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Northwest producers get support from Whole Foods to sell home-grown products in stores

Denise Breley is a self-described matchmaker and fairy godmother. Her job, as a regional local forager for Whole Foods Market, is to find, vet and connect food producers with her company’s customers.

Along the way she nurtures and grows those small farmers and manufactures.

From soil to shelf, Whole Foods is involved with the products it sells. It’s a business model the company has maintained from its beginning, Breyley said.

“We aren’t jumping on any bandwagon. We’ve been driving this bus for 35 years,” Breley said.

Some might say Breyley has drunk the Whole Foods Kool-Aid. But then Whole Foods doesn’t sell Kool-Aid. Or Coke. Or Fritos.

The chain, which opens its Chambers Bay store in University Place on Thursday, sells only natural products with no artificial colorings, flavorings or preservatives.

Though Whole Foods is the largest natural and organic grocer in the world (by number of products sold), it puts a strong emphasis on local produce and products.

Whole Foods provides microloans to food producers to help them buy new equipment and make other improvements. The company started the loan program in 2006 with $10 million.

During the growing season, 75 percent of the produce offered at the chain’s Northwest outlets is from the Northwest. That’s where Breyley comes in.

“As a farmer, you can grow anything. But if you don’t have a market, you’re not going to be able to share it,” she said.

In addition to farmers, Breyley also works with meat, egg, dairy, seafood and beverage producers, along with makers of inedible products.

Even if ingredients are sourced overseas — such as coffee or shea butter — Breyley tries to find local processors for the 20 Whole Foods stores in the Northwest.

There’s a lot to read at a Whole Foods Market. Just about every product contains signage stating who made it, where it comes from or how it was made.

“Our customers want to know who grows them and where they’re from,” Breyley said.

In the produce section, asparagus from Kinsey Farms in Sunnyside was selling for $4.99 a pound. In the nearby “value added” section, neatly packaged asparagus was selling for $6.89 a pound.

Breyley walked through the store and ticked off one local product after another: charcuterie from Portland’s Olympia Provisions, Maninis gluten-free pasta from Federal Way, cider from Port Townsend’s Finnriver and vodka from Gig Harbor.

“You won’t find Smirnoff here, but you will find Heritage Distilling,” Breyley said.

Here’s a look at three South Sound producers with products available at the local Whole Foods.

STIEBRS FARMS

The eggs laid by the chickens at Stiebrs Farms in Yelm haven’t gotten any bigger in the 60-plus years the family has been in the business.

But their flock has.

Jon Stiebrs and his father started with 100 hens in 1953. The family now has 500,000, with each hen laying about one egg a day.

Jon’s children, Yany Stiebrs and Ania Edwards, run the Yelm business with Yany’s wife, Sara. Parents Jon and Dianna still have a hand in the business, which employs 115 people.

Stiebrs produces and markets about a dozen types of eggs. That might come as surprise to those who think “brown” and “white” are the only choices in grocery stores.

“We started the whole cage free, certified organic, humane era in the mid-’90s,” Yany said. They began the practice when customers started asking for it.

Like many aspects of the food industry, it’s a return to how things used to be done.

“When we started in the ’50s, we were cage-free,” Yany said.

Today you can add organic, nonorganic, non-genetically modified organism, omega-3 fortified and more to the list of qualifiers.

They’re all attributes the Whole Foods customer is looking for in one combination or another, Yany said. But regardless of the eggs they produce, all of his half-million hens are humanely raised and cage free.

The farm is periodically audited and certified humane by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care, a group dedicated to improving life for farm animals.

“They walk every square inch and observe our birds,” Yany said. “We are fully transparent.”

The birds are free to live life as chickens. While it may be hard to measure the mood of a chicken, farmers like the Stiebrses know a happy cluck when they hear one. Stiebrs’ birds have room to run, spread their wings, dust bathe and perch. Perhaps most importantly, they have access to the outdoors on large pastures.

Pasture-fed chickens produce eggs that are firmer with darker, better-tasting yolks. And, for Puget Sound consumers, they’re fresher.

“They haven’t been sitting in a truck going across the country,” Yany said.

What the birds eat, where they graze and how they live is closely monitored. Yany can pick a dozen of his eggs off a Whole Foods shelf and tell you what flock it came from and what kind of grain they were fed.

All the birds eat grain that is milled on the farm and mixed with alfalfa pellets. Some of them are fed organic feed (at twice the cost), while others are not.

For its omega-3 eggs, Stiebrs mixes in flax seed and tests the eggs to make sure they have 250 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per egg.

At 18 months of age, laying chickens become less productive, and the birds are humanely euthanized.

Stiebrs began selling eggs to Whole Foods in the late 1990s. It’s been a good relationship, Yany said.

“They treat you like family. The corporate side isn’t like other big chains. When they make choices, we talk to them about it face to face.”

Whole Foods staff will come to the farm, not only for talks, but to learn more about the food they are buying.

“They want to educate not only themselves but their employees and the customers they sell to,” Yany said.

ALAFFIA

When husband and wife Olowo-n’djo Tchala and Prairie Rose Hyde walk the streets of Olympia or Sokode, Togo, they could be treated like rock stars. But the pair are too humble for that.

The founders of body care manufacturer Alaffia, the couple is responsible for bringing 80 jobs to Olympia and more than 4,000 to Togo.

In a little more than 10 years, and largely due to the company’s prominence in Whole Foods Market, Alaffia has grown tenfold and now makes more than 200 products. Most of them contain shea butter.

Washington native Hyde met Tchala when she was assigned to his village as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1990s.

The couple founded Alaffia (the word is a Togolese greeting) in 2003 while students at the University of California, Davis. The next year they moved to Olympia and made products in their Steamboat Island kitchen.

Soap makes up 40 percent of their sales. Other products include shampoo, lip balm and hand creams. Some contain neem, coconut, palm and other West African oils. Products are as diverse as African black soap and an edible red palm oil for cooking.

But it’s the shea tree that has increased prosperity for thousands of women in Togo.

Tchala grew up collecting, eating and selling shea nuts in the lushly vegetated West African nation.

In Sokode, nuts from the tree are harvested and sold to the Alaffia cooperative. A team of 500 women at a processing facility extracts oil from the nuts using age-old techniques.

“The traditional method ensures that the vitamins and minerals are left intact,” Tchala said.

The cooperative is made up of 4,000 women who work during a three-month period to collect the nuts. Alaffia pays 15 percent to 30 percent above the local going rate for shea nuts, he said.

Tchala said the whole process provides a living for thousands of women and produces a quality product for Whole Foods customers.

“That’s one way to guarantee the quality of the product — to know the true origin,” he said.

Alaffia began selling to Whole Foods in 2006.

“They gave us a platform to sustain the business we made in Togo,” Tchala said.

At Alaffia’s Olympia headquarters, shelves hold bags of ginger, lemon balm and other aromatics. Containers of raw shea butter and African honey are nearby.

Alaffia’s African black soap might be its most unusual product. The soap uses no lye and is cooked over open fires. Each batch varies in color, medium to dark brown. It’s aromatic and leaves skin and hair clean and sweet-smelling.

Though Alaffia has come a long ways from its Steamboat Island days, Hyde said little has changed.

“It’s all the same. Just a bigger scale,” she said.

WILLAPA HILLS CHEESE

Willapa Hills Cheese is something a Sunday driver might expect to find: a bucolic creamery built along the banks of the Chehalis River. Rustic barns sit in pastures, lambs frolic in the sunshine and a large dog with a strong resemblance to a sheep guards it all, if he bothers to get up from his napping spot.

But inside the creamery it’s all business. White-gowned workers operate machinery, stir vats of cream and sprinkle salt on brining cheese.

It’s not a big operation. Which might explain why one of the workers is owner Amy Turnbull. On this day she’s cutting the curd — a process when watery whey is separated from soon-to-be cheese.

“I started at 5:30 this morning,” Turnbull explained. She started by heating and pasteurizing the blend of cow and sheep milk. “Then I added the cultures and then the rennet.”

Turnbull plunged a hand into the figure-8 shaped vat of milk that will eventually become a pecorino-style cheese. It had the consistency of custard. Turning on a pair of spinning blades, the curd was cut into increasingly smaller chunks swimming in the whey.

When fully separated, the whey will be pumped out and eventually sprayed on fields as fertilizer.

“We knew nothing about making cheese when we bought the farm,” Turnbull said.

“Next to nothing,” pipes in husband Stephen Hueffed. “Our families still think we’re nuts.”

He was standing next to a vat of brine holding wheels of “Lilly Pad,” an alpine-style cheese sold only at Whole Foods. In another room, shelves hold rounds of “Big Boy Blue” in various stages of turning blue. It’s their number-one seller.

The couple started the business in 2005, but it took a couple of years before they sold their first slice of cheese.

Milk from over 100 ewes — and a lot of cows —goes into the cheese at Willapa Hills. Sheep milk has twice the butterfat of cow milk.

The cheese they make at the creamery just east of Pe Ell on state Route 6 is all natural and handcrafted. That last term is a bit hard to define, but there are no Tillamook-like assembly lines at Willapa Hills. Each wheel is tended to as if it were one of the dairy’s lambs.

“We’re low-tech, so there’s seasonal variation in a way that isn’t in a factory setting,” Hueffed said.

In 2010, the couple began selling their cheese to Whole Foods Market. Shortly thereafter, the company gave them a loan in order to purchase a new packaging machine.

The $22,000 machine is used to package the creamery’s line of seven flavored cream cheeses. After creating a vacuum, it fills the void with a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gases and then places a tight plastic seal on it. The process adds weeks to the cream cheese’s shelf life.

The couple say they have a “full relationship” with Whole Foods.

The chain urged the creamery to create a flavored cream cheese with Portland-based Mama Lil’s pickled peppers. The flavor has been a hit.

The couple feel supported in their relationship with Whole Foods as they try new products and slowly increase volume. It’s a give and take they haven’t always experienced in the retail world.

“Some stores will just kick you to the curb,” Hueffed said.

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