Urban Abundance: A growing nonprofit

It’s a simple, common sense approach that seems to have gotten lost over the years: Local farmers growing produce, selling it to local restaurant owners who, in turn, are serving it to local customers. At least that’s the way Warren Neth remembers things working while growing up on a small farm in Ridgefield.

“We grew strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, some garlic and other things,” recalled Neth. “It was really on a small scale, but we sold to a couple different restaurants in the Hazel Dell area.”

Neth, the founder and director of Urban Abundance, a project of Slow Food Southwest Washington (the local chapter of the national nonprofit Slow Food USA), explained that the reason his family was able to sell produce to local restaurants back in the day was because of a relationship his family had established with the restaurant owners.

“We would grow the produce and bring it to the kitchen’s back door and sell it to the chefs,” he said. “So growing up I figured this was how most food arrived at restaurants. But as I got into the food industry, I saw how food is actually trucked in from all over the world. To bring that produce to our restaurants when we have all these farms around here – it just didn’t make sense.”

Today, Urban Abundance is working to restore that local farmer/restaurant owner relationship through events like the bi-annual Seasonal Feast – a dinner/fundraiser that challenges a host restaurant to serve a multi-course meal using exclusively locally-grown ingredients.

“We’re just trying to figure out ways that we can build those friendships,” explained Neth. “That’s what Seasonal Feast is all about – trying to get as many farmers, restaurant owners and retailers together, all sharing a big feast of Clark County-grown foods.”

Two weeks ago, Urban Abundance held its most recent Seasonal Feast at the newly opened Mill Creek Pub, at 1710 Southwest 9th Avenue #101, in Battle Ground. The event was a big success, selling out the 120 or so seats available.

Russell Brent, owner of Mill Creek Pub, said he enjoyed the challenge of finding local farmers to source from. In fact, he said sourcing local has gotten easier of late, and it’s a practice he plans on continuing.

“I looked at buying from local farms years ago and it was almost an impossible situation because somebody could come up with ten pounds of this, and another farm could come up with ten pounds of that. But when you have to serve 150 people, it was almost an impossible thing to do,” said Brent.

The difference today, according to Brent, is the way farms communicate.

“In the last couple of years there has been a ground swell of improvement,” he explained. “The farms are getting much better, the CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture organizations] are communicating, there are blogs on the internet for the community farms – they’re all starting to work together so that they can really strengthen the relationships they have with the restaurants.”

In addition to having an improved network of communication from grower to grower, Brent said the source local movement is being fueled by, well, fuel.

“It’s what I consider the perfect storm, and four dollar a gallon gas doesn’t hurt. Buying local is important, especially when food has to travel,” said Brent.

Amidst all the success of Urban Abundance’s Seasonal Feast, the organization is busy beefing up some of its other programs. One of them in particular, according to Neth, should interest the business community.

“It’s called the Backyard Bounty Co-op, and it’s an innovative model that supports small-scale growers,” he explained. “Urban Abundance takes on all the marketing and accounting [for local growers], and we set up farmers markets tables and staff those booths. All the farmers have to do is come and drop off their produce and we do all of the rest.”

As Neth tells it, the Backyard Bounty Co-op is really about enabling local farms, letting them grow their produce and supporting the health of our local food system. So far, he said the Co-op has a collection of 12 growers.

“Now we are looking for partnerships with the business community, like being able to set up our booth at local retailers so you can have a little stand in your store where you can sell Backyard Bounty produce. I think it’s a very innovative model for being able to support urban farmers,” he said.

Growers and businesses interested in getting involved in the Backyard Bounty Co-op can contact Urban Abundance at 360.771.1296.

Mill Creek’s mission

When Russell Brent began scouting the region for a spot to land his new restaurant, he knew that “buy local” should have a place in his new establishment. As he learned more about the city of Battle Ground, which he said has some of the best demographics in the Portland Metro area, he realized the people that live there want local as well.

“I found that people like to do business locally in Battle Ground,” said Brent. “They have to travel a long way if they want to get a specialty item, so there’s a lot of community spirit. To me, staying local is important because it’s important to them.”

Hoping to create a casual neighborhood vibe, Brent selected a rustic theme for Mill Creek Pub. He even used reclaimed lumber from turn of the century Clark County barns in the interior of the restaurant.

“The economy is still a little rough so I want to have some comfort food,” he added. “I want to make sure that people feel good when they come here so it’s going to be a good value and it’s going to be food prepared with heart.”