Dean Kahn

How one neighborhood turned a freeway eyesore into a green asset

It’s a busy weekend for a tract of scrub land next to Interstate 5 that is being turned into an environmentally minded mini-farm in the heart of Bellingham.

York Community Farm will hold its summer solstice party Saturday, June 25. The same day, the farm will be the first of its kind featured in the annual tour of eco-friendly homes and landscapes hosted by Sustainable Connections.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase urban gardening and its impact on a neighborhood,” said Erin McCain-Anderson, event and volunteer coordinator at Sustainable Connections.

The farm sits on a three-quarter-acre parcel on James Street between Potter and Gladstone streets, smack against the west side of Interstate 5. A concrete sound wall, the height of a basketball hoop and decorated with outlines of trees, buffers the land from the sight, but not the sound, of the freeway.

Construction of the freeway decades ago left the triangular piece of state-owned land vacant, a prime spot for litter, blackberries and thigh-high weeds.

Today, the land is home to more than 30 fruit trees, raised and mounded vegetable beds, compost bins and a soon-to-be solar-powered watering system.

“It was just an empty lot that was a community eyesore,” said Mary Loquvam, the garden’s coordinator, grant writer, and dirt-under-her-fingernails whirlwind. “We’ve turned it into a community asset.”

Loquvam, who is retired from a career in watershed management in California, began her work on the farm after coming across high-priced apples at a Bellingham grocery store.

“This in a town where fruit rolls down the street,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is crazy; I’m going to start a neighborhood orchard.’”

Initially, eight fruit trees were planted at Garden Street United Methodist Church, close by. Four times that number of trees — plums, cherries, pears, apples, and figs — were then planted next to the freeway after York residents got the OK from the state Department of Transportation.

This is now the fourth growing season at the farm.

“Every year we’ve at least been doubling or tripling our area of production,” Loquvam said. “Our yields haven’t been off-the-charts huge, yet.”

The focus is on winter crops, with Yukon Gold potatoes, two kinds of squash, and five kinds of dry beans — scarlet runner, pinto, black, orca and cannellini.

Winter crops are convenient for York residents to store and eat later, and they require just one harvesting season in the fall, which keeps down labor costs.

Volunteers, including students from Western Washington University, help at the garden. Thanks to grants, the farm also will have six paid interns this year to handle the bulk of the labor.

The farm works with local programs to place interns who are veterans, homeless or recently released from prison or jail. Each intern works about 10 hours a week for three months. In return, they receive $1,500, free vegetables and, perhaps more important, work experience for their resumé.

There are plenty of community gardens throughout Whatcom County where people can grow vegetables for themselves for free or for a small fee.

York Community Farm is different. The goal is to develop the freeway land as a place for interns to work and the public to learn. Over time, Loquvam hopes, York residents and landowners will let parts of their yards be turned into more gardens. If enough people participate, Loquvam said, the operation could become financially self-supporting, providing paid work for interns and healthy food for residents.

“It’s nothing new having urban farms,” she said. “My concept of moving into people’s front yards or backyards is putting a different spin on it.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

Coming up

3-7 p.m. Friday, June 24: Benefit barbecue at Sehome Village Haggen, 210 36th St., Bellingham. Suggested $5 donation for hot dog, chips, soda. Proceeds benefit York Community Farm.

1-7 p.m. Saturday, June 25: Solstice celebration at York Community Farm, 1472 James St., between Potter and Gladstone streets. Hot dogs, grilled carrots, salads, chili, dessert, and Boundary Bay beer. Music by Peter, Bob & Billy; Woolly Breeches; and Robert Sarazin Blake. Plus chair massages and a rummage sale.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, June 25: Sustainable Connection’s Home and Landscape Tour and Festival showcases York Community Farm, six eco-friendly homes, and a festival at The RE Store. Tickets, $10, available at tour stops, online, and at Village Books, The RE Store, and Community Food Co-op.

Farm details: 360-756-6643,