At the end of the day, my desire is to see our community have a healthy food system. One that benefits human and landscape health, provides local economic opportunity, supports a vibrant organic farm movement, excites people about good food and local culture, and makes our community more equitable and resilient. One that allows our valley to have an authentic, vibrant character flowing through it, rather than be crushed under a cookie cutter sea of multi-national franchises. A landscape where our agricultural heritage is not lost, and where many small farms still dot the valley floor, growing nutritious food for people in the community. A food system that is transparent and honest. I could go on and on, but you get the gist…we need a values-based food system.
I believe that in order to move in that direction, we need to challenge the status quo and rethink our options. Call it innovation, or a re-imagining, or disruption, but we need a new approach.
And we have to work on it from both directions, from the consumer down and from the producer up.
From a consumer standpoint, we need more consumers to recognize the importance of their purchasing decisions, and to engage in community food systems. For them to do this, we need to make access to fresh nutritious food more readily available, and easier. I think that’s just a reality of today’s world, and there is no way around the need for better convenience. Despite how successful Farmer’s Markets and CSA programs seem to be, from a big picture standpoint, they do not do a good enough job at making this type of food accessible for a large enough proportion of our community.
So we need to get more consumers involved by making it easier for them to do so.
From the farmer/producer standpoint, I think the answer is collaboration. While we all have our individual farms and ranches, and our own brands and reputations, if there is anything I’ve learned in the past 5 years, it’s that we are better when we work together.
Over the past 5 years, Rebecca and I have been working with Brooke and Sean at Wicked Good Produce to open up more dialogue amongst producers, share opportunities, and to work together to better serve wholesale markets in the valley. This relationship has brought the farming community in the valley closer together. Competition can be due to greed or pride, but in the farming world, I think it often stems from more sincere feelings of scarcity and insecurity. By increasing the size of the market, everyone involved gains more opportunity, competition turns to collaboration, and the growth in the local food system gains momentum. Wicked Good Produce has done a great job at creating an easy and convenient platform for over 35 restaurants and stores to access local food, while at the same time organizing the logistics to make it easy for all the farmers to serve this wholesale market.
But what about retail sales to individuals and households? If you are not shopping at farmer’s markets, you are likely getting your groceries from a health food market or a larger grocery store. While organic food is becoming increasingly common to find (because industrial organic farms are becoming more common), finding local organic food is much harder. And there is a reason for that.
A few years ago I was sitting in a presentation about food hubs at the EcoFarm Conference, and the founder of FEEDSonoma opened the presentation with this statement…”In the current framework, people want fair prices paid to farmers, high quality products, and a fair price to consumers. You can have any two out of the three.” It took a second for everyone in the room to process this, and then a lot of heads began to nod in agreement.
Consumers in America expect low food prices. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s the reality of our culture for now…we tend to focus on price rather than value, and so that variable is somewhat fixed. In the normal retail system, the aggregators, processors, distributors and grocery stores all take a significant markup (40-50%), it is non-negotiable, and so that variable is fixed. Which leaves the last variable, the farmer, who often takes the hit. In today’s food system the farmer, on average, makes 7 cents out of every food dollar spent. With the “middlemen” taking so much of the profit, it’s hard for small farmers to access grocery stores and retail outlets, and so we’ve developed a system that removes those layers of added cost. We go direct to consumer, which means CSA and Farmer’s Market. But I’ve just stated that those outlets aren’t accessible or convenient enough if we are trying to grow the entire system, and so we’re kind of stuck in this box.
So why don’t we create a different box? Challenge the status quo?
Imagine a store that was owned by farmers, and that doesn’t focus solely on making a profit, but rather in facilitating fair prices to farmers and consumers while encouraging the production and consumption of nutritious food. In other words, when the farmer owns the store, then it’s still a direct to consumer relationship that reduces cost layers while improving access and convenience for consumers. The best of both worlds, we hope.
Because the store is owned by farmers, then it has access to the full local supply chain. This allows for more opportunity to more efficiently use agricultural crops in new ways…the processing of surplus and “seconds” crops into items such as fresh carrot juice, pestos, canned goods, and grab-and-go soups and salads. Increased availability of this type of nutritious food hopefully makes it easier for more consumers to partake, and more sales will lead to opportunities for growth in supply from new and existing farms and producers. The push and pull affect of supply and demand, all linked together at a local level by people with a shared vision.
Well, we are happy, and slightly nervous, to announce that a store of that nature is slated to open on June 1st in Whitefish!
Wicked Good Produce and Two Bear Farm are taking our relationship to the retail level, with the hope of increasing opportunities for many farmers and producers in the region, and making good food more accessible to the community. After much debate we have settled on a name:
The Farmers’ Stand
When our initial efforts to create a food hub on the Rocky Mountain Lumber property did not work out last year, we really tried to not lose momentum. We refocused our search to find another good location, because we felt the need to lead on this issue. Many of our customers have commented in recent years that downtown Whitefish can pose congestion and parking issues, as experienced during farmers’ market and CSA pickup in peak tourist season. So, we tried to find a convenient location, not directly downtown, that had ample parking, easy ingress/egress, and that was affordable in today’s elevated real estate market. That’s a tough bill to fill.
In the end, I think we found a great spot. An exterior storefront at the Mountain Mall (soon to be The Mountain Center), with the storefront door directly accessing the parking lot, with beautiful views of Big Mountain. Prior home of Little Caesar’s Pizza, which I only mention because, yes, we take some satisfaction is replacing fast food with slow food. I know a farm store in a “mall” might seem like a funny match, but this location checks all the boxes, ownership has been great to work with, and we’re excited to get started!
This store will provide our community with convenient access to farm fresh products 5 to 6 days a week (year round I hope). This is also going to be the new location for Whitefish CSA share pickup, thereby extending the hours for pickup and allowing you to avoid the busy farmer’s market if you prefer to do so. I can’t put this in stone yet, but one idea is to have CSA share pickup on Tuesday from 5-7pm, and then any time Wednesday from 10am-7pm, making it more convenient. Or maybe you’ll simply choose to forego the CSA with the realization that you now have improved access and flexibility by shopping at the store? Either one works for us.
For those of you who have been reading my newsletter for years now, you know I love the paraphrased Gandhi quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Well, I guess we’re doubling down on that sentiment. Our world needs more good stories, more good truths, and more transparency, and so that is the path we choose. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more details.