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Opening the Black Box: Where are the mid-sized farmers?

We talked fish. We talked chicken. And then we talked big picture. The third and final Food Forum asked the question: How can we catalyze regional food system growth and development? We think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

This spring, Ecotrust hosted three Food Forums that brought together leading thinkers, movers, and shakers in our regional food community with the hope that conversations fostered between these players will spur smarter investment in a resilient food system that supports people and restores nature.

The Food Forums series has covered some of the sorest spots in Oregon agriculture: sustainable seafood and sustainable chicken production. On May 14, at the third and final forum, Opening the Black Box, Ecotrust Vice President of Food & Farms Amanda Oborne presented the results of a year-long study, the Oregon Food Infrastructure Gap Analysis, on perhaps the sorest spot of them all — the agriculture of the middle.

Our final forum revealed a conundrum: In the regional food system, size matters, and the current system is wrong-sized for getting more good, regionally produced food into the bellies of more eaters. To change the equation, the regional food system needs three things:

  1. Institutions — aka big buyers — willing and able to purchase regional food and act as anchors for the regional food system.
  2. Farms that can produce sustainably raised food on an institutional scale — aka ag of the middle — with local values and wholesale volume.
  3. Easily accessed and maintained methods of purchasing, storing, processing, and transporting this food.

What is Ag of the Middle? Oborne explains what it is, why it is struggling, and why it is so important for the future of our regional food system on this May 27 segment of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud.

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To shine light on the challenges and potential solutions, the forum brought together speakers representing four branches in the food system: Jeff Harvey, CEO of Burgerville, representing the high-impact purchaser and the consumer; Denise Breyley, Whole Foods Market Pacific Northwest “Local Forager,” representing the retailer; Natalie Reitman-White, Director of Sustainability at Organically Grown Company, representing the producer; and Oborne of Ecotrust, the investigator.

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The Consumer: Opportunity and Demand

Harvey began by describing what is sacrificed when money is the major, and often only, return for investment in agriculture. Infrastructure in this system — the commodity market — isn’t designed to benefit consumers. Take transportation, he says: “Fuel choices, the routing choices — they’re not designed for Burgerville’s well-being. They’re designed for optimizing efficiency and maximizing return. Every one of the areas of opportunity fall into that same category.” As a businessperson, Harvey sees this and other infrastructure obstacles as opportunities: “Right now, as it stands, processing of any scale, flexibility, and adaptability really doesn’t exist for poultry and hogs in the Northwest.”

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The Retailer: Education and Transparency

Earlier in the spring, at the Chicken and Egg forum, Gitta Grether-Sweeney of Portland Public Schools said, “Demand will drive change.” In order to take advantage of the opportunities Harvey highlights, there must be demand for goods coming out of the Ag of the Middle sector. Denise Breyley, a Whole Foods Market company member of 20 years, talked about how Whole Foods is tracking and responding to changes in demand.

Part of this demand, Breyley says, is reliant on education and transparency: “What we found with our customers, and what we’ve been committed to as a company is helping to educate and provide that kind of transparency around all kinds of issues in the food system.”

Whole Foods works hard to inform customers about the products they buy. One of the central methods for communicating that information is through clarifying the meanings of existing labeling systems and creating new ones. Whole Foods pioneered organic labeling, implemented a sustainability standard for seafood, maintains a five-step animal welfare standards for meat sold in their meat departments, and, by 2018, plans to have all non-GMO products labeled.

Most recently, they’ve introduced a responsibly grown rating system, which, Breyley says “is meant to give our customers the ability to better understand what it means to use farming methods that actually build and preserve soil, that conserve water, that support fish habitat, and all those kinds of things.” This sort of transparency serves to educate consumers who will drive demand. If the demand is high enough and supply large enough, large retailers and institutions might, according the Infrastructure Gap Analysis Report, begin to function as those food system anchors.

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The Producer and Distributor: Communication and Collaboration

While certifications and rating standards help consumers make decisions that drive positive demand for farmers, “many organic growers now face issues keeping up with food safety requirements and the latest certifications to prove their growing and labor practices,” writes Oregonian reporter Molly Harbarger in her story about the forum.

Organically Grown Company exists to help those producers navigate tricky territory as they try to move their harvest from farm to consumer. The history of OGC, recounted at the event by Reitman-White, is one of infrastructural problem-solving that serves to bolster small-scale and mid-sized farms.

At the outset, OGC was a collection of farmers who had gotten together and discovered that they were all struggling to make ends meet and facing similar problems: “Infrastructure was expensive; delivery was expensive; and they also discovered that they were selling to the same handful of natural food stores and all trying to sell the same products and they were undercutting each other on price,” explained Reitman-White.

Communication quickly turned into collaboration. The farmers jointly funded capital-intensive infrastructure — trucks, warehousing, even salespeople. The market saturation issue, too, was solved by collaboration. The farmers began coordinating their crops, which both filled market gaps and made it possible to get better prices for their product.

Reitman-White says that OGC continues to do many of the same things, although they’ve grown over the past 35 years from a small nonprofit to an S-corporation with an 119,000-square-foot facility. Today, much of the work revolves around helping farmers package and sticker product properly and also to “jump through the hoops of emerging food safety requirements.”

The work of scaling-up regional food at the producer level doesn’t stop there. OGC coordinates crops among regional farmers, organizes grants to co-educate growers about emerging food safety requirements, keeps a finger on the pulse of customer demand, coordinates transportation so that trucks don’t drive around empty, and buys packaging materials in bulk, and more. In the specific context of Ag of the Middle, OCG has started connecting producers that can grow Northwest produce on a larger-than-regional scale with markets in other regions — again, providing support for growers with local values and wholesale volume.

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The Investigator: Organization and Connection

In the same way that OGC works to find the right markets for specific farms, Ecotrust has been working to find the right farms for specific markets. With the recent Oregon Food Infrastructure Gap Analysis, the Food Forums series, the development of tools like FoodHub, the Oregon Harvest For Schools online portal, and the forthcoming Redd Campus, Ecotrust aims to identify gaps in infrastructure and suggest or develop tools to fill in those gaps.

Bolstering the regional food economy means investing in place, which requires investing in and listening to our neighbors. Conversations like these are a critical part of building a resilient food system. Ongoing dialogue with experts and community members is what it takes to leverage collective knowledge to effect lasting change in our food system.

Keep your finger on the pulse

Explore the interactive storyboard that came out of our one-year analysis: Intrepid, the Aspiring Impact Investor. Follow @ReddOnSalmon and @Ecotrust on Twitter. And join us for the Sundown concert series First Thursdays, starting July 2nd.