Indiegogo campaign, with contributions from 157 backers. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-us-launch-harbor-roots-farm-community#/. They’ve sold 25 of their 50 available CSA shares. While they expected the majority of shares to be purchased by people in Olympia, 18 shares have been purchased by people in Aberdeen. A few churches have purchased community shares. The produce from those boxes will be distributed through Chaplains on the Harbor in Westport and Aberdeen.

On its own, building soil and selling boxes of carrots, lettuce and kale seems like a tough way to build a sustainable economy. Hannah explained that in the long run, Harbor Roots is interested in tapping into sustainability-oriented financial strategies that aim, in broad strokes, to withdraw investments from fossil fuel companies and extractive economies to reinvest those funds in non-extractive, cooperative financial vehicles.

Placing Harbor Roots in it historical context is essential. Scratching out a living in damaged soil today is a result of the earlier activities of an extractive economy. That earlier economic activity not only damaged the ecosystem, but much of the wealth generated through the activity—logging—left the community as well. The challenge now is how to get some of that logging wealth reinvested back into the community in support of social enterprises like this small CSA. Hannah mentions projects like community forestry and carpentry co-ops—other social enterprises that make sense in the Wynoochee Valley.

Small steps toward sustainability

Harbor Roots is about to start its first full season. Their three acres are a loan from another farmer. A friend scours Craig’s List to find tools and equipment. Hannah points to the rototiller they found for a great price. The team is in the process of setting up a clubhouse, a space for sharing meals and hanging out. The work schedule for each apprentice is organized around other life obligations. Hannah laughs when she says her position is half time.

With higher rates of food insecurity than the state average (16% vs 13% for the state as a whole), more limited access to healthy foods (12% have limited access vs. 6% of the state), and drug overdose rates that are among the highest in the state, a sober space to gather and eat good food together seems like a small, essential, step in the right direction.

Shares in the Harbor Roots are still available, with deliveries to Olympia and Aberdeen. Check their website for more information.

The Harbor Roots website is at https://harborroots.com,  Information about Chaplains is at https://chaplainsontheharbor.org. Data on health in the Harbor can be found at http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/washington/2018/rankings/grays-harbor/county/outcomes/overall/snapshot.

Emily Lardner lives and writes in Aberdeen.

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