By Barry Mitzman
Anyone on the Olympic Peninsula who eats—or who’s concerned about the safety and reliability of the local food supply—could stand to gain from a new project launched in response to the Covid-19 shutdown.
The project will directly benefit local farms, food banks, and farmland preservation. It’s a fundraising effort involving the North Olympic Development Council, Jefferson Land Trust, North Olympic Land Trust, and WSU Extension. (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of Jefferson Land Trust.)
Their initial goal is to raise $50,000 for the new Olympic Peninsula Farmers Fund, administered by the development council, which will make no-interest loans to peninsula farmers, particularly in the near term to those whose business has suffered because of the shutdown.
Farmers can repay the loans of $2,000 to $10,000 over ten years in the form of donations of food to area food banks or nonprofit feeding programs.
“What I love about this approach is that it can positively affect the entire food system,” said Kelli Henwood, coordinator of the WSU Regional Small Farms Program for Jefferson County. “It’s a systems approach, an innovative response that can make an impact quickly.”
North Olympic Land Trust launched its fundraising for the farm loan program on April 22 and Jefferson Land Trust on April 29.
The Jefferson County effort—called Strong Farms, Strong Futures—will divide the funds raised, half going to the Olympic Peninsula Farmers Fund and half to the trust’s long-term farmland preservation program, which helps farmers by purchasing conservation easements that guarantee land will continue to be available for farming.
More information is at www.saveland.org/strongfarms
Different farms are feeling the pandemic shutdown differently, according to Henwood, depending on their products and distribution channels. Some have been hurt by a loss of sales to restaurants, which Gov. Jay Inslee ordered closed on March 16, and by lost sales to farmers markets, whose spring re-openings have been delayed.
A scaled-down Port Townsend Farmers Market reopened on April 25, but others have yet to follow. The first Port Angeles market of the season opened on May 9; Sequim, set for May 16.
Henwood said the shutdown came at a bad time for farmers, when they face ongoing expenses but cash is scarce because income from spring crops is just beginning to flow.
In the latest Census of Agriculture from the USDA, almost all of the 221 farms in Jefferson County were family-run and most were tiny, a majority under 50 acres and with sales of less than $5,000 per year. The largest were aquaculture operations, mainly shellfish farms in and around Hood Canal. In 2017, aquaculture in the county produced 67 percent of the value of all agricultural products sold.
For small farms, federal stimulus funds are not much help. The bulk of the farm aid approved by Congress is channeled to large agribusiness operations through the Commodity Credit Corporation.
Most peninsula farms also do not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program because they have few if any employees, at least in the spring, according to Karen Affeld, executive director of the North Olympic Development Council.
“It’s pretty depressing,” Affeld said of the lack of federal aid for small farms.
Affeld and Tom Sanford, executive director of the North Olympic Land Trust, came up with the idea for the Olympic Peninsula Farmers Fund after observing a similar, long-standing initiative in Skagit County.
“We thought it would be nice to try something like that on the peninsula someday,” Affeld said, “but the pandemic made it urgent.”
Although the peninsula’s history of earthquakes and the occasional bridge collapse are reasons enough for concern about maintaining the local food supply, Affeld said the pandemic made the concern more immediate and real, raising questions about where our food comes from, how many people touched or breathed on it along the way, and whether it will continue to be available.
“For the major food distributors, our stores on the peninsula are not their largest, high-priority accounts,” Affeld said. “I’ve talked with store managers whose orders were delayed or not fully filled. Without local produce, there might be none at all.”
With many consumers newly sensitized to food’s provenance, some farmers report increased sales from farm stands and greater interest in their CSA (for Community Supported Agriculture) subscription programs. Farmers who rely primarily or entirely on these channels appear well-positioned to ride out the shutdown.
“People are really excited about supporting local farms,” said Meghan Mix of Hopscotch Farm and Cannery near Port Townsend. Mix tills three leased plots of a half-acre or less for produce she sells directly to consumers and uses to make bottled pickles, relish, preserves and spices, sold online and through a few stores and coops.
“I’m the only one who’s handled the product,” Mix said. “It’s easy for me to explain the safety precautions I’ve taken.”
Aside from some challenges in getting all of the ingredients needed to pickle and preserve her bottled products, she said business is good.