What does it take for Kitsap farmers to feed Kitsap people? More than forty people turned out for the “Farmers, Co-Ops, Consumers, Stronger Together” event sponsored by the Kitsap County Agricultural Alliance. The “Faces of Local Food” panel discussion featured three co-op representatives and one co-op organizer, two farmers, and a county council member. Their conversation highlighted the challenges facing farmers trying to sell products and stores providing a market for those products.
Local farmers can’t get into the big stores.
Chain stores are tied into distribution contracts with penalties for buying from other suppliers. Teresa Young from the Northwest Cooperative Development Center said, “Access to local food is a huge systemic problem.”
Producers can’t get into schools and hospitals.
Zach Weiland of Dharma Ridge Farms said he is committed to feeding kids but he has to compete with the chain distributors. “We need to meet Sysco pricing and we can’t do it for every product,” he said.
Institutions need large quantities.
Port Townsend Co-Op Produce Manager Dereck Christensen pointed out that consumer co-ops, grocers, restaurants, schools and hospitals all require steady supplies of products in quantity. “In the store you’re going to need consistency.”
Seasonal farming is, well, seasonal.
“My girls only produce milk nine months a year,” said Vicky McGarrity of Hansville Creamery. “When my girls shut down I shut down.” Every spring she has to re-introduce herself to her customers.
Small producers have to pass on the costs of production.
Western Washington Poultry Co-Op president Stuart Boyle explained that Kitsap imports organic and non-GMO chicken feed. Until there is a local supplier and the cost of the feed goes down, chicken will remain at the current price point per pound.
Kitsap farmers are small farmers.
Land in Kitsap is expensive and already taken. Kitsap Community Cooperative President Jeff Allen pointed out that we’re not going to be getting new 100 acre farms – our strength will come from aggregating smaller operations.
The panelists also identified what’s working in the community.
Get the word out.
The Food and Farm Policy Council has identified Kitsap agricultural assets. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido let the group know that public events in the near future will bring the information out to the community. “There really is quite a bit happening in Kitsap,” she said. “If we can see it, it will help us move forward.”
The panelists agreed that the project will require everyone to work together. Allen assured the community that the co-op will act in partnership, not competition, with farmers markets and local stores like CJ’s. Christensen described the ways the co-op works to keep their farmers in business. He also recommended that the Kitsap co-op draw on farmers from Jefferson and Clallam counties as well as Kitsap farmers to get started. Doyle noted that the face of farming is changing, trending toward smaller farms, which is the direction Kitsap needs to go.
CJ’s Evergreen Store and Catering acts as a model, featuring many local products and produce. The store sources products through relationships built up with local farmers and other producers. Cynthia Jeffries (CJ!) summed up the message of the day: “We need everyone working together to succeed.”
You can connect with local farmers and producers and join the discussion through the Kitsap Community Agricultural Alliance.