A Little Trip East

When I travel, I am always curious to discover how small farmers are doing in the regions I visit. I try to go to the Farmers Markets or even to the farms themselves, if they are open to the public. On a recent trip to North Carolina and Tennessee (yes, the family reunion was afoot), I found a great reciprocal relationship between local restaurants and local farms. Each was helping the other deliver a great food experience to their customers.

Depending on the season, a restaurant will work with several local farms, picking two or three items that are currently being harvested. They will use those ingredients to create a unique dish which they feature on that night’s menu. The names and places of the farms are then displayed on the menu. Customers visit the restaurants knowing that they are supporting local businesses and that they are going to eat really well.

After doing this for several seasons, customers now specifically patronize these restaurants because they feature local farms. Patrons routinely ask which farms have contributed to that night’s meal. As the restaurants have been educating their customers about local farms, customers have come to expect great food from them. The restaurants still serve a regular menu year-round, sourcing their ingredients from multiple places, but the locally-sourced ingredients are what are pulling customers in.

I stopped at a pizzeria that was featuring locally-produced mozzarella from an organic dairy. When in season, they also included farm fresh vegetables from a different producer. In other words, they had at least something from a local farm on the menu all the time. The quality of their pizzas and the volume of patrons they had in their restaurant on a Monday night were amazing. I certainly had more slices than I probably should have.

Building relationships between growers of food and creators of cuisine can lead to a more robust economic environment for both parties. In the southern Appalachian Mountains, I found this system to be not only mutually beneficial, but quite tasty, too.

Net Neutrality: There’s More to the Story

Last Thursday, the FCC voted on regulations to ensure the open internet or “net neutrality”. You’ll hear a lot about that in the next few weeks and months, much of it from those who really know very little about how the internet actually works. You’ll hear about what a catastrophe it’s going to be from some of your ISPs or, conversely, how it’s going to save us all. Neither, I believe is entirely true. It is a set of regulations to ensure that we get our internet content the same way we always have, free of bandwidth throttling or extraneous charges to content owners. It makes ISPs a utility, just like electricity.

From a rural broadband perspective, there was a much more important vote taken right beforehand. It is the Municipal Broadband ruling. This allows municipalities to provide internet services to underserved areas outside their city limits. Many states have set severe limits to what towns and public utility districts can provide, even in areas not served by an ISP. Nearly 30% of the United States does not currently have access to broadband and for-profit companies are not interested in serving those communities. Someone needs to step in.

I believe the New Yorker has some of the best writing on this subject. Enjoy!

Frugal Innovations

TTED2echnology – it’s not for just the rich anymore. Ravi Nadjou’s TED talk on Creative problem-solving has some really innovative and very low-cost tools that we, in rural America, can use right now to get our small farms and business in the red. The two that I found quite fascinating are gThrive and Be-Bound.

gThrive is a system of soil monitoring that uses basic technology to provide an amazing amount of real-time data, at a much lower cost, to farmers. It let’s you know the nutrient levels of your soil so that you can properly correct for them, instead of over fertilizing. In drought-stricken areas, understanding the moisture content of your soils could help you conserve water. Where I live, the fields are saturated with flood waters for most of the winter. Knowing when the soils are dry enough for proper germination is critical to ensuring that seed is not wasted on soggy soil.

Be-Bound frees your phone (phablet or cell-enabled tablet) from those cell dead zones. Essentially, it lets you use a number of applications, such as Twitter, from almost anywhere in the world, even when there is very little cell or Wi-Fi service. What this means for those who travel, is that you won’t necessarily have to use Verizon to get in touch with people in rural places. You may be able to go with a $35 plan and add Be-Bound. (That’s my plan, anyway.) Calls won’t work through it but texting, mail, and Twitter do. It’s currently only available for Android phones, but they are developing it for other platforms. It’s available at the Google Play store.

 

Scam-o-rama

With the many data breaches we’ve seen over the last year, people are concerned and they have a right to be. Taking just a few precautions, though, can really mitigate the impact these have on your pocket book.

  • Check your credit card statement frequently. That’s easy to do online.
  • Don’t use your debit card for purchases.
  • If you don’t have any impending loans you wish to take out, think about freezing your credit. This can be easily done through each of the credit agencies’ websites. It prevents anyone other than you from taking out a loan in your name. Just remember, you need your password in order to unfreeze your credit when you do apply for a loan.
  • Use long passwords with characters, numbers and letters in them. Change them once in awhile and don’t use the same one across multiple sites. That way if an account is hacked, none of the others will be.

Just like locking the doors on your home, these steps make your accounts unattractive to thieves. But none of this helps if you give them your keys. Thieves are always trying old-fashioned ways to get your information: stealing your postal mail or trying to get information from you over the phone. Protect your mail by using a locked mail box and picking up your mail daily. Don’t give information to callers you don’t know, no matter where they are from.

The phone scams are particularly stressing. The callers pretend to be the Microsoft Help Desk or the IRS or the State Department or a collection agency. The try to rattle you with some urgent emergency, telling you that you owe money or your computer has a virus or that your house will be seized. Don’t fall for it.

  • Government agencies don’t call you. They send you real, paper letters.
  • Microsoft will never call you. They have absolutely no way of knowing if you have a computer virus.
  • Collection agencies have to adhere to a set of rules. Consult the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Along with the federal rules, each state has different guidelines, so check them out.

In any of these cases, don’t let them intimidate you into giving them any personal information of any kind, not even your name. A coworker of mine found that a “collection agency” was repeatedly calling company phones lines on the off chance that they could get someone to give them personal information. The “agency” didn’t have the name of who they were trying to contact, but they did have lots of questions. They were scammers.

My coworker did the right thing. She told them to stop calling, that this was a business line and that, since they didn’t know who they were trying to contact, they were not allowed to call back. They kept calling back, leaving messages in the company voice mail over and over. So, she sent all the recordings to Legal.

If this happens to you, know your rights. Consult the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Tell anyone trying to collect funds that they must submit it to you in writing. If they can’t or won’t, they are not legitimate. Don’t let scammers scare you.

One snail mail scam I keep receiving is a request to renew my magazine subscriptions. The scammers always use the same return address: PO Box 2489, White City, OR 97503-0489. If you get this request in the mail, round file it. If you aren’t sure about your subscription, just call your magazine to make sure it’s good. They sent me a renewal notice for the local paper, to the tune of $499.95. Um…no. It is less than a tenth of that. They’re getting stupidly greedy

Be careful out there…

 

In the News

As the old year comes to an end and a new one dawns, I am reflecting on some of the news stories that came across my little desk recently:

With the employment numbers coming to light, many are calling for more research into why technology firms lack diversity. The Minority Media and Telecom Council cites the abysmal racial employment percentages: 70.9 white, 12.3 Asian, 7.2 Latino, and 3 black. These numbers said the MMTC, “closely resemble the statistics of the broadcasting industry in the late 1960’s.” It notes “troubling employment patterns and practices in the technology sector”.

The LA Times, in a widely read op-ed piece, speculated on the causes of the dropping percentage of female tech employees. They stand at 15%, which is lower than the peak female employment in 1989. Why are women, who make up 50% of computer science majors in college, leaving technology mid-career?

The number of homes within city limits that have no internet access, not even dialup, is shockingly high. Even where access is available, the price is just too high for most to afford it. See, it’s not just the rural areas that need better connectivity.

But there were good stories, too. Frontier is bringing 1Gb service to Oregon, as well as other areas, as they expand their services to more rural areas. The National Labor Relations Board determined that workers are allowed to use company email, after hours, to discuss work issues. This ruling protects workers’ rights to organize in a 21st century, remote-access workplace.

This year has many opportunities for us to determine what type of internet we want and how we are going to use it for work, home, and school. The FCC, after reviewing the millions of comments on net neutrality, may be ruling on changes to the internet in February. I hope they don’t muck it up.

More people are cutting their cable provider and picking up their entertainment online. (Comcast’s incredible bad, notoriously terrible customer service certainly isn’t helping things…) That’s saving them money and they get to watch shows when they want to. People are also moving their phones from expensive, big name companies to much more reasonable plans. (There is absolutely no reason to ever pay over $100 a month for smartphone service. I pay $35 for unlimited everything.)

Yep, change seems to be the only constant when it comes to technology.

 

 

Farm Tour 2014 – Oregon

IMAG0320CroppedI am simply incapable of resisting a farm. When the weather turns warm, I must visit some. There’s just no cure for this addiction.

This year, I’ve been touring western Oregon. It’s such a beautiful place. The land is rich and grows a huge range of crops from grains to nuts to grapes to, well, nearly everything. The farms are small enough that the crops create a beautiful patchwork across the rolling hills. As I was driving south out of Portland, walnut trees flowed into golden fields of wheat, which turned into vineyards, pastures, cornfields and rows of produce. Rain or shine, everything has a richness, an abundance about it.

IMAG0319Small

Susan driving Amos and Gunter on Belle Mare Farm

My first stop was Belle Mare farm. Susan farms her 60 acres using horses, especially her Suffolks. She grows a variety of grains and raises animals, producing organically-grown (non-certified) animal feed for other farmers. The one problem she has is a lack of land-line internet access, although the lines are on her street. She makes up for it using wireless for now. Hopefully, the land lines will reach her farm soon. (P.S. Susan, see my last posting for some hints on how to prod the company a bit.)

IMAG0302

Clare’s haflingers at Big Table Farm

She and I then visited Big Table Farm and tasted a few varietals from their winery. Amazing! I always enjoy a good Syrah, but they also had a Chardonnay that was just outstanding. They have a lovely web site and with great descriptions of their wines. The labels are very interesting, too.

On my second trip south, I travelled the Oregon Coast. Since many of the restaurants there purchase from local farms, I found that I was able to eat really well. Wines and cheeses are everywhere, along with tons of seafood. Not being of a particularly sporty nature, I enjoyed the culinary atmosphere and mostly tucked my toes into the sand on the beach while reading a good science-fiction between meals. (Yes, that’s my idea of the perfect vacation.) For those more prone to hiking, biking, surfing, etc., there’s so much to do. I strongly encourage a vacation there at least once in your life.

Oh dear, I’ve been talking about food quite a bit. It must be time for dinner…

Oh, that’s better. Good, fresh farm food is just the best thing for dinner. Okay, now I can talk about how these two farms, Belle Mare and Big Table, are using online technology to effectively communicate with their customers. They are both small farms in the same area but with different business models, each requiring a unique approach.

Big Table Farm reaches out to more traditional customers, selling directly to the public. They have a web site, with a shopping cart, where you can buy wines right online. They also have a Facebook page that keeps people up to date on the progress of the new winery being constructed on the farm.

Belle Mare Farm, on the other hand, sells to other farmers. Farmers may not spend tons of time on a computer but they usually have cell phones, many of them smart phones. That’s why text messaging and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, are a great way to keep in touch with those customers. You don’t really need a web site if you can make your sales through word of mouth, but you still need a way to keep in touch with those customers. Social media works for that. For those customers who have only traditional phones, giving them a call works just fine.

The way to determine how to best use technology for your small business is to create a marketing plan. (What?) Yes, a marketing plan. If you’ve never made one before, it’s always a good exercise in understanding how you interact with your customers. It can also show you new ways to reach more customers. My next entry will have more about Marketing Plans and where you can get templates and guidance.

What Makes a Farmers Market a Farmers Market?

When you shop at a farmers market, you see a large grouping of tents that have good, local produce ready for you to purchase. That sounds simple enough, but there is so much more to a farmers market than you may know. It takes planning, volunteer work, and monetary support to keep our local farmers returning week after week.

There are now over 50 local growers and processors that are actively participating in our local Port Susan Farmers Market. They must be in compliance with all local, county, and state regulations and must obtain the proper permits to provide samples or to sell wine. In addition, they must meet certain requirements in order to sell at a
farmers market. The Port Susan Farmers Market follows WSFMA Roots Guidelines in order to meet the consumer’s expectations of a Farmers Market:

  1. A Farmers Market is where a grower/processor can sell directly to the consumer and is most likely the small farmer’s best opportunity to profit from their land and efforts; and
  2. A Farmers Market is a marketplace where consumers can talk directly to the grower/processor, purchase the freshest produce and value-added products possible, and experience the health-giving effects of that freshness.

Volunteers have worked countless hours to make the Market what it is. A steering committee started planning the Market in 2011. That group then became the Board of Directors.  They spent hundreds of hours developing our market:

  • Bylaws
  • Vendor Rules/Guidelines/Policies, Vendor Handbook
  • Vendor Application Forms
  • Blank Vendor Sales Report Form
  • Business or Strategic Plan
  • 501c3

Vendor recruitment and market development have been ongoing for the past three years. Board members and the Market management have talked with vendors and spoken at meetings, including the Stanwood Chamber, the Lions, the Stanwood City Council, and others, to help promote and develop this market. We have volunteers setting up, running, and closing down the Market every week. Our volunteers have helped build not only a Market with a great vendor base but a great audience of shoppers for the Market, as well.

As a farmers market, we have been working for two years with the Snohomish Health District to create a Farmers Market Program for our vendors.  We’ve received assistance from Mayor Dianne White, Mayor Leonard Kelley, and Deborah Knight from the City of Stanwood.  Our manager, Leslie Collins, has attended the legislative session in Olympia in 2013 with the City of Stanwood to discuss the farmers market and our longer term goals of a four-season market.  All this was to lay the groundwork for future funding. Additionally, Leslie attends annual conferences, seminars, trainings, and webinars to help strengthen our market and learn how to better serve our vendors, community and program partners.

This year the market became qualified to receive SNAP/EBT benefits to increase food access for low income folks in our community. This means that the Farmers Market is truly a resource for everyone in our community. This process took months to complete and an investment of time and money to make it work. However, we’re already seeing benefits from it.

Support from the City and local business has been immense. Cash funding and in-kind donations, such as the space for the market, have made it possible to have a market at all. We received grant funding from USDA Farmers Market Promotional Program Grant and NW Farm Credit Services to help with our initial start-up costs. Since we were starting from scratch, expenses were not small. In turn, we’ve been spending money at local businesses for insurance, operating supplies, advertising, and power, to name a few. We also our refer vendors to local businesses for their needs and have helped increase foot traffic to our downtown core business during Market hours.

We spend a lot of time understanding how the market impacts the economic development of the city and surrounding businesses.  This year we will be doing a more in-depth Rapid Market Assessment (RMA) to better understand these impacts. We want to constantly improve operations at the market for better vendor sales, a better customer experience and a greater benefit to all surrounding businesses.

So, you can see that our Port Susan Farmers Market is much more than a collection of tents. It’s people coming together every week to support our local businesses, invest in healthy foods, and create a great community life.

Oso Strong, Oso Compassionate

By now, you’ve heard about the massive mudslide in Oso that took the lives of 43 people on March 22nd. I live just downriver from there. Everyone here knows someone directly affected by this disaster. It’s going to take years for a full recovery, if that’s at all possible. Most of the folks who lost homes, families and…well…everything, still owe mortgages on those properties. The local businesses and farms are also feeling the pinch, with the highway being closed until at least next fall. So many of them rely on the tourist trade during the summer.

The stories I keep hearing of the lengths people went to help their neighbors and friends are amazing. Here are a few:

  • When the slide happened, the river started immediately backing up, flooding the homes and farms of those east of the slide area. One woman knew that her neighbors, whose farm was quickly being inundated, were down in Seattle for the day. So, she got to their farm, jumped on the back of one of the horses, and led the other 6 horses through chest-deep water to safety.
  • My volunteer fire department, Snohomish County FD #19, decided to turn their annual fund raising event into a benefit for the Oso firefighter who lost his wife, granddaughter and home in the slide. They will make up their annual funds some other way.
  • One Search & Rescue professional who worked on the site said that it was the first time in his many years of dealing with disasters, that local volunteers and family members worked right along side him.
  • People used their vacation time to come to Arlington and wash clothes for the volunteers. Students wrote thank you notes and they were included in the clean laundry returned to the search and rescue volunteers.

The list goes on.

If you’d like to help those affected by this tragedy, Snohomish County has a page that lists where you can donate or volunteer.