Tilth Alliance director looks to build bridge between urban, rural

The new executive director of the Tilth Alliance says she is “incredibly impressed” with the Washington farmers she’s met.

“Given the climatic changes that we’re seeing occur, I think Washington farmers are going to find themselves really being a leader in food production … over the next couple of generations,” said Melissa Spear. “I see them working very hard to do the work that’s necessary to assume that position. I just really am looking forward to engaging more with that community.”

Spear joined the Seattle-based organization Nov. 26.

“What really interests me about (the alliance) is it straddles the urban and the rural,” she said. “Having a productive relationship between those two is critically important, they depend upon each other.”

The organization co-manages the 10-acre Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, which recently completed a two-year construction project. The alliance is developing support for the agricultural community on the site, and educational programs about food production, cooking and wetland restoration, Spear said.

The farm is certified organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Spear got her bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. She got a master’s degree in forest science from the Yale School of Forestry and a master’s in business administration from the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain.

Originally from California, Spear was doing similar work while living in Connecticut for 30 years. She worked for the Trust for Public Land, which included preserving several important farms, she said.

There, she became interested in the challenge of maintaining a viable agricultural enterprise and farm, she said.

She also served as executive director for Common Ground in New Haven, Conn., a high school, urban farm and environmental education center that introduces agriculture to an urban population, including how to grow food, healthy eating and sustainable agriculture.

“The interests aligned really well with what Tilth was up to,” she said.

Spear also moved to the West Coast to be closer to her daughter, who is “permanently located out here.”

Washington agricultural communities face many of the same challenges that Connecticut communities do, Spear said.

“How to really strengthen the relationship between the urban centers and the rural communities who generally are our food producers,” she said.

The alliance can help, she said, and promote sustainable and organic agriculture.

That includes making sure consumers, or “eaters,” understand the impacts of their food choices, she said.

“Any time you eat something, producing that food item has a set of social, environmental and economic impacts,” Spear said. “I think having some understanding of what those impacts are will influence your food choices.”

Spear sees ways to modify food production and distribution to address climate change. That includes increasing organic matter in soils; prioritizing soil health; no-till farming and cover cropping; and reducing food waste.

Spear hopes the organization can continue to represent both farmers and consumers, as a source of education and information.

The alliance works with schools to use gardens as a teaching tool and introduce the concept of food production.

“All children should have some understanding of the important role agriculture plays in bringing food to the table,” she said. “That’s a missing link right now for a lot of kids. They think their food comes from a box wrapped in plastic or a plastic bag and don’t understand it requires a farmer, a farm and some knowledge to produce it.”