Food hub will allow innovation, expansion for local farmers-Dan Carlson

What is a food hub and why care about it?

To answer these questions let’s step back for a moment and consider Vashon Island Growers Association’s (VIGA) mission: To promote farming, access to healthy food and a sustainable agricultural economy. One way we at VIGA do this is to mount a weekly farmers market — voted one of the 10 best in Puget Sound — which brings local food producers face-to-face with consumers. Another way is organizing Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) workshops for farm interns and apprentices to help grow the next generation of farmers. We want to open new markets and additional opportunities for small farms on Vashon; that’s where a food hub comes in.

A food hub provides a place to aggregate and store vegetables and fruit, enabling farmers to extend the life of their produce and to compete in the Seattle metropolitan area’s restaurant, catering and specialty food scene. It enables filling orders at a larger scale and with greater certainty — keys to competitiveness. Another aspect of a food hub is it offers processing facilities that enable farmers and food entrepreneurs to add value to locally grown food. A couple of years ago, one farm started making sauerkraut, but stopped because it didn’t have enough controlled temperature storage space. Had a food hub been available, that new venture might have taken off and grown.

VIGA recently won a USDA grant to analyze the feasibility of establishing a food hub on Vashon Island. In 2016, we will look at the possibility of converting unused space at the old Granny’s site at Sunrise Ridge. We will also look at the possibility of an alliance with Island Spring Organics, which has approached VIGA wanting to help organic farmers by offering some of its unused capacity for freezing and processing food.

Vashon farmers have a history of innovation. The Mukai family invented a way to preserve strawberries and ship them to the Midwest, and Wax Orchards created an apple-based fudge sauce that won national acclaim. This entrepreneurial creativity is what will make Vashon agriculture successful; it will have to because we don’t have rich river valley-bottom soil or large tracts of farmland like King County’s agricultural production districts in the Snoqualmie Valley and Enumclaw Plateau.

But we do have proximity to Seattle; creativity; a disproportionate number of successful chefs, caterers and food people and a special place in the hearts of residents of the metro region. Vashon-grown products have cachet.

Why aren’t we growing black currants? They’re a staple in Europe, flavoring drinks, sorbet, candy and, of course, cassis, the alcohol-based syrup so important in French cuisine and the essential ingredient for the aperitif Kir. Vashon has a history of growing currants. My small farm was part of Kenny Larsen’s 150-acre red currant farm on Maury Island. Until recently, black currants could not be grown in the U.S., banned because they were hosts to the white pine blister, but they’re legal now. And how about guinea fowl? There are lots of chickens on Vashon, but gourmet restaurants in Seattle might be looking for locally grown guinea hens for the “pintard” on their menu.

Let me conclude by asking you, should we change our name to the Vashon Growers and Eaters Association? Many islanders have asked why they should be a VIGA member. After all, if I’m not a grower what’s in it for me? Farming on Vashon is a challenge; it needs all the support it can get. If you like to eat fresh, local and healthy foods, join VIGA. If you like seeing rows of corn and carrots instead of suburban strip malls, join us at VIGA represents local farmers and those who eat and use their products.

— Dan Carlson co-chairs the VIGA board. This column is part of a series by VIGA members published by the Beachcomber.

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