Partnering Locally for a Food-Secure World

shoppers looking at tomoatos

Food production and water are current issues for many regional planning commissioners who are awake, including ours in Jefferson County, Wash., where The Food Co-op is located. As the price of land increases and more agricultural land is swallowed up in housing and commercial development, farmers struggle to keep their farms and families afloat financially. In Port Townsend, a lovely tourist destination uncannily preserved from the development we've seen across the nation, the price of life in our fair village goes up as the world finds out about this haven.

The population of Port Townsend has only doubled since 1890, to an estimated 9,800. We have no big-box stores, only one fast-food chain restaurant, and we're located at the end of a highway that continues only if you get onto a ferry. We're isolated, only 40 miles northwest of Seattle as the crow flies, albeit two hours by car.

Local alliances build the foodshed

The Food Co-op has over 5,300 owners who shop at least once per month (7,000 active owners as defined by National Cooperative Grocers Association standards). Our owners recognize the importance of building our local foodshed—while we continue to receive four shipments weekly from UNFI, our largest distributor.

At our annual meeting in May, we plan to have a panel discussion on keeping our resources local. We sponsor films such as Two Angry Moms, Food Inc., The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Dirt, Queen of the Sun, and The Economics of Happiness shown in a local theater to further education about the truth of food. Supporting the local Farm to School Coalition is a priority ($10,000 was donated in 2010), as well as supporting the work of the Organic Seed Alliance (which saw a $17,500 combined donation for 2008–09). The Organic Seed Alliance makes it possible for local farmers to increase their revenue through the sale of organic seeds and learn more about crop potential through seed trials.

In Jefferson County, direct farm-to-consumer sales in 2007 were 2 percent of food expenditures, and by 2010 that percent had doubled. The national figure is one-half of 1 percent. Many in Port Townsend would like to see that direct sales figure grow to 20 percent by 2020.

People are literally "walking their talk" at our annual Farm Tour. Each year, The Food Co-op sponsors this popular event, produced by Washington State University (WSU) Extension, with a $3,000 donation. The WSU Farm Tour brings hundreds of people to local farms every September, furthering the bonds between farmers and consumers.

At The Food Co-op, we are supported by an engaged population of co-op member-owners. Three years ago, we began collecting and sharing local farmers' stories in a marketing program that we hope will increase both the consumption of locally produced foods as well as the potential for farmers to produce more. And, we're partnering with other organizations in an effort to achieve greater local food security.

Years ago, The Food Co-op helped a fledgling Port Townsend Farmers Market by hosting the market in our store's courtyard. Having grown to over 70 vendors, the Port Townsend Farmers Market recently was named Farmers Market of the Year in the large market category by the Washington State Farmers Market Association. When the farmers market ends for the winter, beginning in January, The Food Co-op hosts farmer-direct sales at no cost to the farmers in our parking lot, with Nash's Organic Produce tent a cornerstone. Nash Huber, founder of the farm, received a Steward of Sustainable Agriculture ("Sustie") award by the Ecological Farming Association at its 31st annual conference in January 2011.

Creating the local brand

Support for local farmers at The Food Co-op heated up in 2004 with a branding campaign designating what items in the store were locally produced. A 2005 celebration launched our simple graphic, with "local" defined as procured from one of three neighboring counties or our own. Stickers with the logo go on every qualifying item we sell, and shelf signs single out these products.

In 2008, to encourage local farmers and producers to sell to the co-op, we produced a "Growers & Producers Packet" and met with over 30 farmers. Included in the meeting packet was a questionnaire we asked producers to fill out and return. These resources were then turned into various vehicles for telling the farmers' stories.

A local producers' book was developed to display standardized information gathered from the questionnaires, using the farmers' own words: farmers made statements about soil amendments and farming philosophies as well as demographics such as farm size and location. To complete this publication, we literally went into the field. Initially targeting growers who sell larger quantities to the store, our outreach team interviewed farmers and took photos of their production facilities. Now displayed in the center of the store, our local producers' book is an 11"x17" resource that shoppers can thumb through to learn about the farmers growing the produce they are purchasing.

The stories and photos collected also became newsletter center-spread stories. Along with
shelf signage indicating on which farm the produce was grown, 5"x8" signs with farmer photos and bios were laminated to hang above their products. Then the photos were turned into large-scale,
24"x36" images that were laminated, framed and hung throughout the store.

Collaboration fosters local markets

This local farm marketing program was augmented through the work of an organization of which we are a member. In a unique and creative approach to land preservation and rural economic development, LandWorks Collaborative formed in 2007 to combine the work of nine partners: The Food Co-op, Jefferson Land Trust, Enterprise Cascadia, Northwest Natural Resources Group, WSU Extension, Sunfield Farm & School, Jefferson County Farmers Market Association, and Jefferson County Conservation District. These organizations work strategically to keep our rural landscape economically viable. They have increased the revenue generated by sponsored farmers and foresters from $150K in 2007 to $1.017M in 2009 and have grown the acres under working conservation easements from 40 in 2007 to 319 in 2009.

The mission of Jefferson LandWorks Collaborative is threefold: to keep agricultural and forest land available and affordable in tracts large enough for farm and timber operations to be economically viable; to provide small-scale farmers and foresters access to the business training, capital, and know-how they need to be profitable; and to ensure that consumer demand and robust markets are in place to accommodate local farm and timber products.

The Collaborative works directly with landowners and potential farmers and foresters on a case-by-case basis to determine the needs of their operation. LandWorks may assist new or tenant farmers to find farmland to lease or purchase, and it helps locate funding to purchase agricultural easements that will keep the land "working," while compensating the landowner for the loss of development potential. The Collaborative may also provide business planning assistance and financing for new and existing ventures, and it offers to advise and educate landowners on marketing, production, and processing, as well as on estate planning to ensure the land can be passed on to the next generation.

Partnerships support working forests

The Olympic Peninsula, where Jefferson County is located, is a forested area. Sustainable harvesting of trees is encouraged as a way to supplement farm income through The Food Co-op's partnership with Northwest Natural Resources Group (NNRG). Currently, The Food Co-op is selling carbon offsets through an innovative NNRG program called Northwest Neutral®. These offsets cannot be resold. Carbon offsets can help working farms with timber holdings by providing income to landowners for cutting their trees in accordance with Forest Stewardship Council-certified standards, thereby sustaining a biomass necessary to provide a specific amount of carbon offset. Landowners are paid by Northwest Neutral to sustain their forests, thereby supplementing farmers' income.

Sunfield Farm & School, a local produce vendor at The Food Co-op, has been a participant in this program. Sunfield set aside the forest on the backside of their land holdings for the carbon offset program instead of selling their timber to pay their mortgage.

Co-op owners can purchase certificates representing one ton of CO2 for $20 each; in an agreement with NNRG, The Food Co-op initially purchased the minimum quantity of 60 tons on behalf of co-op owners. The program is ongoing—when all certificates have been purchased by our owners, we will purchase another block of offsets.

Partnerships for a food-secure future

The Food Co-op also partners with the Jefferson Land Trust and Jefferson County Farmers Market Association, providing both with food for their annual fundraising dinners. Last year, a local dairy whose owner had died was purchased with innovative financing by Jefferson Land Trust in order to preserve it as a working dairy. A creative and collaborative real estate deal was secured through funds raised at the auction; the plan is to partner the dairy with a local creamery currently producing artisanal cheeses available at The Food Co-op.

Dabob Bay in Jefferson County, an important nursery habitat for federally threatened Hood Canal summer chum salmon and Chinook salmon, highlights these collaborative efforts. Partially preserved by the efforts of The Food Co-op's partner, Jefferson Land Trust, and the Nature Conservancy, Dabob Bay is economically important to the shellfish industry—one of the best bays for natural oysters set in Washington and supporting shellfish growers and harvesters. Here at The Food Co-op, our farmers make their living from the sea as well as the land.

Food production on the Olympic Peninsula is a $450-million business, and The Food Co-op is currently booking $11 million in total sales. In 2010, we purchased $790,000 in products from local producers and farmers and worked with over 209 local vendors. As mentioned before, here on the peninsula we consume four times the national average of locally produced foods. The Food Co-op and our partners believe that farmer-direct sales in Jefferson County can continue to grow as our population becomes more aware of the issue of food security and how food security is linked to farmland preservation, procuring foods locally for consumption, and ecologically sound practices. ■

See other articles from this issue: #154 May - June - 2011