Small Farms: Diversify and Strengthen
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles exploring Whatcom County’s agricultural past and present and current efforts to diversify and strengthen Whatcom County’s food system, from the farm to the factory to the consumer. For Part I, see “Can Whatcom’s Small Farms Help Reconstruct Our Local Food System?” in Whatcom Watch Jan. 2016 (v25, issue 1).
by Jennifer Moon
In the first article of this series, we looked at the history of Whatcom County farming, which has been characterized by increasing specialization, mechanization, industrialization and consolidation. The county’s dairy and berry farmers are national industry leaders, but over the years, the county lost much of its diversity of product and processing capacity.
This chapter in the story examines how small local farmers are working together to turn things around to diversify and strengthen the local food system.
Sara Southerland, Food & Farming Manager at Sustainable Connections, reports that local farmers are approaching these efforts “with their business hats on.”(1) Talk to Jeff Voltz of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), and you’ll soon understand what she means. Voltz’s optimism about the future of local farm businesses is infectious.
Business Services for Farmers
Founded in 2006, NABC is a driving force behind many regional initiatives that are revitalizing the local food system. As its name suggests, NABC offers an array of business services to local area farmers, including assisting in business plan development, accessing capital to build and expand farm businesses, and identifying and helping to implement promising marketing strategies. Beyond direct technical assistance to farm businesses, however, NABC goes a step further. NABC also provides the research and market analysis necessary to build the area’s local “agriculture infrastructure.” (2)
The effort to build that infrastructure has seen significant innovation and progress in the last decade. As discussed in the first article in this series, Whatcom County’s agricultural sector is dominated by small farms, accompanied by a host of processing, distribution, and marketing challenges that go with a small farm economy. Small farm businesses have historically faced the difficult task of producing enough volume to sustain an accompanying processing and distribution infrastructure. Over the years, the forces of consolidation drove processing capacity, for vegetables in particular, to other regions of the state.
Number of Small Farms Increases
However, while nearly three-quarters of Whatcom County’s farms are less than 50 acres, the number of those small farms is on the rise. In 2007, there were 1,483 farms in Whatcom County, with 102,584 acres under production. By 2012, the number of farms increased by 15 percent to 1,702 farms, with over 13,000 more acres being farmed, about a 12 percent increase in acreage in only five years. And the number of farms under 10 acres grew by an astounding 47 percent in that period. (3) With unique identities and products, small farms are now making a dent in efforts to diversify local agricultural production.
The losses incurred during the drought of 2015 reinforce the value of diversified agriculture. Last year’s local raspberry crop was about 26 percent smaller than the previous year, and losses for the state’s raspberry growers totaled $13.9 million. The state’s wheat farmers, concentrated in eastern Washington, sustained the greatest losses in 2015, which may further spark efforts to return wheat farming to western Washington, as scientists at Mount Vernon’s Bread Lab are striving to do. (4)
But while efforts to revitalize the diversity and vitality of local agricultural production are part of the equation, the innovative approaches being used to connect local farm businesses to market opportunity is the real story.
Farm to Market
Direct sales of fresh produce to consumers have long been a means for small farmers to bring their product to market. Locally, the Bellingham Farmers Market has been in operation for over 20 years. Farmers markets have been established in Ferndale, Lynden, Fairhaven, and Lummi Island as well. (5) Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a marketing and distribution strategy for many years. The value of such direct marketing strategies has been growing. Whereas local sales were less than $1 million in 1997, they increased to about $4 million by 2007. (6)
But while direct sales strategies are becoming more profitable and provide a means for consumers to build relationships with producers, they come with a set of challenges. The onus is on the farmer to transport, market, and distribute product. The same goes for farmers who sell wholesale to local grocery stores. Those farmers with enough volume to reliably and predictably deliver quality product to grocery stores can establish such business relationships, but even so, they bear the transportation and logistical costs of delivery. (7)
That is where “food hubs” come in. Part of a national innovation in local wholesale food distribution, our region’s Puget Sound Food Hub came into existence as a small wholesale market under a freeway overpass in Mount Vernon in 2010. A project of NABC, Puget Sound Food Hub is now a network of farms attempting to build the volume needed to meet the increasing demand for local food. (8)
The concept behind a food hub is to aggregate source-identifiable local farm produce and then to link farmers to business and institutional customers through a one-order, one-payment, and one-delivery system. Operating in a five-county region of Island, Skagit, Snohomish, San Juan, and Whatcom counties, the Puget Sound Food Hub has expanded to 40 farms that supply 60 businesses. From its humble origins in Mount Vernon, the Puget Sound Food Hub now has added aggregation and distribution locations at Bow Hill Blueberries in Skagit County and, most recently, at Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson. In its short history, the Puget Sound Food Hub has grown quickly. Sales tripled in 2015, with farm sale revenue reaching nearly $1 million. (9)
The food hub model has the potential to ease the efforts of Whatcom County’s small farmers, particularly those growing a diverse array of vegetable crops, to achieve the economies of scale necessary to supply a larger market of wholesale customers. Food hubs offer the possibility of a labor-saving and more efficient means for small farm businesses to cooperatively transport, distribute, and market their product.
The food hub model holds promise for increasing the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of fresh produce, but what about building processing capacity?
In the first article in this series, we detailed how a variety of vegetable crops were once grown in Whatcom County, including sugar beets, green peas, sweet corn, snap beans, cauliflower and cucumbers. A facility in Lynden processed locally-grown vegetables until it was driven out of business by competition with other locations that enjoyed a great volume of produce. When processing disappeared, the acreage devoted to vegetable crops quickly declined. (10)
Whatcom County’s largest farm businesses have access to a processing and distribution infrastructure that enables them to market their produce far and wide. Curt Maberry Farm, for example, has nearly 1,000 acres in berry production and, along with Maberry Packing, produces pureed and frozen berries distributed nationally. Northwest Berry Co-op, established in Everson in 2007, similarly processes 11 to 12 million pounds of raspberries each year. Bellingham Cold Storage, one of the largest cold storage facilities on the West Coast, has the capacity to blast freeze 4,000 pounds of product daily, and Preferred Freezer Services, a global company that recently opened a facility in Lynden, further adds to the capacity of large producers. (11)
Small farmers, however, have lacked a processing and distribution infrastructure that is appropriate to their size and needs. That may be starting to change. With the local support of the Whatcom Community Foundation and state and federal grant funding, Cloud Mountain Farm Center and NABC launched a vegetable processing facility a couple years ago at Cloud Mountain Farm Center. (12)
Meat and poultry processing is another area that promises growing opportunity for small farm businesses. Back in 2000, Island Grown Farmers Cooperative (IGFC) was formed with the idea of creating a mobile meat processing unit to take butchering and processing directly to the farm. Two years later, the idea became a reality. IGFC became the first in the nation to embark upon mobile meat processing when it made its mobile unit available to farmers in Island, Skagit, and Whatcom counties. (13) Following the lead of IGFC, Burk Ridge Farms, a 150-acre farm in Lynden, launched its own on-farm USDA-inspected mobile meat-processing unit in 2014. The same year, Osprey Hills, one of Whatcom County’s small farms at 15 acres in Acme, opened Osprey Hill Butchery, a fixed processing facility for poultry. (14)
In growing their businesses through the addition of meat and poultry processing infrastructure, these two small and mid-sized farms have created a new line of business for themselves that simultaneously is expanding the capacity of other farmers to build their businesses.
Adding Value to Agricultural Production
These vegetable and meat processing initiatives are all examples of “value-added agriculture.” As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an example of value-added agriculture is “A change in the physical state or form of the product (such as milling wheat into flour or making strawberries into jam).” (15)
Value-added agriculture is where the growth potential is perhaps greatest for Whatcom County’s farmers. The more food that can be grown locally and then transformed into new products not only helps local farmers but is also potentially an opportunity for new business development. That means jobs. Ice cream, cheese, juice, jams, syrups, baked goods, sausages and cured meats, and frozen berries are just a few of the value-added products produced locally with locally-grown produce. Erin Baker’s Wholesome Baked Goods and Nature’s Path are local employers who are respectively leaders in whole grain baked goods and cereal production. The county’s wineries, distilleries, and craft breweries all take agriculture produce and transform them into a new, lucrative product. Though some of these businesses source their product from outside the area, they are all local businesses that create jobs and add to the economic vitality of the county.
Whatever the future holds for Whatcom County’s farm businesses, those involved express optimism and are bringing the spirit of innovation to their work. Sara Southerland talks of business incubators opportunities and community kitchens. Although only about 2 to 4 percent of the food consumed in Whatcom County is locally-produced, she reports that the goal is to increase this to 10 percent by 2020. That would mean, she says, an additional $50 million kept in our community supporting the local economy. (16)
Revitalization of the local food system is a work in progress, an “evolution, not a revolution,” as Jeff Voltz reminds us. (17) But we are evolving.
(1) Interview with Sara Southerland, Food & Farming Manager, Sustainable Connections, November 20, 2015.
(2) http://www.agbizcenter.org/business-services; http://www.agbizcenter.org/who-we-are/about-nabc.
(3) http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/County_Profiles/Washington/cp53073.pdf; http://breeze.wsu.edu/whatcomagstats2014.
(4) http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article44810784.html; http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/state-ag-lost-over-335-million-to-drought-early-figures-show/; http://nwnewsnetwork.org/post/could-wheat-farming-return-west-cascades; http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/magazine/bread-is-broken.html?_r=0; http://thebreadlab.wsu.edu/.
(8) http://agbizcenter.org/business-services/regional-food-hubs; http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/about-us/; http://www.ams. usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Regional%20Food%20Hub%20Resource%20Guide.pdf; http://digital.vpr.net/post/how-food-hubs-are-helping-new-farmers-break-local-food#stream/0.
(9) http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/about-us/; http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/news/cloud-mountain-farm-center-to-partner-with-puget-sound-food-hub/; http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/PugetSoundFoodHubGuideforFarmers.pdf; https://www.facebook.com/PugetSoundFoodHub; http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/buyers/why-buy-local/.
(10) http://www.wcfarmfriends.com/#!historical-farm-facts/c1m98; http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/cfa/docs/CFA2011/CFA_Chapter_4.pdf.
(11) http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/cfa/docs/CFA2011/CFA_Chapter_8.pdf; http://www.curtmaberryfarm.com/about; http://www.maberrypacking.com/#/about/4562808723; https://www.bellcold.com/services/; http://www.preferredfreezer.com/admin/uploads/Lynden-Press-Opening.pdf.
(13) http://www.igfcmeats.com/2.html; http://www.igfcmeats.com/4.html.
(14) http://www.ospreyhillfarm.com/butcher-reservations; http://www.grownorthwest.com/2015/06/burk-ridge-farms-grown-here-for-here/.
(16) Interview with Sara Southerland, Food & Farming Manager, Sustainable Connections, November 20, 2015; https://sustainableconnections.org/foodfarming/eatlocal.
(17) Interview with Jeff Voltz, Project Manager, Northwest Agriculture Business Center, December 3, 2015.
Jennifer Moon is an independent researcher and writer living in Whatcom County. She holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia.