Hub Club

The Puget Sound Food Hub is a win-win connector for small growers and large consumers.

STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY JIM HENKINS

Hedlin Farm

Amy Frye walks a rutted path between bright bursts of cutting flowers — the last of the year’s zinnias and dahlias — and rows of fledgling kale and radicchio, hardy winter greens that will sustain her business through the colder months. An early autumn rain has turned the latte-colored earth into sticky mud.

Amy and her husband, Jacob Slosberg, dedicate most of the fields at their Boldly Grown Farm on these winter storage crops, along with decorative flowers, in a creative effort to stand out among other farms that might go somewhat dormant in winter. While their colleagues vacation in Mexico, Jacob and Amy harvest vegetables through biting winds and frosty fingertips. For now, their business is situated at Viva Farms, an incubator nonprofit in the Skagit Valley, though they hope to catapult their start-up with a land purchase in the near future.

That growth could be helped along by Jacob and Amy’s membership in the region’s Puget Sound Food Hub, a farmer-owned nonprofit cooperative, founded in 2010, that links small- and mid-size farms and food artisans to wholesale customers like restaurants, hospitals, and schools. It’s a win-win situation: The growers and producers have a system through which to reliably sell their products, and local businesses and cafeterias can easily access dozens of producers through a single website, ensuring access to local, sustainable produce and value-added items like jams, honey, flour, and more.

It’s just the sort of set-up that is a boon to a fledgling business like Boldly Grown, which also sells its produce through a CSA program. Without the food hub, farmers and small food businesses would have to develop markets for selling their items all on their own — on top of everything else.

“We have around 100 customers,” Amy says. “We wouldn’t have near that many without the hub. We’re passionate about feeding the community with healthy, high-quality food.”

Not far from Boldly Grown, Hedlin Farm manager Kai Ottesen tends to the last of the season’s beefsteak tomatoes in a greenhouse that’s considerably warmer than the early fall weather outside. Ottesen is a vocal supporter of the food hub, which he says helped his business reach more customers and grow from $1.4 million in gross sales in 2017 to $2.5 million in 2018.

Lummi Island Wild

“If a farm has 100 customers, that’s a strong business,” Kai says. “If a farm has just one customer, they own you.” The food hub doesn’t contribute enough sales to keep a business afloat all on its own, but — combined with other revenue streams like farmers markets and CSAs — it’s one spoke of a sustainable, diversified business model.

Puget Sound Food Hub is in good company, with some 400 food hubs recognized around the country in a 2017 study by Michigan State University. The study showed that on average, food hubs support beginning farmers and businesses, which represent 46 percent of hubs’ suppliers; overall, 89 percent of food hubs source from small or mid-sized farms and ranches. The hubs’ mission includes helping sellers get a fair price for their products, increasing small businesses’ access to markets, promoting environmental sustainability, and increasing access to healthy food.

The Puget Sound Food Hub is a finely-tuned machine, collecting and storing produce and other goods in its Mount Vernon warehouse from more than 60 sellers throughout a six-county region (Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan, Snohomish, and King). Sales reached $1.4 million in 2017.

Customers shop for products through the Puget Sound Food Hub website, buying as much or as little as they need. They may buy a few pounds of blueberries from Bow Hill, sustainably-caught salmon from Lummi Island Wild, a wheel of Ladysmith cheese from Samish Bay, produce from Ralph’s Greenhouse, and freshly milled flour from Cairnspring Mills — but the food hub brings it all in a single delivery, with a single invoice, dramatically simplifying the process for both buyer and seller. Current buyers include iconic fine-dining restaurant Canlis, Amazon’s office cafeterias, UW Medical Center, and others. Businesses in King, Skagit, Whatcom, and Island counties are eligible to participate.

Some of the larger farms in the network might also distribute through companies like Charlie’s Produce, but big distributors like Charlie’s aren’t likely to make trips to small farms to pick up a box or two of produce. Sellers using the food hub can set their price, allowing them greater control over their economics. A small percentage of all sales goes back to the food hub to help cover overhead.

Before the food hub, Kai says farmers like him took a much more piecemeal approach to getting their products to market. Farmers might trek to Seattle and make a drop-off at a restaurant in the early morning before setting up at a farmers market, but there’s little time for other deliveries. “Even without deliveries, going to the farmers market and back is a 12-hour day,” he says.

Ralph’s Greenhouse

But this buying and selling via web platform doesn’t sever the personal connection between producer and buyer — one aspect of a challenging career that most artisans and farmers find particularly rewarding. The food hub helps us with source identification, but we still get to know our customers,” Amy says. The sellers can see who is buying their food, and the buyers know the producers they’re buying from.

And if an order changes — say, Ralph’s Greenhouse is a little short on rainbow carrots one week but has plenty of the orange variety — the hub can simply call the buyer to suggest an order change, or help connect them to another food hub member that can fill the gap. That one-to-one connection, that all-important story of where one’s food comes from, doesn’t disappear into a giant database.

Most of all, the food hub allows farmers to concentrate on growing things — rather than running time-consuming errands. “The food hub allows us to be on the farm more,” says Amy, “doing what we love.Plus, I don’t like driving in Seattle traffic,” Amy says. “Especially with a farm truck.”

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