Local Cultivator Builds Relationships and Supply

man and woman behind display table
Sampling in the co-op by local producers Rainshadow Coffee and Primal Island, producer of grain-free foods.

As the Port Townsend Food Co-op’s “Local Cultivator,” Brendon O’Shea is on a constant treasure hunt around Washington State’s Jefferson County for the best local products. It’s a different job title than most, for sure, with only one remote example that inspired him years before he proposed the idea to General Manager Kenna Eaton.

“Ever since Harvindar Singh left the Port Townsend Farmers Market [in 2005] and became ‘local forager’ at Whole Foods, I thought the idea was cool,” said O’Shea. In the 10+ years that O’Shea has worked at the co-op, he has held a variety of positions, all of them in the produce department. Eventually, he wanted to work for the store as a whole rather than just in produce.

A couple of years ago, he was poised for a change, and it was an opportune time to make one. “We were in the strategic-planning process; we had done key informant interviews, and those included local farmers,” Eaton said. “What we heard them say was that they would like us to sell more local produce. We knew we were doing a good job, but we also know that ‘local’ is not just produce. It’s bigger than that.

“Somebody said, ‘You should clone Brendon.’” Eaton considered that suggestion and decided to expand O’Shea’s responsibilities to cover all local products, and he began the transition in the summer of 2012. More than a year later, O’Shea still thinks of his job as something like wearing new shoes, not quite broken in or fully defined.

“A lot of his job is building relationships. And it takes time to cultivate a relationship and see the results,” Eaton continued. “I think it’s hard to see tangible results at this early stage. It’s an investment of time and effort that we think will pay off.”

O’Shea spent the first year in his new position defining “local.” Although he did expand the store’s “local” region to include one more nearby county, bringing the total to five, he also considered other, more abstract issues than boundaries.

“What role can the co-op play in supporting a farm’s long-term vision? What is our current relationship to the local producers, and how can we make that relationship stronger?” he asked. “That can go in a bunch of different directions. Maybe they just need a better source and a price point for oats because they’re making granola, so we help them find that.”

Demos and more

Sometimes the support means giving marketing advice, too. When working in Colorado prior to moving to Port Townsend, O’Shea noticed that while farmers can grow food, merchandising and marketing are not always part of their toolkit or schedule. Knowing that, O’Shea started a regular store demo schedule to bring in producers and their products. When a customer recommended a grain-free granola made by Primal Island on Washington’s Whidbey Island, he introduced it and has hosted the company in the store during each Member Appreciation Day and at other times, too. 

“I think doing demos and tastings is one of the keys to selling,” said Marybeth Dickerson, Primal Island’s owner. “People like to meet the owners of the products, especially the local ones. Once someone tastes it, almost everyone buys it.”

“Working with Brendon has been lovely. He’s been open to having me in the store and has set me up with [another local product] Rainshadow Coffee. I think it’s nice to pair products. I think it actually boosts both of our sales.”

The sales numbers indicate she’s correct. Customers have responded to consistent demos by raising sales of this paleo food from 114 units in the first half of 2013 to 437 units in the second half of the year.

In addition to highlighting local products, O’Shea also looks to identify a local producer’s needs and works to fill them. Some of it is foraging for the next big trend.

When one farm named Finnriver had an abundant blueberry harvest in 2012, Brendon saw a way to extend the blueberry season by buying loose-bulk fresh blueberries to freeze in-house and repackaging them for the frozen department. 

“I saw a need for frozen local blueberries after the fresh window was done. It was a season extender. I bought about 500 pounds, and they sold ‘like that,’” he said with a finger snap.

In fact, if O’Shea had one pet project he’d like to see grow, it is value-added frozen fruit and vegetables from local farms. “The nutritional value of frozen is better than canned or dried,” he said. “Frozen product was picked at its peak of nutritional value.”

Along with his many years of work experience, O’Shea also brings his bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture from Washington’s Evergreen State College when consulting with farmers. He can tell what will and won’t work just by eyeballing a piece of property. If asked, he offers his advice or observation; however, it’s always up to the farmer whether to follow it, which they may or may not do. 

At one farm’s startup, O’Shea saw the possibilities and offered a steady income stream if the farmer would produce brassica products for sale to the co-op. But the farmer demurred because her business plan focused on community-supported agriculture and restaurant sales. A few months later, she reconsidered and called Brendon to announce she was ready to move in the direction he had suggested. The farm is now one of the most successful in the county. “We still joke about that,” he said.

Local opportunities

In the store, O’Shea meets with department managers and asks, “What’s your plan for ‘local’?” His is an interesting position because he isn’t the one who ultimately makes the buying decision, and some managers don’t always agree that “local” is necessarily better.

“I like this challenge, which is to see ‘local’ in the department manager’s head,” O’Shea said. “There is the monotony of buying through distribution by picking up the phone, but it’s the local component that is the cherry on the sundae for each department manager. The goal isn’t to take away from the departments, but to accentuate.”

His attention to the entire store’s local focus is divided among departments, with approximately 50 percent of his time spent on produce, 25 percent on grocery, and another 25 percent on food services. Wellness products are on his radar as well, but for now he concentrates mainly on food.

O’Shea is developing a local-vendor packet to make clear to hopeful producers what is expected. “The packet clearly defines the give-and-take relationship,” he said. The packet will spell out licensing requirements, how to get a UPC code, packaging, display, pricing, promotional items, demo advice, and other details. 

Perhaps most importantly, there is a time frame for success. After a certain introductory period has passed, a new product is evaluated, suggestions may be made, or the product might be discontinued. In other words, just because it’s “local” doesn’t mean it is entitled to co-op support. “The product still needs to sell in order to earn space on the shelf,” O’Shea said.

Local surveys estimate that only 4 percent of the food consumed in Washington’s Jefferson County is “local,” so O’Shea understands that the task ahead of him is challenging. He’d like to see the sales software programmed to track local products to more easily measure his progress and is working on that with the store’s information technology manager.

“All of this fits into our strategic plan,” said Eaton, referring to one of five long-range goals, food system development, that is identified in the plan. “I feel like this is a win-win for us. It’s something that Brendon was interested in doing, and it has helped us achieve our goals,” she said. 

See other articles from this issue: 171 March-April 2014