Tierra Nueva: Organic Farm Social Enterprise

Tierra Nueva Autumn

Last summer a good friend of mine did an internship at Tierra Nueva, a mini organic farm located nextdoor to Burlington, Washington. I got to visit her then and help harvest some of the produce in the fall both last year and this. What impresses me the most about this farm is  their dedication to three main aspects of healing.

1. Heal the land. The staff at Tierra Nueva is dedicated to growing organic produce on healthy soil. One of their farmers told me a few weeks ago that they want to move away from using motorized methods when cultivating the land. Every season, they leave about half of their two acres to rest while carefully cultivating the other half.

2. Heal your body. They grow wholesome, healthy food that nourishes both the farm staff and those in Seattle or other nearby towns who purchase their produce boxes. Customers are invited to join in on the farming process by volunteering at a work party or harvesting U-Pick items.  Plus, their website provides a delicious recipes list where you can search by produce type. I love that they partially fund their work through this social enterprise aspect.

3. Heal the community. The farm staff simultaneously works with both the local migrant community and people in recovering programs from the jail and juvenile detention. Two of the farm’s primary workers are a lovely couple–Salvio and Victoria–who speak Spanish fluently and were once migrant workers themselves. Another cool aspect is that women, men and youth in their recovering programs also participate in farm activities. For instance, one woman set up culinary classes in the barn where she taught group classes on how to cook with the fresh produce.

Update: I drafted this post on Wednesday this past week. This morning I was talking to my friend who interned at Tierra Nueva and she told me that this lovely farm is closing because the produce sales were not covering expenses. I decided to publish this post anyway as a case study of an attempt well-made. Many social enterprises are difficult to sustain because they lack the organization, structure and strategy behind them (although even business start-ups often don’t take off until an entrepreneur’s third or fourth attempt). A short peruse of their website screamed for the need of a marketer and web designer. Transporting produce all the way to Seattle required a lot of time and fuel. Their new farmer (who will continue farming on another plot of land) said this land could have been better utilized. Yet in spite of its shortcomings, the farm met numerous needs during its time of operation and many of their practices and principles could be replicated in a myriad of other settings to bring about holistic healing for communities.

Rainier Valley Coffee Shop

Tin Umbrella

As a visionary, idea-generator, I cultivate so many entrepreneurial dreams that I know I will never be able to live all of them out in a lifetime. Always, I am excited to see others take off with one of these creative endeavor, whether sparked by my influence or not. Awhile ago, I suggested to my community development team that a bakery in Hillman City could achieve a number of our desired goals for the neighborhood: cultivate community among diverse residents, employ recent immigrants, introduce people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to one another’s language, food and culture. Each day of the week, a delicacy from a different community represented in the neighborhood would be featured. Neighbors would come to expect Ethiopian sweet bread on Mondays and Vietnamese rolls on Tuesday, for example. The signs would be written in at least half a dozen of the most widely spoken languages in the Rainier Valley and the bakery would intentionally employ people representing these different communities to work together and teach one another how to bake their specialties. It would also have a space for community activities, or open mikes, where singing, dancing, poetry, storytelling and the arts could be performed. Another member of my team suggested the shop sell bubble tea as well (a Bubble Tea Bakery).

Although this idea hasn’t developed beyond the dream stage, I was excited to learn that a coffee shop, the Tin Umbrella, was opening in the neighborhood that’s connecting with our Ethiopian community and creating a gathering space for residents. The founder, Joya, spent some time in Ethiopia so speaks Amaharic and is sourcing the beans from farmers she personally knows there.

Attending the Grand Opening, however, I was disappointed that the crowd present did not at all represent the diversity of the Rainier Valley. I have since learned that the opening of the Tin Umbrella, as well as the Spinnaker Bay Brewing Company a block away, are sources of controversy by longer-term residents. Many feel as if these up-and-coming enterprises mirror the gentrification that occurred in Columbia City, pushing the lower-income residents, recent immigrants and diverse ethnic communities farther out of the city to be replaced by hip, young hangouts. Talking with Joya in-person, I know she has a desire to engage and celebrate the diverse communities located here, yet her business model (delivering high-end coffee to residents by bike) appeals to a select set of residents, while alienating others.If enterprises like the Tin Umbrella really want to connect with the other communities present, they will have to make the effort and do things like:

  • Sell unroasted beans to Ethiopian residents for their coffee ceremonies (in conjunction with getting the word out and marketing them at a price residents can afford)
  • Collaborate with other businesses in Hillman City to encourage cross experimentation of customers (e.g. a punch card for getting Somalian tea at the other shops in the neighborhood as well as Tin Umbrella coffee)
  • Employ baristas, roasters and staff who represent the diversity of the neighborhood

Watching establishments such as the coffee shop and brewery unfold causes me to recognize the difficulties that surround economic growth and development in conjunction with social and COMMUNITY development.It’s a tricky balance to facilitate both and I don’t know of a lot of models that have done that well. If you know of some, please share. I would love to hear about them!