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Puget Sound Food Hub connecting local farmers and businesses

Jun 1st, 2014 | Category: Community

by Jessamyn Tuttle

The concept for the Puget Sound Food Hub first developed under a bridge,  specifically the I-5 overpass in Mount Vernon, which provided a roof for the first wholesale farmers market in Skagit County in 2010. Under the auspices of the Skagit Valley Food Co-op and the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), farmers brought produce, and chefs came and bought by the case. It enabled the sale of local produce in bulk, while making it possible for busy chefs and farmers to finally meet face to face.

When Susan and Harley Soltes bought Bow Hill Blueberry Farm in 2011, it came with a huge berry processing shed and walk in cooler. It was more space than they could use, so they started looking for a way to share it. Their farm now serves as a central distribution point for farmers, chefs and co-ops in Skagit, Whatcom, and San Juan Counties through the Puget Sound Food Hub.

Loading up at Bow Hill Blueberries in Bow. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Loading up at Bow Hill Blueberries in Bow. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Through the NABC’s Puget Sound Food Network website, buyers could look up descriptions of the different farmers and ranchers and order in advance, but they had to deal with each seller individually and either pick up the food themselves at the wholesale market or have the farm deliver it, a time consuming arrangement for busy chefs. NABC reenvisioned the project as the North Sound Food Hub, and upgraded the website so that buyers can now order from multiple farmers at once, with a single invoice.

“It was the farmers saying we want more business connections, and businesses saying we want it but it needs to be convenient,” said Lucy Norris, director of the Puget Sound Food Hub, which now includes the North Sound Food Hub along with 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living  in Woodinville and the NABC’s Farm to Table program.

Customers can now order from multiple farms, but how to get their order to them? 21 Acres volunteered to be a drop off point. A grant paid for a refrigerated truck, and they began making deliveries in September 2012, which enabled distribution to Seattle-area buyers. However, most of the participating farms were up north and they needed their own aggregation point. That’s where the blueberry farm came in. “[Susan and Harley] are really the central nervous system of the whole thing,” Norris said. “They’ve really embraced it.”

“It overlaps with what we already do,” said Susan Soltes. The distribution network gives farmers access to larger institutions and lets them sell their products at higher volume.

Sellers can come by at any time and drop off their product at the farm. Twice weekly, 21 Acres sends their truck to Bow Hill and picks up orders to distribute in Seattle, and local buyers like the Train Wreck Bar & Grill or the San Juan Co-op pick up their orders at the farm (the program’s next goal is to fund a truck for local deliveries and to take orders down to Seattle). Local producers who sell through the network include Hedlin Family Farm, Samish Bay Cheese, Osprey Hill Farm, Growing Washington, Grace Harbor Farms, Skagit River Ranch, Viva Farms and many more. A complete list of farms (total of 54 and growing) is available online at http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/food/. Approximately 170 buyers from across the region are purchasing through PSFH.

The first year the PSFH had planned to end their season at Thanksgiving, but between root crops, cabbage, meat and cheese they had enough volume to continue through the winter. They took two weeks off to change software and update the website, and were up and running again in May, shipping goods like beef, salad greens, sprouts and cheese.

“It’s fun to see how it changes week to week,” Norris said.

The Puget Sound Food Hub distributes to institutions and restaurants of all sorts, from Portage Bay Café to Seattle University, Overlake Hospital, and the UW School of Medicine. It also includes a large number of day cares and senior centers.

“It makes sure what we grow gets to people who don’t normally have access to it,” said Soltes. To participate, buyers need to be a licensed business or institution, and sellers need to be a member of NABC, provide all business and specialty licenses and liability insurance, and participate in orientations and trainings.

“We’re basically a business now, not just a grant funded project,” Norris said, noting she  eventually hopes to include hubs all over western Washington.

Above all, the focus is on the relationship between farmers and buyers. “This isn’t a middleman, it’s a conduit,” said Soltes. As Norris observed, “We just provide all the service and they do the talking.

“We want to keep the door open for the customers and farmers to communicate,” she said. “If the farmers are happy, we’re happy.”

Plans are currently in the works to add the Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson to the PSFH as a collection site for Whatcom farmers, likely in the fall. Until then, Cloud Mountain Farm Center’s produce will be available on the PSFH website.

For more information, see www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com.

PSFH meeting June 11; Bow Hill Blueberries Walk June 18

Puget Sound Food Hub is a non-profit organization launched  through a partnership between Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), Bow Hill Blueberries and the 21 Acres Center for Local Food and  Sustainable Living. A meeting about the project will be held Wednesday, June 11 from 10 a.m. to noon at 21 Acres, 13701 NE 171st Street in Woodinville. For more information, e-mail Robin Crowder of 21 Acres at rbcrowder@21acres.org.

A Farm Walk event will be Wednesday, June 18 at Bow Hill Blueberries, as part of the 2014 Farm Walk Educational Series presented by Tilth Producers of Washington &  WSU Small Farms Program. “Out of the Box Distribution: Puget Sound Food Hub” will be held from 12:30 to 4 p.m., offering a tour of the farm and its role in the PSFH and more. Cost is $15 for Tilth Producer members, students and interns, and $25 for non-members. Register at www.tilthproducers.org or call (206) 632-7506.

 

Published in the June 2014 issue of Grow Northwest 

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