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Oct 1st, 2012 | Category: Community

by Brent Cole

Burlington resident Steve Crider is no stranger to volunteering. Passionate about Skagit County’s local food system, he is just one of many volunteers working with schools, food banks, local farmers, and community groups.


Over the last four years, Crider has become involved in several programs in Skagit aimed at improving the local food system, especially in schools. His volunteer work includes Farm to School, Neighbors in Need Food Bank, Garden of Hope Food Bank Project, and the 1095 Club Ending Childhood Hunger in Skagit County. In addition, he works with the Organic Seed Alliance, Community and School Gardens, Skagit Community Food Assessment, and the Organic Trade Association International Committee. Perhaps most importantly for Steve, he’s the lead singer of the local band Home Grown Tomatoes.

“I don’t know where one ends and the other begins anymore. It’s all a variation on the same thing,” he said of his work, with a laugh.

While agriculture is in Crider’s roots (his family farmed for years in Kentucky and North Carolina, lost their farms during the Great Depression, and eventually migrated to Pennsylvania), he became interested when he read the book One Straw Revolution: Introduction to Natural Farming by Japanese author Masanobu Fukuoka – nearly 30 years ago.  He planned a trip to Japan and to meet Fukuoka, at the time arriving in Japan with three addresses – all friends of friends, one of whom was an editor for a book company. It turned out the editor for the book company had translated One Straw Revolution. Crider was on his way.

During his first year in Japan, he learned techniques at different farms across the country. Crider went on to start a small, natural food company with a Japanese friend, and later met his wife and had three children together. By 1992, he realized he needed a change, and together with his family headed back to the U.S. Having developed a relationship with Cascadian Farm years earlier at an organic foods trade show, Crider and the company reconnected. “As the Japan chapter was winding down, Cascadian offered me to work with them.”

It was during his work in international sales at Cascadian Farms that Steve saw the boom of the company (at that time owned by Gene Kahn and Roger Wechsler, who then sold to Welch’s, then to venture capitalists and finally sold to General Mills). In 1999, he was let go. “When General Mills took over, a bunch of employees became redundant,” he said. “(It was) perfect timing, a nice mid-life crisis.”

“Licking his wounds,” Steve went to a Tilth Conference that fall, where he reconnected with contacts and learned about sustainable agriculture issues and the upcoming WTO summit. After a stint at PCC Natural Market store in Seattle and CF Fresh out of Sedro-Woolley (an organic food brokerage started by Roger Wechsler, one of the founders of Cascadian Farms), he  moved on to his current job in international sales for Amy’s Kitchen. During this time, Steve’s passion for sustainable food was a focus of his work, but his off hours were dedicated to children’s theater and music.

“I’ve always had too many things going at once,” he said with a chuckle.

But by 2008, with his kids grown, Steve threw himself into volunteering for campaigns and a local food system. “How to take all these things and be part of the local scene,” he said of his involvement. “Think globally, act locally… We’ve got  all these looming things on the horizon. Regional sustainable food systems is one of the ways the human race will make it through this.”

He sees improving food in schools as one of the biggest goals. “Short term, I would definitely love to see the local-farm-to-local-school-system-cafeteria linkage being made. We need kids to get reacquainted to what real food is… and it’s so doable.”

Helping to end hunger is another important goal for Crider. “Here we are in this bread basket and there are one in four, one in five families in a food bank,” he added.

One issue in the face of these goals is developing infrastructure for a local food system. He said, “in the 20 years since I’ve been here, that infrastructure has been eviscerated.” But he was quick to add that much of what is happening now was not in place 20 years ago and there is a lot of potential.

“Look at the talent base we have in our region,” he said. “We’ve got these amazing pieces to the puzzle but it hasn’t congealed. We’ve got some of the corners and have to decide on what the picture on the box is supposed to look like.”

He added, “I’m just one of a chorus of people who are singing this song. We get together often through all these different events, conferences, each other’s farms… it’s all very encouraging. I feel totally I’m carried and sustained – as much as I’m giving, I get twice as much back from the amazing people that I’m with.”

Along with the potential, though, comes the need to create a business model and better understand the economics of sustainable agriculture. “New infrastructure for processing really needs to be thought through,” he said, “There are all these new models out there now that didn’t exist before.”

He added, “You don’t have to be a farmer to be part of it. We can all work on a level that we’re comfortable at.”

Published in the October 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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