Integrating Local Food and Sustainability at Seattle’s 21 Acres Center

By Gretchen Garth

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Guest Editorial

Some of the biggest issues we face today—poverty, hunger, energy production, environmental degradation—are deeply interrelated and don’t have a singular cause or solution. Finding workable solutions to these problems requires action on multiple fronts, setting in motion systems and processes that help to reverse the negative cycles. This feels like a tall order, particularly when outcomes cannot always be measured in terms of “return on investment.” But the fact that these complex issues are interrelated means we often can apply relatively simple solutions that address multiple problems at once. In business-speak, we would call that leverage. To get our arms around these complex problems we must identify where those points of leverage exist and put our efforts into those areas that will have the greatest impact.

A major point of leverage is education, and one of the most effective ways to educate people about these complex interrelationships and the value of a whole-systems approach is to teach by example in the context of a collaborative, community learning environment. At the nonprofit 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living we do just that.

21 Acres Center
The 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living was recently awarded LEED® Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in the category of LEED for New Construction v2.2 rating system. The 12,000-square-foot building was awarded the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for its integration of innovative building and on-site systems.
Photo by Ed Sozinho.

We utilize our farmstead—which consists of a 12,000-square-foot building that is fully integrated with a bio-diverse, certified organic farm—to promote a whole-systems perspective on issues such as food availability, renewable energy production, water conservation, and environmental protection. We look at how these issues are interrelated and create, in response, positive systems that not only reduce negative impacts, but help to restore the environment to a healthier state.

Throughout the site—both the farm and the building—we utilize energy from the earth and the sun, waste is turned into regenerative compost, and water is filtered, used, and returned to the environment in a state that is cleaner and more free of chemicals than when it arrived.We grow food, bring it to market, and prepare it in our kitchen, while our building itself functions as a learning resource for green construction design alternatives. We call this a living laboratory where people can collaborate with us, learn, and experience state-of-the-art, real-world solutions in action—solutions that help us grow, eat, and live in a healthier and more sustainable way.

Basked of organic produce
Photo courtesy 21 Acres.

The idea for 21 Acres grew out of our search for a permanent location for the local farmers market in the Sammamish Valley outside of Seattle. We asked ourselves: What if we could do more? What if we could not only sell local produce, but also grow it ourselves? We could use our farm as a demonstration project to help local citizens better connect with where their food comes from and to help local gardeners and farmers learn about organic and regenerative growing methods. What if our farmers market building could incorporate renewable energy and green building technologies that not only minimize our impact on the surrounding environment but enhance it?

These questions have helped guide our process over the past decade. And while we are proud to have achieved both certified organic status for our farm and, in late 2013, LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council for our 21 Acres Center building, we are humbled by our experiences in getting there. Our path to these achievements was challenging at times—as early adopters of many green technologies we learned through trial, error, and discovery—but those experiences have helped us grow and create a better learning environment. We understand the obstacles, we know many of the potential pitfalls, and, as a non-profit, we are in a good position to help others learn from our experiences and collaborate with us in finding new and better solutions.

21 Acres Center
The 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living has the unique distinction of being surrounded by a biodiverse, certified organic farm. The building houses a year-round retail farm market, a commercial kitchen, offices, and spaces for classes, meetings, and events. The project is an ongoing effort to explore the leading edge of sustainable practices through engagement with the local community.
Photo by Ed Sozinho.

Today, our hope is that the 21 Acres Center building will serve as an example of low-impact site development that demonstrates how a larger structure can not only coexist, but enhance the natural environment around it. Our building houses a year-round farmers market, a commercial kitchen, and a community learning center where 21 Acres and other like-minded organizations hold meetings, classes, and events. The design of the 21 Acres Center blends principles associated with green design—such as resource efficiency throughout a building’s life-cycle—with the concept of a living building which produces some of its own energy, minimizes its water needs through conservation methods, and ensures that 100 percent of stormwater and wastewater are managed in a way that enhances rather than degrades the natural environment.

Green building technologies we have incorporated into the 21 Acres Center include geothermal heat pumps, radiant floor heating, a two-stage drinking water filtration system, low-flow fixtures, composting toilets, a biofilter septic system and graywater biodigesters with enhancements to further process waste from the building’s commercial kitchen, a living roof, and other stormwater management techniques throughout the grounds and parking areas. Energy generation and conservation technologies include a 25.2 kW rooftop photovoltaic solar panel array that generates approximately 25,000 kilowatt hours annually, ambient light sensors, insulated concrete form walls, large thermal windows, and nanogel-filled skylights that provide natural lighting during the day but block the UV and heat of the sun’s rays and reduce heat loss during cold temperatures.

21 Acres farmer
The Veterans Conservation Corp (VCC) leases a half-acre plot on the 21 Acres farm and invites veterans and community members to participate in work parties with them and to help grow food, build relationships, and alleviate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other war-related strains through gardening. 21 Acres is proud to be a host site for bringing people together for meaningful and therapeutic opportunities.
Photo courtesy 21 Acres.

In addition to our onsite tours and classes for the public, we meet regularly with commercial builders and building owners who want to learn how they can successfully integrate proven sustainable building and maintenance practices that provide a healthy, comfortable, and resource-efficient environment.

Among other things, the surrounding 21 Acres Farm has rich soil that is protected and enriched through organic farming methods. It produces wholesome food. The farm demonstrates how a productive, small-scale organic farm can coexist with protected wildlife habitat. With hiking trails, an apiary, and an orchard in addition to our food production acreage, the farm not only makes wholesome food readily available to the local community, it also provides opportunities for the general public to explore and learn firsthand about the long-term advantages of environmental stewardship, principles of sustainable agriculture, and the benefits of growing and eating fresh, local organic produce.

By bringing all of these elements together at 21 Acres, we have found ways to use points of leverage that make an impact at multiple levels. We have aspired to create vibrant, healthy indoor and outdoor spaces that make it easy to see and experience the benefits of green design and living.

We are pleased that the 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living is being embraced by local residents, organizations, and companies in the surrounding Seattle metro area. We designed 21 Acres to serve as a real-world example of an integrated, whole-systems approach to addressing issues around shelter, food, water, and energy. We are fortunate to be a part of this amazing web of people who are taking steps toward building a more sustainable future.


Gretchen Garth is one of the founders of 21 Acres and is Board Chair of the HumanLinks Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to systematic improvements in education, healthcare, and sustainable agriculture. A long-time community advocate for local food, sustainable agriculture, and green building, Garth was the driving force behind the creation of 21 Acres and continues to serve the organization as a committed organizational leader and volunteer.

Header photo, the 21 Acres Kitchen, by Ed Sozinho. The 21 Acres Kitchen supports the agricultural and sustainable education values incorporated into all segments of the organization’s programming. It is a certified commercial kitchen that serves as a culinary incubator providing an opportunity to the public to bring their special recipe to market or launch a new business. Here, Brianna Paris, one of the outstanding members of the 21 Acres culinary kitchen team, prepares items for an upcoming event and for sale in the Farm Market.

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