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Local food distribution system needed


No one farm can afford to distribute to places where immediate point-of-purchase occurs

At this writing, I’ve just returned from the Olympia Farmers’ Market, now in full season. Although the Market was open all year on Saturdays, and open weekends from October through December, now four full days of local food, crafts, lotions and potions are ours to enjoy. We in Olympia are so lucky to be living in a place where over 40 farms, offering everything from vegetables to local meats, from fresh flowers to honey, bring their food, their amazing, tasty, grown right here, made right here, food, to us! We get to eat it, buy it, smell it and also listen to music, dance a little jig, and get our faces painted if we want, at the Market. Very patient Master Gardeners will tell us why we cannot and should not try to kill the moss in our lawns. Wise growers, who know something about trees and bushes, will tell us just the right pear tree varietals to plant (in pairs) in our back yard so that we can pluck our own pears on a late summer evening a few years from now—assuming the deer and raccoons haven’t done the job for us.

Life is good and growing in the South Sound.

So why is it that I can walk across a parking lot, or down the street, or just across town, from all this abundance and sit down at a restaurant table and not be able to order and eat that which is so obviously available at the many farmers’ markets in Thurston, Mason and Lewis counties? Why is it hard to find seasonally fresh and locally grown food in our grocery stores and restaurants in the greater Oly-Lacey-Tumwater area when the farmers’ markets are bursting with it? Good grief, we are over-run with kale all year round! When thousands of carrots, pulled from the ground hours before, are calling us at our many market stalls, why are we served frozen cubes of them, or old, shaved, “baby,” carrots grown in Texas last year? Why are carrots and kale grown far away and long ago served at the food vendor stalls at the Olympia Farmers’ Market when we can buy fresh just a few feet away?

As it turns out, that was a question I was asking local, small-scale, organic (or nearly so), farmers here over 17 years ago when I first came to this area. It’s a question the Thurston County Food Council grapples with annually, that frustrates local growers daily, and that elected county officials (except local farmer, E. J. Zita) and economic development agencies, ignore, because, they’re busy making sure Cabela’s doesn’t pay more taxes than the barristas at Batdorf & Bronson do. They’re much too involved in global trade agreements assuring that every tree with a trunk diameter exceeding 18 inches gets sold to China—quick-like.

The short answer? No local farm distribution system.

There is some local food distribution, of course—usually carried-out by the farmers themselves. They pack the produce on their trucks at dawn and drive it to the nearby farmers’ markets. Perhaps they drop off a few bushels and baskets and crates to the Olympia Food Co-op or Jay’s Farm Stand. Some have contracts with the optimistic and determined Tachira Farms: Farm Fresh Market! on Black Lake Blvd in West Olympia:

Larger, but still small-scale, local producers might have a contract with a couple of locally owned grocery stores (not the big-box stores, see sidebar on page 10) or restaurants. For example, Hart’s Mesa restaurant has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership with Pigman Farms. Others buy from Kirsop, Wobbly Cart and Rising River farms. Many local farmers growing vegetables, fruits, flowers, and even those also producing chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats and cattle offer CSA memberships, where individuals and business owners buy-in to monthly rations of local food, in-season. In this instance, CSA members pick-up their box of local food at a designated spot every week/month. Check-out the Thurston County Farm Map:

Here’s the thing: Small farmers living near you spend most of their time, from sun-up to sun-down, growing food. Then, they stay up late filling-out forms explaining why and how they grow food, in order to submit those forms to someone who doesn’t grow food, so that person/agency can figure out how much the farmer should pay, to grow food. The best part of farming? You get to eat really good food!

The value of a food distribution system in the South Sound has been recognized by small-scale producers in Thurston, Mason and Lewis Counties for decades. It’s been of major concern to organizations like Washington Tilth, South Sound Farmland Trust, the local and state Grange, and many other organizations. Individually, no one farm or small-scale meat producer, can afford to distribute its produce, fruits, flowers, dairy and meat beyond the farm itself, except to places where immediate point-of-purchase occurs. Most get by with farmers’ markets & CSA’s. Those with a bit more operational cash (and land) contract with a few local grocery stores and a few restaurants. Some artisanal dairies in the South Sound pay drivers to deliver milk, cream, cheese etc. to stores and restaurants as far south as Portland and as far north as Seattle. Check-out Black Sheep Creamery in Chehalis:

Because the South Sound has no truly local or regional distribution system for its small-scale food producers, those organic (or nearly so) farmers who can produce enough food to sell beyond the markets available to them through individual customer sales via CSA’s, or at food co-ops, Jay’s Farm Stand, and farmers’ markets, contract with Charlie’s Produce Some local grocery stores and restaurants, and many South Sound institutional food services like those contracted to area schools, colleges, prisons and government agencies, “Buy Local” through food contracts with Charlie’s Produce.

Here’s how it works. Small farmers in the counties of the South Sound, especially organic growers, contract to Charlie’s Produce (CP). CP sends a truck to the farm and carries the produce away to Seattle, where it is sorted into bins of plant varieties. All the broccoli over there, all the lettuce over here, put the beans there . . . And then, grocery stores and restaurants and institutional food services at local schools, prisons and government agencies here in the South Sound buy it back, at a mark-up. In this way, the kale grown less than 10 miles from where I live here in Olympia, travels all the way to Seattle and back again, so I can eat it at the college cafeteria, at a handful of restaurants, or buy it at a grocery store. By the way, Charlie’s Produce has main distribution centers in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and two in Alaska. That’s swell and hats off to a Washington State fresh food distribution company who made good focusing on some major cities in the Pacific Northwest and as far afield as Alaska and LA.

The point is, those cities where Charlie’s Produce has anchored its hubs benefit the most from what our local farmers produce in the South Sound. The employees and their paychecks connected to Charlie’s Produce fuel the economies of those hub cities, not the rural towns and small cities in the South Sound whose farmers sell to them. Only a few South Sound farmers, those who can afford to grow and sell for CP, make a little bit selling to CP. Incrementally, our farmers realize less than what the average worker at a CP distribution center takes home every month selling what our farmers produce. Our farmers would make more—and we’d pay less—if the Ports in Thurston, Lewis, and Mason counties would collaborate in supporting a local South Sound food distribution economic incubator. Many smaller farms in the area could then also afford to grow a little more if they could sell to a local distributor rather than to a mega-regional company like CP. Local restaurants and grocery stores would realize consistent and affordable local food delivery and we’d all find more locally grown food to buy and eat.

With over a hundred small-scale farms producing amazing, often organic, and heritage plant/meat/dairy food in the South Sound, shouldn’t you or I be able to walk down the street and buy or eat the food produced here? In fact, shouldn’t we expect that? People living in Seattle and Portland expect that. Guess what? Our big-city cousins are eating very well and affordably in those cities and enjoying tasty food raised nearby. Why aren’t we?

Liza Rognas is an academic librarian and a research professional, and has been a community food security activist and researcher for 20 years in Washington State.


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