Online “food center” wins gold for Rocher farms
A remarkable story of economic success has emerged here on our Rock even as the two-year pandemic continues. Our island farmers have found a rich vein in using the internet to sell what they grow year round directly to the people who live here.
This year alone, several thousand individual orders worth $ 230,000 were filled for more than 900 Rock residents, who purchased local cabbage, potatoes, salad mixes, beets, turnips. , tomatoes, cauliflower, turkey, chicken and more.
Whidbey Island Grown, a cooperative that has gone through several iterations over the past decade, relaunched in March 2020; its aim was to deliver the island’s products from farmers to shops, restaurants and institutions. But then Covid-19 caused all of these businesses to shut down. Talk about bad timing.
Nonetheless, the energetic, imaginative and determined people who revitalized Whidbey Island Grown refused to give up. In May, they launched a website with a “food hub” that sells direct to individual consumers, who each week go online to choose from dozens of items available from local producers. The selection changes with the seasons and what is harvested or available in storage. Shoppers pay by credit card and then collect their bonus on Friday afternoon at three locations on the island in Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Freeland. In fact, it’s a year-round online farmers market.
âWhen Covid hit, farmers had no place to sell their stuff and they were panicking; farmers’ markets were closed, businesses were closed and people were in their homes in quarantine, âsaid Shannon Bly, coordinator of the Whidbey Island Grown Cooperative, as the nonprofit is officially known.
Bly herself is a native of Whidbey, born and raised in Oak Harbor, and a graduate of Oak Harbor High School. She holds a BA in Natural Resource Economics from Western Washington University. She is the only full-time employee of Whidbey Island Grown; There are three part-time employees who work Fridays to pack orders at Bell’s Farm in West Beach for island-wide distribution.
The farmers of The Rock have always struggled to find and maintain markets for what they grow. In recent decades, off-island grocery chains often sent large trucks to pick up whatever the island’s farmers had to sell, including giant squash and dairy products. But it all ended with the advent of large corporate farms on the mainland that could produce much more than the much smaller island farms. This has brought big changes to Whidbey farming in recent years. A few large farmers can still compete, often growing hay and grain.
But a new generation of small farmers has arrived in recent years. Some are graduates of the Organic Farm School near Clinton. Others are newly retired from an urban or military career and seek the active, healthy, outdoor life of farming.
âWe have around 38 members who offer their products on the food hub every week,â Bly said. While large farms also sell in farmers’ markets and directly to businesses and individuals, some of the newer smaller farms now sell almost entirely through the Whidbey Island Grown Food Hub, as they can pre-sell anything they can find. ‘they have that week.
These new, smaller farms include Sleepy Bee Farm near Freeland, operated by Ryan Adkins and Halle Salisbury. They recently graduated from organic farm school and grow vegetables and flowers. Another is One Willow Farm near Oak Harbor, operated by Navy veteran Mark Stewart and his wife Melissa. They raise sustainably grown chickens and turkeys.
Other members are not technically farmers but produce things such as jams and herbs.
âThanks to our members, the number of orders has really taken off this year,â said Bly. âIt’s been over 90 every week since September and we hit 106 the week before Thanksgiving – which was $ 9,000 in product sold. ”
The hub filled its last orders of the year on Friday, December 17. It will resume its activities on January 1.
Producers go online every week to list and price their items. âIf someone has 100 salad mixes for sale, for example, they’ll list them each for $ 5. Then the food center adds a margin to cover the costs of packaging and distribution, âshe said.
The result was gross income of $ 230,000 this year, and the producers received payments of $ 195,000.
True, there is a lull in the first few months of the year as the stored crops run out and the new crops are not yet ready for harvest. Last April, for example, the food hub ran out of potatoes, causing some anxiety among some loyal shoppers.
âWhat’s really cool about the food hub is that it’s a virtual learning tool for customers,â Bly said. âYou learn what’s available seasonally on Whidbey Island just by scrolling through the website. We learn to cook and eat according to the seasons.
Due to the remarkable success the organization has built in such a short period of time, Bly is looking to the future. âI really think that the growth will continue depending on the enthusiasm of our customers. We have been able to staff and stock our freezers and refrigerators to meet demand, and more and more producers are joining us. ”
Eventually, they hope to expand into the wholesale business they originally intended to launch before the pandemic. They now have a few wholesale customers; among them are the Captain Whidbey Inn, the Oystercatcher Restaurant and the Coupeville School District.
But it will take more staff and more infrastructure to allow that kind of additional growth. âWe barely kept up with individual demand this year,â Bly said. âFarmers would have to grow a lot more crops, we would need our own packing space, and we would need a bigger truck to deliver things. ”
The organization, which has a board of directors made up of four farmers, three institutions and a community representative, is already fundraising to buy this bigger truck and its own freezer and cooler, and eventually hopes to have its own space for it. ‘packaging.
âRight now we’re fortunate to be able to borrow space from the people who grow what the food center sells. ”
The organization’s website and food center can be found at www.whidbeyislandgrown.com.
Harry Anderson is a retired reporter who worked for the Los Angeles Times and lives in Central Whidbey.