My Journey to Friendships and Belonging
By Sheena Wheeler
Photography by Ariel Fried
Since falling in love with juice from Juice4Life in Bellevue earlier this year, I’d wanted to visit the garden where the produce is grown and to meet the passionate young men helping their community obtain wellness and knowledge through nature.
I’d discovered the location is known as a community garden, without fully understanding what that meant, and on my first visit my two young boys and I pull up to someone’s home. Concerned we aren’t in the right place, I call my contact Andy Severson to confirm address. Andy says, “Yes, come on around to the back of the house,” where sure enough, I find Andy, and a large backyard burgeoning with produce and herbs. I immediately want to dig in.
Once within the garden, Andy identifies weeds around the corn that the boys and I can help pull. Not surprisingly, my boys’ attention shifts quickly and their interest turns to the bees and beehives. As they watch the bees go about their work, Andy tells them about the importance of conserving bees and their role in the ecosystem. (I assume most of this information is over their heads until, days later, my four-year-old hollers, “Mom, watch out!” when he notices bees at a local lavender farm. I’m thinking he just wants to be sure his sweet mother isn’t stung, but he says, “You better not interrupt his pollinating.” I realize Andy has taught them something they will carry with them through their entire life—an appreciation for nature.)
With everyone in need of a break on this 90-degree day, we take a rest, and I’m excited to finally get to sit down with Andy and hear the story of the origin of Bellevue Produce, LLC.
Andy describes buying his home seven years ago and knowing he wanted a garden as a way to control the quality of his food. He started with tomato plants and a few fruit trees that were a gift from his dad. Soon he stopped answering his cell phone, but his friends, Scott Rynders, Matt Roen and Kyle Perez knew exactly where to find him because all he ever talked about was his garden.
After weeks of getting voicemail prompts, Scott, Matt and Kyle, all friends since grade school, stopped trying to phone Andy and started dropping by, asking what he needed help with, making suggestions about which vegetables he should add and eventually finding their own place within the garden.
As for the launch of the company, Bellevue Produce? Andy recalls, “We were just a bunch of dudes gardening on Friday nights, and after two summers of working in the garden, we asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we turn this into income?’” Growing up they had seen produce stands around their hometown and hoped a stand of their own could be a way to both earn extra money and continue their hobby on a larger scale.
In addition to their work at Bellevue Produce, all of the young men have other jobs. Matt and Andy are both custodians at Bellevue Public Schools, where their beekeepers experience recently paid off when honey was found dripping from a bathroom ceiling. Upon removing a ceiling tile, they discovered a beehive overflowing with honey. Because of the mysterious and unsanitary placement of the hive, they used it for educational purposes and not for human consumption. Not too many custodians would be excited about removing a hive from the school, but they were.
Andy says he has a dream of sharing his passion for gardening and beekeeping by creating an educational experience for children at local schools. “I would really like to garden at the schools around town. I would take on the role of starting the gardens and occasionally checking in on them, but I would love to see a common place where families could go to reconnect with nature in a way that also benefits them.”
Scott works as a carpenter in a family-owned business led by his dad. Pointing to the chicken coups and beehives, he says being a carpenter has come in handy as Bellevue Produce continues to expand. Kyle is a marine and currently works as a security guard for Bellevue Public Schools.
As we start to wrap up, Andy gives me a bag of produce for helping out. I look inside and discover an amazing assortment of collard greens, herbs, kohlrabi, zucchini, squash and lettuce. I feel as if I am being rewarded for doing something that helped me grow as a person.
From this experience I realize I could start a garden at home and that I have some knowledgeable people that could help. I am inspired by these friends who have found a way to hang out and build their own business doing something meaningful to them and the community.
Ignoring my feeling of highway robbery—I’m not one to turn away fresh food—I thank him and can’t wait to get home to make squash and zucchini Parmesan and to search Pinterest to figure out what to do with kohlrabi.
Driving away, I see Andy preparing their van for the next day, excited to sell fresh unfiltered honey and pesticide-free produce.
What started out as a personal journey for better health and wellness has turned into new friendships, life lessons for my children and a feeling of belonging to something bigger than me.
Everyone in the community is welcome to help in the garden in exchange for free produce. If you’d prefer not to work in the garden but would like fresh produce, Bellevue Produce will take care of all the gardening and packaging for you. On a case-by-case basis, Bellevue has also been known to provide produce to nonprofit groups at no charge, pick up compost and provide gardening education sessions. Connect with Bellevue Produce on Facebook or via e-mail to BellevueProduceLLC.@gmail.com.
Sheena Wheeler, a natural explorer with a desire to hold on to her Native American ancestry while living the city life, is gravitating toward urban agriculture. She desires to explore the tastes of the Midwest and write and educate about what she finds.