Connecting Oregon Farmers to Wholesale Markets

Greg Holmes
Tue, 11/29/2016 - 12:00pm

Earlier this month the Oregon Community Food System Network (OCFSN) brought farmers, distributors, and institutional buyers from around Oregon and the Pacific Northwest together in Medford to share ideas on how to help Oregon’s farmers get more Oregon-grown food onto the plates of Oregonians.

Agriculture and Oregon’s Land Use Program

There is no question that our land use program has been successful in protecting farmland from non-compatible uses so that it remains available for farming. This land base is critical for supporting the state’s second largest industry (agriculture). Beyond the economic value, that land also plays an important role in our ability to feed ourselves.

No matter how critical it is, though, having an adequate supply of the right types of land in the right places it is not in and of itself enough to keep this huge economic engine running or to supply our food. Farmers need to be successful in their operations in order to keep farming, and to reduce the pressures they face to convert their land to other uses.

The Need for Markets for Oregon Agricultural Products

Due in part to this recognition, the OCFSN has made Wholesale Market Development one of its four priority issues. A number of recent studies have shown that Oregon is missing the “Ag of the Middle,” the farmers that are larger than those that rely solely on growers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), but smaller than the commodity growers that export most of their crops. We no longer have many of the farms in the middle that could supply large quantities of food to local and regional grocery stores, restaurants, and institutions (such as schools and hospitals).

Growing the number of farms that can participate in that “middle” is a complex challenge, though. Along with a lack of farms that could generate that supply, we are also missing the physical infrastructure necessary for aggregation and distribution of their products. Because this infrastructure and the distribution networks do not exist, our stores and institutions have not had easy and reliable access to products that were grown locally—and, importantly, that can be identified and marketed as such.

We have a “chicken and egg” problem: farms cannot grow into that “middle” size without the infrastructure, and the infrastructure won’t develop with the farms to support it. The OCFSN Wholesale Market Development Program was created to help bring together all of the people that are necessary to rebuild this infrastructure and make the system work.

Coming Together in Medford

With this in mind, on November 7 and 8, 2016, about 45 people gathered in Medford at the new Fry Family Farm Food Hub for two days of discussion, learning, and tours. The first day began with a discussion of the new food hub, which will serve as an aggregation and storage facility for organic farmers in the Rogue Valley.

This was followed by a panel of people who work for distributors, including Charlie’s Produce, the Organically Grown Company, and Rogue Natural Foods, who discussed both the rewards and the challenges of working with multiple smaller farmers and getting their products into the market. Cost-effective and consistent supply was a major theme in the challenges discussed. This was followed by panels made up of buyers from stores and institutions, as well as a panel of farmers who are trying to break into wholesale markets.

The second day was spent touring a local packing house, a farm that is expanding its wholesale business, and a locally owned market in Grants Pass that has completely revised its produce buying policies to focus on local organic produce whenever possible.

Participants came from around Oregon and as far as Washington state to learn and share their experiences.

OCFSN chose Medford as the location for this event in part because of the pioneering work partners in the Rogue Valley Food System Network have done in creating a branding and local market program in southern Oregon. 1000 Friends of Oregon is proud to have been a co-founder and to continue to play a leadership role in both the Rogue Valley Food System Network and the Oregon Community Food Systems Network.

 

IMAGES: All by Greg Holmes 

"Food Hub": The Fry Family Farm Food Hub--an on-farm building that includes wash and pack facilities, cold and dry storage, and a farm stand. The facility is available for use by any certified organic farm in the Rogue Valley. 

"Farmers Panel": Participants at the Developing Wholesale Markets workshop hear from farmers about the challenges and rewards in developing and maintaining a wholesale business model. 

"Cartwrights": The produce-buyer at Cartwright's Market in Grants Pass explains the challenges and rewards of focusing on locally grown produce in their store.