The Puget Sound Food Hub handles orders, storage and deliveries for nearly 50 local, smaller producers.
THE WONDERFULLY SWEET Albion strawberries that Pablo and Maura Silva grow on Samish Island are available to restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals, even some preschools throughout the region.
That wide reach is normally somewhere between daunting and impossible for a half-acre family farm like theirs. Schedules and drop-offs would devour all their time and profits.
But the Silvas are members of the Puget Sound Food Hub, a farmer-owned organization that handles orders, storage and deliveries for them and nearly 50 other producers. It allows buyers to order small amounts of a wide variety of foods and get them in a single delivery — something like a farm-to-table Amazon Prime.
That means Chris Blanco, chef-owner of a neighborhood restaurant in North Seattle, can take in an order worthy of several farmers market sweeps at once. In just one late-spring week at his Stock restaurant, his haul from Hub-based farms included, by his report, “pristine duck eggs from SpringRain Farm and Orchard (one of these fried sunny-side in clarified butter is available to add to most menu items at Stock); sweet, delectable spinach from Ralph’s Greenhouse to add raw and fresh when plating our chicken pho or duck ramen; rich orange-hued-yolk chicken eggs from Skylight or Osprey Hill to soft-boil for our congee and ramen; Samish Bay Aged Ladysmith cheese (now featured in our breakfast sandwich); and unmatched cold-pressed blueberry juice from Bow Hill for blueberry mimosas.”
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The food-hub concept isn’t new, but it has expanded in recent years. In a USDA study in 2013, 60 percent of the 168 food hubs surveyed nationwide had been in existence five years or fewer.
The Skagit-based Puget Sound Food Hub began in 2010 as a wholesale market in a Mount Vernon parking lot, then developed with the help of two nonprofit organizations, the Northwest Agriculture Business Center and Woodinville-based 21 Acres. Last year, it finalized the change to a farmer-owned cooperative. (A separate entity, Farmstand Local Foods, is now associated with 21 Acres.)
Why would growers want a farmer-owned organization?
“The whole story of agriculture is farmers having no control over their product and their pricing,” says Mike Finger, president of the Hub’s board of directors and a longtime Bellingham-area farmer.
Smaller-scale farmers “don’t have a labor camp; they’re not hiring a labor contractor; they’re not sending things out in semi-loads; they can’t operate at the economies of scale that result in the very lowest prices.”
At the Hub website, buyers might reach their minimum order requirements by combining flats of Silva’s organic strawberries with kale or honey from Growing Veterans, an organic farm that helps veterans transition into farming; snowy little heads of cauliflower from Hedlin Farms; tuna medallions from Lummi Island Wild; maybe organic bacon from Skagit River Ranch. Growers make a single delivery to the Hub, whose warehouse includes refrigeration areas and a small fleet of trucks.
From the side of the 24/7 restaurateur, Blanco says, “Any time we can get the best products delivered rather than shopped for, that’s precious time saved to prepare the items and get creative with them.”
From the farmers’ side, Finger says, the Hub provides a new way to gain customers in a market where other outlets like farmers markets and CSAs have plateaued.
He’ll never forget the first time he posted his fresh list from Cedarville Farm to the Hub website: “some beautiful pole beans and great lettuces … broccoli raab, a few cherry tomatoes.”
“I entered that in and hit enter and walked away and went about my business and came back that afternoon — maybe we’ve sold a case of lettuce or something?” Instead, he found $600 in sales.
Customers have ranged from Canlis restaurant to cafeterias — and they can connect directly with him to ask questions or talk about what he’s growing.
“It’s still amazing to me,” he says. “It’s a powerful platform, that I can connect with potentially limitless buyers in the region … and they can find me, a little 7-acre organic farm up in northern Whatcom County. They can find me.”