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Planting the seeds: Farming teacher sees new interest during stay-home order

Whitney Jacques is the founder of New School Farm, a nonprofit teaching farm in Vinegar Flats, as well as the owner of Verdant Hare, a consultation service that helps people plan their gardens, small-scale farms and orchards. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitney Jacques is the founder of New School Farm, a nonprofit teaching farm in Vinegar Flats, as well as the owner of Verdant Hare, a consultation service that helps people plan their gardens, small-scale farms and orchards. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Whitney Jacques did not grow up on a farm, but when she was little, her father built her a garden bed because what she wanted most was to make plants grow. Jacques didn’t know what to do, so it “fell by the wayside.”

Years later while studying at Portland State University, Jacques had an apartment that opened right onto a farmer’s market.

“I would walk around and look at the people working the produce stands and think, ‘Wow, how do I be that person?’ ” she said. “Instead of just asking that person, which would have been the smart thing to do, I tried to figure it out.”

Now, Jacques is not only that person but also the person who helps others figure it out, and since the stay-home order went in effect her knowledge has been in high demand as more and more people take on gardening.

“For me personally, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like my knowledge was this valuable,” she said. “I know that what I know is useful, but I’ve had so many people reach out to me lately, and I feel like I can really help because of what I know, which is amazing.”

Jacques is the founder of New School Farm, a nonprofit teaching farm in Vinegar Flats on Spokane’s southeast side in the Latah Creek area. The program has four apprenticeships (with a commitment of three years), as well as internships, which last a growing season. With the apprenticeships, participants have access to a portion of land, water and mentorship from Jacques. She also arranges lessons with other community members.

Jacques’ approach is shared knowledge learned through labor, something as foundational as her land.

“My farm down in Vinegar Flats, the New School Farm, we’re at the lowest point in that valley,” Jacques said. “And if I hadn’t been told that it stays colder down there than it does everywhere else, I would have learned the really, really hard way the first few years, but luckily I was told.”

Since the apprentices can sell whatever they grow on their land, the idea is that by the time the program is over, people will have their own established business and client base, whether that be supplying restaurants, farm stands or others.

Jacques also helps with individual gardens and is the owner of Verdant Hare, a gardening consultation company that develops plans for gardens, small-scale farms and orchards.

Her advice for those trying their hand at gardening? Plant something you like.

“A lot of people get really excited to grow things because they’ve been told that it grows well, but they don’t actually enjoy them,” Jacques said. “You’re going to work in your garden more if you are into what you’re growing.”

Jacques also recommends herb gardens for smaller spaces, or other plants that can be trimmed back frequently.

Co-operative effort

Speaking of plant starts, if you don’t see Jacques at the Vinegar Flats homestead, you might spy her on the roof of Main Market Co-op, where she grows the plant starts that are sold at the grocery, which in turn benefit New School Farm.

Shanon Davis, Main Market Co-op general manager, said there are some misconceptions about the rooftop garden: most people either don’t know they grow up there at all or think that all of the grocery’s produce is grown up there. Davis said the partnership with Jacques is great because the grocery store is community-oriented.

“It’s been nice also having that connection with Whitney, and the ability to let people know that we grow those on the roof,” Davis said.

Currently, the grocery is selling red cabbage, Italian parsley, Siberian and red kale varieties, collard greens, head lettuce varieties, strawberries and radicchio. Jacques sells the starts as it’s seasonally appropriate to plant them.

Jacques also thinks it’s great that people are getting into chicken-raising during the stay-home order, and she has two pieces of advice: Buy a pullet so that you’re sure your chick is not a rooster – which are illegal to keep in Spokane except in residential agricultural zones – to save yourself from having to find a new home for a bird you’ve grown attached to.

Also make sure you don’t have more chickens than your property and the city’s rules allow for. In the city of Spokane, one chicken is allowed per 1,000-square-foot lot.

Allied interests

Jacques allocated a portion of her land to Community Garden Alliance, a nonprofit group that grows food at community gardens and parks and donates the food to families in need. The group works with Transitions and donates a good portion of the food to Miryam’s House, which provides transitional housing for homeless women, said Melody Price, Community Garden Alliance founder and organizer.

Community Garden Alliance took referrals from Transitions of people who had been in their program and also by word of mouth. Right now they serve 25-30.

Jacques provided Community Garden Alliance about 1,500 square feet at New School Farms. Price and her husband prepped the soil and put in irrigation, but because of social distancing can’t yet call upon all of the other volunteers to help.

“I know that people have more time now and they do want to get involved, and having to limit that has been really challenging,” Price said.

Nick Thomas is a new apprentice at the New School Farm, and he’s also waiting for his program to be able to go into full gear. He’s doing the apprenticeship because trial and error over the years slowed his learning process, and he felt ready to go all-in.

“I’ve kind of been trying to learn stuff for a few years, and it’s been a lot of mistakes,” Thomas said. “A lot of flops, a lot of sort of wasted money, a lot of failures. But every time that happens, I learn something. But I’d rather not waste all that time and money and energy. Wasting physical work, there’s nothing worse than that.”

Thomas hopes to put his education toward making more people see the value in urban gardening. He’s purposely put his garden on his front lawn on a busy street.

“People won’t do something if there’s no example,” Thomas said. “I think a lot of people right now are starting to because of the quarantine, but I think exponentially it will catch on if there’s actually examples.”

Thomas has always found sustainable, urban gardening important, but it has been brought into new focus for him since the birth of his now 3-year-old daughter.

“There has to be a movement, and that’s really what I’ve been rooting for for years,” Thomas said. “I’m really excited about it, and I want to be part of it.”

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