Out of the Box Distribution: Puget Sound Food Hub
Bow Hill Blueberries, located within the verdant Skagit Valley, was the site for this season’s fourth farm walk. Susan and Harley Soltes, owner/operators of Bow Hill, led nearly thirty-five attendees on an informative walk of their certified organic farm including their fields, processing kitchen, and warehouse area used as an aggregation point for the Puget Sound Food Hub. The walk was complemented by two very knowledgeable resource people, Charlie Anderson, consultant and former Sakuma Bros. Farms field manager, and Lucy Norris director of the Puget Sound Food Hub and director of marketing for the Northwest Agriculture Business Center. The walk was divided into three parts: blueberry production, value-added processing, and marketing through the Puget Sound Food Hub.
The walk began with Susan and Harley giving a history of the blueberry farm and how they came into its ownership just three years prior. The farm was first owned by the Anderson family and originally produced strawberries, goldenseal, and produced mink for fur. In 1946 and 1947 the Anderson’s planted their first blueberry bushes – ‘Jersey’, ‘Stanley’, and ‘Rubel’ varieties, the latter of which being the original “wild blueberry” variety. ‘Bluecrop’ blueberries were planted on the farm in the 1970s and all berries were handpicked. In the 1990s, much of the warehouse infrastructure was built and the farm had moved to machines picking berries in order to meet market demand in California. However, the heirloom varieties do not ship as well as many hybrid cultivars and by the end of the last decade Anderson was told that they were growing “obsolete berries”. The farm was put up for sale in 2011, and the Soltes seized the opportunity to purchase this historic farm.
Harley explained that the farm had been managed conventionally for over 65 years and when they purchased it decided to use organic methods instead. This was largely due to the fact that they wanted to be a U-Pick farm and didn’t want to worry about visitors coming in contact with chemicals. Within the first year of ownership, the Soltes completed paperwork to become WSDA certified transitional organic and will soon receive full organic certification. They chose the transitional route so that at the end of three years there wouldn’t be any surprises within their organic management plan. They also reverted to hand harvesting all of their berries. Bow Hill’s U-Pick operation accounts for 20% of their total crop with 10,000 lbs of berries being picked by visitors in 2013. Harley explained how the farm has different “zones” of blueberries: U-Pick, kid’s camp, and professional zone. These zones are part of their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan to control for cross-contamination between U-pickers and professional pickers that harvest berries for all of Bow Hill’s fresh and processed products. Bow Hill hires seasonal labor during the harvest season, from mid-July through beginning of September. They currently have two year-round employees that help with marketing and value-added processing. Susan also believes in creating a sense of community with the farm and has started a kid’s camp where children learn about growing their own food. The Soltes love inviting the community to pick berries and enjoy the historic property as much as they do.
The group was led through the blueberry fields as Harley explained the management of the 4500 bushes. When they decided to go organic Harley consulted with Charlie Anderson who advised they get the best compost they could find and apply as much as they could. The application of compost helps with weed and disease suppression, namely mummy berry. Charlie explained the mycorrhizal associations that need to occur in the roots of perennial plantings such as blueberries for optimal nutrient uptake. Compost helps create an environment that allows mycorrhizae to flourish. As far as fertilizers beyond compost, Harley utilizes foliar sprays of fish emulsion, potassium, and boron as well as feather meal as the main “calculable” source of nitrogen. However, since blueberries are perennial plants that utilize those mycorrhizal root associations for nutrient uptake, the management of nutrients is hard to gauge simply by taking soil tests. As a result, Harley completes plant tissue tests which give a better picture of the nutrient needs of the blueberry plants.
Charlie was also very knowledgeable in explaining and answering questions about blueberry diseases such as Botrytis and mummy berry fungus. For control of these fungal diseases Charlie suggested using an eradicant as well as a protectant. Harley does use organic fungicides such as Regalia and protectants such as sulfur treatments. Another big pest management issue that Harley deals with is spotted wing drosophila (SWD). He showed everyone their trapping system which consists of hanging plastic cups with holes in the sides that are filled with a mixture of water, yeast, and sugar. The cups are hung on the ends of rows and the yeasty-sugary smell of the solution attracts and then traps the SWD flies. Harley spends about an hour a day going through the traps counting the number of SWD flies present and whether they are male or female. This monitoring allows Harley to carefully time application of Intrust, an expensive organic chemical, to control SWD.
As we continued through the blueberry bushes – all of which were full of green berries ready to start ripening – Harley talked about their irrigation system. They were able to receive a NRCS EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant to purchase low-height sprayers that never clog and do not get the fruit wet. The well water at Bow Hill is high in iron making the use of drip irrigation difficult as they have to use an iron treatment to prevent clogs. Much of the Bow Hill acreage is right next to the Edison Slough and benefits from sub-irrigation. Overall, Harley aims to irrigate the bushes an inch a week and carefully tracks the soil moisture with tensiometers and records irrigation events for the purposes of the NRCS grant.
On our way back through the blueberries (part of which is called “The Jungle” as many of the ‘Jersey’ plants tower well over 8 feet), Harley stopped at his equipment shed to point out their various machinery and implements. Since the alleyways are fairly narrow, Harley purchased a small, Italian tractor that fits between the bushes to reduce the amount of fruit lost due to tractors hitting the bushes. He mows the alleyways and also runs a Hillside Blueberry Cultivator for weed suppression that can be adjusted to a shallow depth to avoid cutting up the blueberry roots, which grow close to the soil surface. Between weed control, mowing, and applying organic fungicides/pesticides, the alleyways develop compacted tractor ruts so Harley utilizes a sub-soiler in the ruts to break up soil compaction.
Overall, both Harley and Charlie emphasized the importance of a farmer getting to know their own site and what works well for its soil and plants. What works well for Bow Hill may not work well for a blueberry farm down the road.
After walking through the blueberries, Susan took the group into the warehouse space that houses their certified commercial kitchen, several chest freezers to store their frozen berries, and two walk-ins for storage of their product as well as for aggregating produce for the Puget Sound Food Hub. On the day of the walk, two employees, Raven and Jen, were processing blueberry jam and dried blueberries. Susan took a value-added course through the WSDA to educate herself and Bow Hill on what type of value-added would work best for their operation. Though the original plan was for Bow Hill to be a U-Pick farm with some direct market sales of fresh berries, Susan learned that at their size if they did not produce value-added products they would not last long. As a result, they developed several products including jam, frozen, dried, chocolate candies, ice cream (produced by Acme Ice Cream), and their specialty, pickled blueberries. Susan explained how they took advantage of the unique flavor complexities of their heirloom berries to develop products. For instance, the ‘Jersey’ berries are best suited for drying and ice cream. Overall, their heirloom varieties have a higher sugar content, or brix level, running 14-18% brix making them prime for both fresh eating and processing.
Bow Hill sells their products at the Bellingham Farmers Market, their farm store, and soon at the Pike Place Market and also on-line. They also sell through the Puget Sound Food Hub. The origin of the food hub idea occurred when the UW Medical Center contacted them to purchase a ton of fruit. The Soltes quickly realized it was not cost effective to be making deliveries to Seattle, even for a large amount of berries. Further, in considering selling to wholesalers, Susan discovered that the larger wholesale companies in the Puget Sound area simply take too high of a fee and make it difficult to maintain brand autonomy. At that point, Bow Hill began a relationship with Lucy Norris of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, who coordinates the Puget Sound Food Hub.
Lucy explained to the group how the Puget Sound Food Hub (PSFH) operates. The PSFH website is essentially the interface between institutions and farmers. A fairly simple process, the food hub allows institutions to utilize one invoice to select products from listings that local farms post to the website. Institutions include hospitals, universities, day cares, senior care facilities, restaurants, school districts, and other food service providers. For the farmer, utilizing the food hub gives them an avenue to sell products to places that would not otherwise be logistically feasible. They also get to set their own prices and product minimums. Lucy noted that farmers retain brand autonomy and are able to share their farm story on the PSFH website – a feature that is often lost when utilizing a wholesaler. Further, PSFH takes only a modest 10% of a farm’s sales, which essentially covers credit card fees.
The PSFH first utilized 21 Acres (located in Woodinville) as its aggregation point but soon realized the need for another location. Lucy shared that once they added Bow Hill as an aggregation point, they were able to greatly increase sales. Over the past year PSFH has focused on food safety and instituting practices that keep the system safe, including foot washes outside of coolers, a recall plan, and requiring liability insurance of participating farms. Besides liability insurance, to be able to sell through the PSFH farms need to have a business license, processor license (if applicable), and one year of experience with direct marketing. Lucy shared that in 2013 the food hub had 82 farms listed with about one-third of those actively utilizing the site and selling to institutions. This year it’s expected that 42 farms will have met the eligibility requirements to sell through the food hub. Another requirement of PSFH farmers is that only products that they grow and/or process may be sold. This rule has kept the food hub focused on providing institutions with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy as well as value-added products made from those fresh ingredients. Lucy noted that while they don’t exclusively cater to certified organic or certified transitional farms, in the future they may ask farmers complete a sustainability pledge that speaks to the mission of the food hub to reduce the environmental impact of our food systems.
Lucy and Susan both spoke to the logistical aspects of how the PSFH works for growers. Farmers are able to create a profile on the website and list the quantities and types of product they have available and at what price. PSFH aggregates this information into a “fresh sheet” which they send to institutions at the beginning of the ordering period. Institutions then place orders through the website and farmers receive notification. Product is delivered to either 21 Acres or Bow Hill, where the walk-in coolers are sectioned off by institution name so delivering farmers may place their product in the appropriate section. On delivery day, a refrigerated PSFH truck collects the produce out of the coolers and delivers to institutions. The Bow Hill system is essentially designed to provide farmers a convenient, self-service option for product delivery while freeing the Soltes from any direct oversight of the deliveries.
Part of the function of the PSFH is to help farmers develop their initial brand identity. For new farmers participating in the food hub, Lucy will consult with them on their marketing plan and help promote their products. She explained that since the food hub works through an online interface it is not like a farmers market where consumers – or in this case, institutions – can see, smell, or taste test a product to judge its quality before purchasing. Consequently, PSFH has been known to include samples of new farmer’s products with the delivery truck to give to institutions as they drop off the regular orders.
The goal of the PSFH is for it to become financially sustainable within three years time. At present, the food hub is grant funded and operating with only one refrigerated truck. In order to grow and approach financial sustainability, Lucy said that it is important for them to get a second truck and add a third aggregation point. The food hub would like to be able to serve institutions south of Seattle, and currently serve as far south as Renton.
Near the end of the walk the group was able to witness a farmer drop off produce for an order made by Bon Appétit food services in Seattle. It was neat to see the Puget Sound Food Hub in action and how the farmer effectively used the Bow Hill space. Attendees were also able to taste some of Bow Hill’s pickled blueberries as they networked with each other and our resource people. Overall, the farm walk at Bow Hill Blueberries, and by extension the Puget Sound Food Hub, was an excellent view into certified transitional farming, value-added processing, and marketing through food hubs. To think that Susan and Harley had accomplished all three within three years time made it all the more inspiring.
To view farm walk booklet, please click here: Farm Walk Booklet
This project is supported in part by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov, a component of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Summary by Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers Education Coordinator