Online ‘food hub’ strikes gold for farms on the Rock

A remarkable story of economic success has emerged here on our Rock even as the two-year-old pandemic drags on. Our...

A remarkable story of economic success has emerged here on our Rock even as the two-year-old pandemic drags on. Our island farmers have hit a rich vein using the internet to sell what they grow year round directly to folks who live here.

This year alone, several thousand individual orders worth $230,000 were filled for more than 900 Rock dwellers, who bought local cabbage, potatoes, salad mix, beets, turnips, tomatoes, cauliflower, turkey, chicken and much more.

Whidbey Island Grown, a cooperative that went through several iterations over the past decade, relaunched itself in March 2020; its purpose was to deliver island produce from the farmers to stores, restaurants and institutions. But then Covid-19 caused all those businesses to shut down. Talk about poor timing.

Nonetheless, the energetic, imaginative and determined folks who revitalized Whidbey Island Grown refused to give up. By May, they launched a web site with a “food hub” that sells directly to individual consumers, who every week go online to pick and choose among dozens of items available from local producers. The selection changes with the seasons and what is being harvested or available in storage. The purchasers pay by credit card and then pick up their bounty on Friday afternoons at three locations on the island in Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Freeland. In effect, it’s a year-round, online farmers market.

“When Covid hit, the farmers didn’t have any place to sell their stuff and they were freaking out; the farmers markets were shut, the businesses were closed and people were at home in quarantine,” said Shannon Bly, the coordinator of Whidbey Island Grown Cooperative, as the not-for-profit organization is formally known.

Bly herself is a Whidbey native, born and raised in Oak Harbor and a graduate of Oak Harbor High School. She has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource economics from Western Washington University. She is Whidbey Island Grown’s only full-time employee; there are three part-time employees who work on Fridays to pack orders at Bell’s Farm in West Beach for distribution island-wide.

The Rock’s farmers have always struggled to find and maintain markets for what they grow. In decades past, off-island grocery chains often sent big trucks to pick up whatever the island farmers had to sell, including giant squash and dairy products. But that all ended with the advent of big corporate farms on the mainland that could produce much more than the much smaller island farms. That brought big changes to Whidbey agriculture in recent years. A few big farmers can still compete, often growing hay and grains.

But a new generation of smaller farmers has arrived in recent years. Some are graduates of the Organic Farm School near Clinton. Others are newly retired from city or military careers and seeking the active, healthy, outdoor life of farming.

“We have about 38 members who offer their products on the food hub every week,” Bly said. While larger farms also sell at farmers markets and directly to businesses and individuals, some of the newer, smaller farms now sell almost entirely through the Whidbey Island Grown food hub because they can pre-sell everything they have that week.

Those newer, smaller farms include Sleepy Bee Farm near Freeland, operated by Ryan Adkins and Halle Salisbury. They are recent graduates of the Organic Farm School and grow vegetables and flowers. Another is One Willow Farm near Oak Harbor, operated by Navy veteran Mark Stewart and his wife Melissa. They raise sustainably grown chickens and turkeys.

Other members aren’t technically farmers but produce things such as jams and herbs.

“Thanks to our members, the number of orders has really taken off this year,” Bly said. “It’s been over 90 every week since September and we hit 106 the week before Thanksgiving – which represented $9,000 in products sold.”

The hub filled its last orders for the year on Friday, Dec. 17. It will resume operations on Jan. 1.

The producers go online each week to list and price their items. “If somebody has 100 salad mixes to sell, for example, they will list each one for $5. Then the food hub adds a markup to cover packing and distribution costs,” she said.

The result was gross revenue of $230,000 this year, and producers received payments of $195,000.

To be sure, there is a lull in the first few months of the year, as stored crops run out and new crops aren’t yet ready for harvest. Last April, for instance, the food hub ran out of potatoes, causing undoubted anguish for some faithful buyers.

“A really cool thing about the food hub is that it’s a virtual learning tool for customers,” Bly said. “You learn what is seasonally available on Whidbey Island simply by scrolling through the web site. You learn how to cook and eat with the seasons.”

Because of the remarkable success the organization has built in such a short period of time, Bly is looking ahead. “I really think the growth is going to continue based on how enthusiastic our customers have been. We have been able to staff up and fill our freezers and coolers to meet the demand, and more producers are joining us.”

Eventually, they hope to expand into the wholesale business they originally intended to launch before the pandemic. They do have a few wholesale customers now; among them are the Captain Whidbey Inn, the Oystercatcher restaurant and the Coupeville School District.

But it will take more staff and more infrastructure to permit that kind of additional growth. “We barely kept up with individual demand this year,” Bly said. “The farmers would have to grow a lot more crops, we’d need our own packing space and we’d need a bigger truck to deliver stuff.”

The organization, which has a board consisting of four farmers, three institutions and one community representative, is already raising funds to buy that bigger truck and its own freezer and cooler, and hopes eventually to have its own packing space.

“Right now we’re lucky to be able to borrow space from the people who grow what the food hub sells.”

The organization’s web site and food hub can be found at www.whidbeyislandgrown.com.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and lives in Central Whidbey.

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