Home Team Harvest: Coping with drought on food bank farms

This Saturday marks the 15th Home Team Harvest, where KING 5 takes in your donations up and down Puget Sound. But not all food comes out of a can or a box or a bag.

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- It's cold and it's wet on Puyallup's Mother Earth Farm. That is, if you're outside.

"It's a pretty cheap method to protect produce over the winter," said farm manager Anika Moran, as she pulls back the curtain of a "caterpillar tunnel" greenhouse. "So we have beds of top. Choi in here."

"That will keep in this tunnel all the way until next spring. So we'll be slowly harvesting it throughout the winter," said Moran.

In another tunnel filled with arugula and mustard greens is farmer Grayson Crane.

"We bring a bin in here and fill the whole thing up. We'd wash this in our wash station and then bag it up. And then give it to food banks to serve," said Crane.

The entire eight-acre farm is operated by Emergency Food Network that distributes to 73 food banks in Pierce County. But most of the food grows outside, and the summer drought was a big challenge.

"So a lot of crops ended up not getting water, whereas as in past years we would have been able to rely on some rain over the summer to get things through," said Moran.

Part of that traces back to what she says is high iron content from well water. It forms a rusty color on plastic piping and tends to clog drip holes, inhibiting irrigation.

"This year the drought really exposed the fact that our irrigation system is really crippled by the iron," said Moran.

Because of the drought, the farm struggled to make its goal of about 100,000 pounds of produce. In good years, it's yielded as much as 150,000 pounds, all while demand for food is going up.

"We noticed there was a huge need for fresh food," said Joanna Rasmussen with Emergency Food Network. "There's some planning to purchase some more land to expand our farm that we were able to grow more food."

A farm owned by a food bank network is rare. Statewide, most fresh produce is donated by farmers, but the drought made that tougher too.

"This year was the beginning of what we're thinking is a longer term struggle," said Jessie Swingle with Northwest Harvest, which operates statewide.

"This has been a drought. We know it's an usual drought, but we look at climate change in the long term and we're saying, these are things we need to start taking into account," said Swingle.

But donations of all types help. Cash could help buy a filtration system for irrigation water.

"These are called caterpillar tunnels. They're very easy to put up," said Moran.

The ones at Mother Earth Farm cost about $2,000 each to keep providing fresh, organic food, in spite of the winter.

The Home Team Harvest Food Driver is this Saturday, December 5. Learn more about Home Team Harvest and how you can help.


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