Deep roots: Local farmers show resilience in face of pandemic
— Created August 5, 2020 by Kacie Jo Voeller
By Kacie Jo Voeller
Whidbey’s local farms and producers have a history of providing fresh fare for island residents and have continued to do so throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Local growers have offered online ordering, drive-through pick up options and many have banded together to form a cooperative and food hub to continue to provide service.
Kyle Flack, co-owner of Bell’s Farm and Whidbey Island Grown member, said Whidbey Island Grown has focused on connecting island farms and for the past year, forming a cooperative has been one of the group’s goals. Flack said one aspect of the cooperative has been creating the Whidbey Island Grown Cooperative Food Hub where people can order products.
“We launched the food hub in May and it has just been growing ever since,” he said.
Flack said those interested in participating in the food hub can visit whidbeyislandgrown.com to sign up and place orders. The ordering period runs Friday to Tuesday, with products available for pickup the following Friday at one of four selected locations, including Bell’s Farm, Sherman’s Pioneer Farm, Mutiny Bay Blues, and The Greenhouse from 3-5 p.m. He said the hub has helped to strengthen the ties between farmers and the community at large.
“These are local producers and we do not go anywhere when things shut down; we are still here and so the more people support us, the more we are here and the more we can produce,” he said. “And I think we can create a chain reaction of resilience for our community. People are able to be more resilient because they know how to access local food and the farmers are more resilient because we feel secure in our economy of agriculture here. I think it is really important for both sides.”
Flack said the cooperative’s longterm goals include providing aggregate purchasing for producers to reduce costs on items including feed, seed, and fertilizer; creating a retail co-op store; and starting a food hub for wholesale customers. In the wake of COVID-19, the focus of opening the food hub shifted to providing goods for the general public, as many wholesale customers, including restaurants and caterers, had decreased needs.
“As a farm, the hub gives us stability,” he said. “We sell a lot of produce and stuff wholesale and the farmers markets were closed for a while, so having this food hub and having a co-op, gives us stability to reach customers and feel like we have sales outlets aside from hoping people come to the farm. It makes us feel a little bit more secure in our business.”
Judy Feldman, executive director of the Organic Farm School, said both the cooperative and the opportunity to participate in the food hub have created opportunities for local farmers.
“We are a participant in it and from where I sit, it is so exciting and so deeply strategic and important that I hope everyone goes to that Whidbey Island Grown website and learns how much is available to them as Whidbey Island residents,” she said.
Feldman said she encourages island residents to explore the offerings of local farms and Whidbey Island Grown.
“It is amazing what is on that website (whidbeyislandgrown.com) and in order for that to be here when we need it the next time, we have to support it now,” she said. “We are really encouraging people to check it out. You do not have to buy a lot — you can just buy one thing, two things, whatever you want, but check it out because that is the kind of building block our current farm community needs on Whidbey Island.”
Feldman said in addition to what is available through Whidbey Island Grown, the Organic Farm School, which is both a production farm and a training program for aspiring farmers, offers weekly drive-through pickups at the farm in Clinton. More information is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You get to drive to the farm and you see a beautiful place and pick up very fresh vegetables and then you head home and fix a good meal,” she said.
Feldman said the effects of COVID-19 have shown the importance of supporting local farms. Across the country, many grocery stores faced supply chain disruptions, and consumers saw shortages or limitations of a number of products. Feldman said having both major supply chains and local produce is key.
“What is important for any community, we believe, is that there are farmers on a local scale that people who are eating (local food) can get to know,” she said. “So that in moments like this — it is not that we want the big supply chains to fail, we absolutely do not — but those big supply chains, we saw the cracks in those systems and so it is important to have parallel systems.”
As a training program, the Organic Farm School provides its graduates with tools to tackle challenges of all kinds, Feldman said.
“We were preparing young people to deal with times where there is a massive amount of chaotic change all around you and you have to use your critical thinking skills to grow food for the people that count on you,” she said. “This is our moment, this is proof of that concept. People who are now buying from Deep Harvest Farm, people who are buying from Foxtail Farm, people now buying from Workin’ Dream Farm, are buying from the farmers we trained three, four, five, six years ago.”
Feldman said eating locally and supporting farms strengthens the community now and in the future.
“If I could impress upon our community and our region anything, it would be that by buying produce from us or by donating to the farm school, you are doing more than just putting food on your plate today,” she said. “You are actually putting food on your plate for the next decade, and I hope people take this moment to appreciate how positive it has been to eat locally grown food.”
Over Labor Day weekend, Whidbey Island Grown will also be hosting its annual Whidbey Island Grown Weekend, with members and food hub producers working to bring safe, socially distant events to celebrate local farms, the arts and businesses in the area. For more information and updates, check whidbeyislandgrown.com.