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.

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.

Old Books and New Markets

I’ll admit it, even though I love high tech, I really enjoy buying old books. The other day, I found a copy of the Department of Agriculture Yearbook for 1914 and couldn’t put it down. One section I especially liked listed the large public markets within major U.S. cities and showed interesting pictures of them. Some of them still stand, such as Faneuil Hall in Boston and Seattle’s Pike Street Public Market, due to some dedicated urban renewalists who saw the potential of these buildings. Others, such as the Pearl Street Market in Cinncinnati, were razed during the era of urban flight in the twentieth century. Those markets still standing in major cities have indeed become the hub of urban life. I’m certainly glad that Seattle’s was preserved. I visit there whenever I can.

Another fascinating section of this book were the results of a study conducted on the lives of farm women in 1914. They found that many suffered from, “Loneliness, isolation, and the lack of social and educational opportunities.” Most felt heavily overworked without any recompense, since every drop of money went into the farm. By far, though, the largest complaint was the lack of education. They had no way to learn about better farming practices that would make their lives easier. That’s now changed. Even though we want to learn more about how people farmed in the past, we’re doing it on the internet. As more farmers get broadband, more opportunities are made for them.

Oh, there are a couple of articles from this book that might work for modern small farmers, such as “Apple Sirup and Concentrated Cider” and “Cooperative Marketing”. It’s just so interesting seeing how people thought about things 100 years ago.

We Have a Winner!

A short while ago, I started a contest on new ideas for sustainable entrepreneurship with the award of a book, ECOpreneuring.  I received a great reply from Stephanie at You Grow Food Aquaponics (www.yougrowfood.ca). So, she has won a copy of John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s book, ECOpreneuring – Putting Purpose and the Planet before Profit. (It’s one of my favorites.) Congratulations!

Here’s what she said:

We are just in the construction phase of our new aquaponics business: You Grow Food Aquaponics (www.yougrowfood.ca).  We are four professional people who are living in the rural community of Hope BC Canada.  Hope produces no food commercially for local markets, creating a food desert.  We love where we live and we want to eat where we live too!  Aquaponics is the `How` of what we do, and food security and community  development form the `Why`of what we do.  Through tours and education we will connect kids and the community with their food sources.  We aim to be open-sourced and support and encourage others in aquaponic startups.  Most importantly, we want to provide local restaurants and local families with year round, nutritious, locally produced food!

Rudy and Stephanie in front of one of the greenhouses.

So, of course, I had to go see what their aquaponics farm was all about. (Any excuse for a roadtrip…)

Stephanie Hooker and Rudy Kehler took time from their busy schedules to show me how their process worked and what they wanted to accomplish as farmers. Their operation is small but is quickly growing as their proof-of-concept is realized.

They started with a small greenhouse and a 4 by 4 foot tank, topped with a bed of basil. That worked great. Then came two larger greenhouses with fish tanks, one large pump, and trays and trays of little plants. There are a few more tanks to add, but it’s looking extremely promising that soon there will be greens and fish year-round in the town of Hope. Their goal is to provide fresh, local food in a place where food is brought in from other places.

To see how You Grow Food Aquaponics is growing, go to their Facebook Page and Like them, or visit their web page. Oh, and Stephanie, your book is on it’s way.

Hope, British Columbia

When I went to the Mother Earth News Fair, representatives from Hope, British Columbia, were there to introduce folks to their area. I entered their contest for two nights at a B&B in Hope, B.C. and, unbelievably, I won. (I know! How odd.) So, I made a reservation, commandeered The Sister, and we were off.

We stayed at the High Hopes Bed and Breakfast which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is perched above the river valley with amazing views of the mountains. All the rooms are incredibly well appointed, with an additional lounge area for guests. My favorite things about this B&B include:

  • The beds were really comfortable.
  • Our host, Pauline, brought me coffee and a muffin first thing in the morning, even before breakfast. Oh, and the breakfasts are very yummy.
  • The view at night from my balcony (every room has one) was stunning, with dense stars surrounded by a ring of mountains.

Hope is quite a lovely town. It’s on a bend of the Fraser River with a long park along the river and a city block-sized park in the middle of town. It’s surrounded by high mountains, clear lakes, and lots of wilderness. We walked around town and decided to stop at an Indian restaurant we saw, called Sakoon. I was not expecting such good food and I was quite pleasantly surprised at all the rich flavors. I’ll go back…even if it is several hours away from home.

The one thing I was really happy to see was the Hope Cinema, which recently installed a new digital projector, ensuring that they can show first-run films for years to come. It’s huge financial burden to change projectors and they are asking for donations to help defray the costs. So many towns across North America are losing their theaters to this crushing requirement by film distributors that all theaters must have digital projectors or they won’t receive any new films to show. Most small towns can’t support the cost of a new projector ($30,000 to $200,000 per theater) and the owners can’t keep a theater viable without films to show. Most of them are simply closing. We watched Elysium in Hope Cinema’s surprisingly large space. (It holds 320 people.) It was a great experience.

We then went to the Blue Moose Coffee House and had a nice cup of chai. Mmmm…yummy!

I love taking road trips. I’ve driven all over North America in my lifetime, meeting new people and experiencing the countryside. As, I was touring the Fraser River Valley, visiting farms and taking in the sites. I was quite impressed with the amount of land that was under cultivation in the river valley and the updated farm equipment and buildings I saw everywhere. There weren’t any abandoned farms. There weren’t any barns falling down or fields untended. The local farming community was well supported and farmers markets and agri-tourism were everywhere.

As I drove back across the border, into the U.S., the change was quite evident. More farmers here are struggling. More farms lay fallow, with fields turning back to a scruffy kind of wildness. It’s harder to find farm tours or to buy directly from a farm unless you know where to look. A collapsing barn is more the standard than the exception. Even in Skagit Valley, where the emphasis is strongly on agriculture, there are farms around every corner of Highway 9 that lay fallow.

Perhaps it’s because Canada didn’t suffer the recession we did here, or maybe it’s the Canadian government’s emphasis on agriculture that has made the difference. Maybe the University of British Columbia’s Land and Food System programs, including dairy, viniculture, and permaculture, are making the difference. Perhaps it’s all of these things together.

No matter what programs are in place, it’s ultimately up to us to determine how we want our food grown and consumed. Compared to the mighty Fraser River, the Stillaguamish may be small. However, it’s our corner of the world and we determine how we move forward here. Taking steps, such as the Port Susan Farmers Market is a good start. It is only a start, though, with much left to do.

Our farmers are retiring and we need young farmers, well trained ones at that, to take their place. How do we attract them? How do we get existing farmers to stay on the land and get new farmers to move here? We do it through vibrant local and regional markets, through vital support systems, and through our strong appreciation of what they bring to our community. We can provide the economic basis for a lasting farming community if it’s within our willpower to do so. Ultimately, it’s really up to us.

The Last Farm

Hong Kong is losing it’s last farms and there is concern among its citizens. The city is running out of housing and the only lands left are the very last farms. Since the series of scandals uncovering food contamination from mainland China, however, people are leery of having all of their food coming from there. This is the situation: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2013/0817/Hong-Kong-weighs-the-importance-of-its-last-farms

 

 

ECOpreneuring: A Review and a Contest

First, a review:

When I was at the Mother Earth News Fair at the beginning of the month, I met John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist and chatted with them about their book, ECOpreneuring – Putting Purpose and the Planet before Profit. I read it a few months earlier and was interested in talking with them about it. For an average-sized book, it packs a lot of information. It talks about how, through small, sustainable, entrepreneurial businesses, (such as farming) you can make a living by solving the problems facing society. That’s ambitious, I know, but the steps and ideas described here are practical and pragmatic. You can have both purpose and profit.

It’s one of the first “how-to” manuals I’ve seen that addresses not only the steps to start, manage and grow a sustainable business, but also addresses the financial side of it, complete with real numbers. By tapping into the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) marketplace, estimated to be $227 billion in the United States alone, an enterprising entrepreneur can make a living and help create a better life for the customer at the same time. The new wave of small farmers, those growing healthy, wholesome food for all of us, fit well into this business model.

There are several other topics in the book I found intriguing:

  • Understanding and using the Global Commons: We have unprecedented access to information through the internet and new tools that can help us manage our business and market our products for very little cost.
  • Tapping burgeoning local economies: By focusing on growing the local business infrastructure and blurring the lines between career and personal life, we can strengthen our communities and build strong local customer bases.
  • Proclaiming your passion: Creating a business that incorporates what you most love will give you more than a living – it will give you a much better life.

These ideas, among many others in the book, present a different way of approaching the business of business. The authors know this from personal experience. They own Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast and Farm in Wisconsin and discuss their successes and challenges in creating this business, including the basics of funding, taxation, and legal logistics. If you want to be both inspired and informed about starting and maintaining a small, sustainable business, this is the book for you.

That’s the review; here’s the contest: I have a spare copy of this book that is just crying out for a new home. To throw your hat into the ring, and possibly claim this book for your very own, leave a comment on this blog posting describing a sustainable business you’d like to create or a new way to make an operation currently in business much more sustainable. I’ll choose the best one (completely subjectively, of course) and get the book, ECOpreneuring, into your hands. Let the games begin!

Yippee!

I’m so excited to have our Port Susan Farmers Market opening once again this summer. I really enjoy seeing all my neighbors and friends buying locally-produced foods from all my other neighbors and friends. In fact, I usually see more local people in one trip to the farmers market than I see the whole rest of the year. It makes me feel like I’m participating in the community.

The most tangible benefits of the farmers market are financial. It’s good for the producers but it’s great for businesses that are nearby. According to a report by a Cooperative Extension in Virginia:

“Increasing direct connections with producers and consumers is a sound, asset-based social and economic development strategy for rural and urban communities. From an economic perspective, encouraging the buying and consumption of local foods can have a positive impact on the local economy by recirculating and reinvesting dollars in local, independently owned businesses.”

When local producers sell at the farmers market, the whole community benefits. Local retail businesses reap the rewards of increased foot traffic, farmers retain more of the dollars they earn, and the social interaction created by visiting a farmers market increases everyone’s well being. Last year, I heard so many people comment, “I didn’t even know this was here”, when they stopped to see what the market was all about. This year, they’ll know to come back.

The market gives us the chance to get out of our workplaces, to park our cars, and to enjoy downtown Stanwood on a lovely Friday afternoon in the summer. The Port Susan Farmers Market opens July 5th. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

So Much Rural Tech Geekiness…

…and so little time to soak it all in. Yeah, it’s been a busy few weeks.

First, I was able to teach a class about Online Marketing to a group of 10 farmers. I hope they gleaned some useful tools from it. Since they all work in different types of business models, I tried to include several different tactics for using social media and websites to reach customers. Sometimes they apply and sometimes they don’t. Here are a couple I’ve seen:

  • Food truck tweeting: I wrote about how food trucks are communicating with their audiences in an earlier posting. Farmers can use this model to remind their customers that they should stop by the farm.
  • Web Sites for Everyone: By using templates, many companies are offering inexpensive, quickly set-up, convenient web sites for small businesses. They include GoDaddy, Intuit, and my lastest fun find, Vistaprint, which offers a whole range of services.

So, then I was off to the Mother Earth News Fair, to discover the latest in sustainable living. I saw Dan from Earthineer again and got to see some of the new things he’s doing with the community. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy had information on some interesting draft horse breeds. There were quite a few farmers showing their heritage breeds, including goats, sheep, and cows. (Chickens were simply everywhere!) A fun new visitor was the group from the town of Hope in British Columbia, introducing us to their lovely place in Canada.

I met John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist and chatted with them about their book, “ECOpreneuring“, which I really enjoyed reading. It’s one of the first “how-to” manuals I’ve seen that addresses the financial side of a sustainable business. I’ll write more about it later.

When you meet an accomplished actor, director, and producer like Ed Begley, Jr., what do you talk about? Why, sanitation, of course. (Sometimes, I am a bit dorky.)  We chatted briefly about Envirolet composting toilets and how they can be used in guest cottages, outbuildings, and other places where plumbing doesn’t necessarily reach.

I came home with seeds, plants, goodies for the puppy, some new contacts, and tons of new ideas. I think I need to go plant something now.

The Wisdom of the Small Farmers Journal

I can’t express enough how valuable the Small Farmers Journal is for anyone who wants to live more self-sufficiently and sustainably. It contains so much wisdom and more information than I can read in an afternoon. Pulling it out of my mailbox is like finding a brand new book that I know will change my life in very profound ways. If you value good food, right living, and a connection to the natural world, subscribe.

Here is Andrew Plotsky’s take on his experience with the Journal.