By the end of the night, the diversity of South Sound agriculture was better understood, but what the future holds for the local-food movement remains a mystery.
The farmers, chefs and restaurateurs at “Savor South Sound” hosted by the Port of Olympia, the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor & Convention Bureau and WSU Thurston County Extension are passionate about what they grow and cook. They also displayed their independence and offered a wide range of business models and goals.
A panel discussion involving active participants in the local farm and food economy illustrated that visions of the future are many, and not necessarily shared. It’s going to take a big incubator to hatch all their ideas.
Jeff Schilter, one of the owner-operators of Schilter Family Farm in the Nisqually Valley, shared how his family has transformed a dairy his grandparents launched in 1940 into a farm that specializes in pumpkins, Christmas trees, strawberries and flowering plants for hanging baskets.
The farm transformation began in 1998 and has been aided by the farm’s visibility from Interstate 5.
“A lot of our crops advertise themselves; you can see them from the freeway,” Schilter said. The farm grows crops to draw consumers to the farm during winter, spring, summer and fall — repeat customers who want a hands-on experience that matches up well with the agri-tourism push in Thurston County.
Something in the works at Schilter Family Farm: a midsummer dinner party featuring a chef or chefs crafting meals out of locally grown food.
Will Taylor is a chef at Acqua Via restaurant in downtown Olympia. He has been cooking at the restaurant since he was 19 — that was six years ago — and likes to cook with locally grown vegetables. Soon he plans to add some homegrown protein in the form of grass-fed beef.
Taylor has a working relationship with Kirsop Farm in Tumwater. He’s surprised how often other local farmers come into the restaurant, say they want to do business with him and then leave — never to be seen again.
“All they need to do is just meet me in the middle,” Taylor said.
Taylor also voiced a gripe about local food production by a growing cadre of organic farmers.
“They’re all growing the same thing,” he commented. “I’d like to see more variety in what growers grow.”
Jim Johnson of Johnson Berry Farms said the berries and jams his farm produces need more local outlets for customers.
“There should be a lot more farmers markets in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater — more days and hours of operation,” the third-generation berry farmer said.
He said it’s difficult to sell berries to restaurants because of the short shelf life and low volume. At the same time, he has little desire to expand markets outside South Sound.
“I don’t know if I want to get bigger,” he said. “There are fewer business costs if you stay local.”
On the flip side of that coin, Chelsea Farms, a family-owned shellfish farm in Eld Inlet, sells its Manila clams, geoducks and Pacific oysters all over the country and in Asia, but very few of them are sold here in South Sound, noted farm general manager Tom Bloomfield. He said he’d like to sell more locally, but many local restaurants and retail outlets can buy their shellfish cheaper elsewhere.
Bloomfield reminded those in attendance that ocean acidification is starting to do real damage to the region’s shellfish industry because corrosive water conditions brought about by climate change are reducing oyster seed supply.
“We’re running at about 50 percent of our oyster capacity because we can’t get enough seed,” he said.
Out at the student-run Flaming Eggplant Cafe at The Evergreen State College, about 20 of its 30 food vendors are within 20 miles of the college. Now that’s walking the local-food-source talk.
In East Olympia, Dave White of Whitewood Cider Co. is brewing up his first batch of hard cider, relying mainly on heirloom apples grown in South Sound.
“These are apples that otherwise go to waste,” he noted. His first release is set for January, making him the first commercial hard-cider producer in South Sound.
Craft cideries are springing up at a rapid clip in Washington and Oregon as demand for the adult beverage grows.
“It’s an up-and-coming beverage,” he said. “We’ve got more drinkers than we have producers.”
Sounds like a good problem to have for the latest addition to the evolving South Sound food economy.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444