Making an economic case to conserve farmland in Clark County

We need to encourage entrepreneurs to forge relationships and fill the gaps in our local food system

The words “local ingredients” were written in bold letters across the center of a country fair blue ribbon icon on a menu. That may not be too unusual, but the fact that I was 5,000 feet in the air over the Pacific Ocean, writing a press release for Clark County Grown, I found much humor in its placement. Local may not seem like a word that could be co-opted or misrepresented, but as we have seen it work into our nearby global supermarket chains, and even our airplane menus, it’s increasingly apparent that we need to provide a process to certify products that are, in fact, local.

Why has big business grabbed onto the word local? Maybe the Organic Trade Association can help us understand that. Based on their research, “78 percent of consumers say they are willing to pay 8-12 percent premium for local food” and “68 percent of consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that sources locally grown food.” Those numbers represent big returns, especially when all it takes is using the word local, and not actually paying the premium it takes to source local. It is time to redirect that consumer interest toward a target that can make an impact in our local economy – it’s time to buy Clark County Grown.

What is local? Agencies and business have answered that question, and the answer can range from five miles to 500 miles, from statewide-sourced, to regionally-sourced. At Slow Food Southwest Washington, we choose to frame a local brand that would benefit the farmers at the forefront of the battle of the urban/rural divide – farmers working soils in Clark County.

As one of fastest growing counties in the country, it’s extremely difficult for farming to compete with something like an apartment complex, from a purely land-value standpoint. It’s even more difficult when you consider that local farmers are also competing with food prices from global industrial farms. One of the best ways we can ensure that farmland is conserved is by increasing demand for farm products grown in Clark County.

In Clark County, many people appreciate the flavor of fresh, local food, and grow their own garden, shop at farm stands or have other ways to connect to their local farmer. While we may prioritize that local flavor at home, how do you find that when eating out? Well you can now start looking for the Clark County Grown certification.

Clark County Grown (CCG) is a program of Slow Food Southwest Washington designed to increase the market share for Clark County farmers. The CCG certification program is a way for food and beverage providers to show a commitment to sourcing hyper-local products in the dishes they offer. Any restaurant, winery, brewery, food processor, or catering service that wishes to participate in CCG will have to follow our Standards of Use and source locally-grown products.

Mill Creek Pub, sometimes known as Battle Ground’s second City Hall, has been the first restaurant to become certified. Proprietor Russel Brent has grown his establishment quickly into one of Clark County’s most popular restaurants. His ability to keep a kitchen team that produces exceptional food and a creative menu that has all the comfort foods included has been an impressive feat for a restauranteur. Keeping a kitchen that size stocked in Clark County Grown ingredients is near impossible though. Luckily, CCG is not a purity test; our goal is to have at least one item on a menu that locavores know is sourced locally, and develop contracts at restaurants that are financially worthwhile for the farm to make the delivery.

Making the step to source local can be a huge leap for restaurants. Our food system is currently built to make it convenient for restaurants to source through one broad-line distributor that can source everything from your ketchup to your sliced tomatoes, cheese and frozen corn – one delivery, one check for the restaurant to write, from a
distributor that is able to get lower prices because of their large scale. That large scale also makes it difficult to source from small Clark County farms. Breaking out of that model is incredibly difficult in an industry with small margins and intense time demands. That’s why restaurants or other food providers that want to become Clark County Grown certified receive consulting on how to source directly from local small farms and how to develop a locally-sourced procurement plan.

As Mill Creek Pub stepped up to be the first certified Clark County Grown restaurant, we partnered them with two Clark County farms – Botany Bay Farm and Red Truck Farm – that will be supplying the restaurant with the ingredients to make a weekly special.

How can we make it easier to source local?

We do not have to look far back in Clark County’s past to see what is needed for small- and mid-sized farms to exist. The Fruit Canning Cooperative, Clark County Dairy Cooperative, prune dryers and the Washington Egg Cooperative all called this area home. Over the last 50 years the global food system has increasingly consolidated in every sector, and with that shift, not only have our farms suffered, but all the businesses that served those farms. This consolidation has mirrored other industries, but has been heavily financed by the USDA’s Farm Bill that largely supported large growers. Fortunately, the USDA has realized the impact of the pro “big ag” strategy, and has launched initiatives to finance small- to mid-sized non-commodity farm operations. Clark County and broader Southwest Washington is ripe with opportunities for entrepreneurs to start businesses that service the small- and mid-sized farm economy.

One example of a support business we need in Clark County for small farms is a USDA chicken processor for our small farms raising pasture-raised meats. Foster Farm in Kelso processes 100,000 chickens a day. If we had a chicken processor that cleaned 100,000 a year, we would significantly lower the cost of Clark County Grown chicken. Currently, with a WSDA Chicken Processing license a farm can process (clean) 20,000 chickens a year. The labor of processing that many chickens on a farm is significant. According to American Pastured Poultry Association (http://www.apppa.org), growers save $1 per bird if they are able to send birds off-farm to be processed.

Another place for an agricultural entrepreneur to take charge is storage and distribution. A businesses that would work with multiple growers and producers around Clark County, have the ability to transport goods in refrigerated trucks, store them in high-efficiency coolers and transport to restaurants (while also providing marketing and packaging services) would be a game changer for Clark County and Southwest Washington. Having a business offer those services would offer small farms a chance to stay on the farm more, benefit from scale for things like cold storage and packaging, and bring costs down.

Having restauranteurs like Russel Brent at Mill Creek Pub step up to forge farm-direct relationships is a great step, but it’s a sacrifice that he is making as a business owner that takes on social causes. In an industry with small margins and intense time demands, managing 10 different farm-direct suppliers twice a week for fresh local ingredients is often not doable. We need to continue to encourage the entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in our local food system and make sourcing local an economic win-win for the farm, the restaurant and the new generation of farm-support businesses.

How can you help?

In our economy the biggest driver for change is the consumer. You can continue to increase the demand for local food. Ask for the Clark County Grown certified option at your local restaurant. And remember, $6 million a day is spent on food in Clark County, and only 1 percent of that is sourced local. If we increased that by only 1 percent, we could retain millions on dollars in our local economy, while also making an economic case to conserve farmland in Clark County.

Warren Neth is the executive director of Slow Food Southwest Washington.

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