Northwest Agriculture Business Center
Lucy Norris, Member Spotlight, December, 2013
By Jacqueline Cramer
Lucy Norris is Director of Marketing for Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC). Funded in part by a USDA Value Added Producer Grant, NABC and partners have developed a food hub model for farmers to increase sales while sharing resources. Farmers set their prices, and buyers from businesses and institutions purchase from multiple farms online, receiving their orders at one location. Lucy’s work helps to build a strong, local food infrastructure.
Tell me your history around farming and how you arrived to your work.
My grandparents farmed and survived the depression pretty well because they were able to grow food, eat it. My own parents raised me in the suburbs, cooking, gardening and canning. During visits to my grandmother’s house in the more rural suburbs, I witnessed the slaughtering of chickens. We ate a lot of fresh food straight from the garden but we also ate Hamburger Helper and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with canned tuna. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when fast food was every day food and the portions in junk food swelled. I got caught up in it as a teen.
In my late 20’s I went back to college at New York University in New York City to study anthropology – not food. A culmination of factors led me to food. I led a research project for the New York Food Museum to preserve cultural identity and family traditions through pickling and storytelling. I explored food issues in policy, public health, and production. In 2003, I published my first book calledPickled: Preserving a World of Tastes and Traditions, a collection of stories and recipes that emerged from that three-year oral history project with the New York Food Museum. I also helped launch the New York City International Pickle Day in 2001 (now called the Peck Slip Pickle Festival). I even worked at Chez Panisse as a summer intern.
I spent many weekends during college at a sheep dairy farm in Shushan, NY and became interested in local meat and dairy infrastructure. I learned that small and mid-sized farmers bear the full cost of production from beginning to end, which makes it more expensive. I saw the need for a local meat infrastructure, for small-scale ranchers to thrive, and for more transparency. It was a book I wanted to write but I was told that a book about meat connected to the face of an animal was “gross.” This was 2003. I always figured that the only way people are going to pay more for their food is if the consumer saw what they were paying for – to understand the full story of their food source – even if it’s a live animal. Now working with NABC helps me see and do more to help farmers bring their products to market.
A lot of experiences led me in this direction. I have had many jobs. After getting a masters degree in food studies from NYU, I moved to Portland in 2004. I worked for Oregon State University on a faculty contract coordinating food business workshops, managing a commercial kitchen and helping clients with product development at the Food Innovation Center. I was the interim editor for Ecotrust hired to publish the 2005 Guide to Local and Seasonal Products for Oregon and Washington. In 2006, I moved to Seattle and began working with the Hartman Group.
Describe your work
I joined NABC in 2009 as a contractor. I came on board full time in 2011 to manage NABC’s Puget Sound Food Network until early this year when we integrated the project under the new NABC website. My role is primarily project leadership and marketing assistance to farm clients. I also provide leadership in regional food hub and cooperative development projects. Part of my job is to help farms connect with businesses and institutions, including meal sites that feed low-income seniors and preschool-aged children in the Seattle area. I want farms to achieve economic vitality as much as I want ALL people to have access to healthy, local food. This work feeds my soul.
Are there others doing this kind of work in the state?
NABC is really the ‘go-to’ organization for value-added business development services. We provide technical assistance to northwest Washington agricultural producers; support regional market development; and identify and create regional infrastructure. We get calls from farmers all over the state. Though small, we are an effective non-profit with limited resources. We primarily support five northwest counties: Island, Skagit, San Juan, Snohomish, and Whatcom.
What are the changes you have seen in this field?
Farmers are seeking new markets, and they are learning to collaborate together to serve them. More farmers are interested in doing value-added production to extend their season. Regulations have changed and continue to change. Infrastructure has crumbled while they’re trying to rebuild. When a processing facility closes, farmers look to other farms that have space and equipment. They may need to write a grant to get new equipment. Farmers need more help than ever connecting to resources and education as they develop their businesses and navigate the changing food safety landscape.
What adaptations are farmers making?
Farmers – at least the ones I work with – are responding to the growing cost of farming and food safety. They are paying attention to what larger buyers want and are asking questions so they can plan ahead. It’s a different ballgame from selling to a farmer’s market customer to negotiating a commitment with a hospital chef. Farmers are also are making choices about how much they want to devote to marketing. I am seeing more farmers interested in both growing the product, doing value-added processing, and also marketing their product direct to larger buyers/ Being a farmer is also being an entrepreneur: they have to be in order to live the dream.
How do you create the relationships?
It depends. A lot of work I do is listening to the buyer and farmer and then match-making. I listen and then come up with an action plan. I use technology, fundraising, coalition building and leverage partnerships that serve the farmer’s business interests. For example, I can participate in public health projects as long as it’s a clear win for farms.
As an example of my work, the food community rallied around the food hub project and it came together in collaboration to support our local farms. Key partners and supporters include:
- 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living, which covered all farm sales transaction fees this year. They obtained funding from Not Yet Foundation to purchase a refrigerated Dodge Sprinter, converted it to biodiesel, then hired a driver to drive up to Bow once a week and deliver aggregated orders from three online markets to Seattle customers. They also carried their own insurance, paid for truck maintenance, became a food hub customer and provided market management support! 21 Acres generosity and vision made participation in this food hub virtually free for all farmers!
- Bow Hill Blueberries, which opened their farm as the North Sound Food hub at the end of May, provided a true-blue legal food hub aggregation site for all food hub farmers. Not only did they share their unused cold and freezer storage, but they produced an Indiegogo campaign and raised $8,000 to cover their overhead to keep food hub participation free for farmers this year. They are now aggregation and distribution operators, and are making sure others do well, too. The cheese maker, produce farmers and meat producers all work in co-opetition. This is the big thing right now: if you try to go it alone as small or mid-scale it is going to be tough.
- The Farm to Table partnership with City of Seattle Human Services Division provided funds to NABC for technical assistance to childcare and senior care facilities in low-income neighborhoods.
- NABC is involved with the Healthy Food in Healthcare pledge and works with hospitals to increase institutional sales.
- Others involved include Klesick Farms and the City of Mount Vernon. Local delivery helped farms gain some unlikely new customers – even Round Table Pizza!
Is this possible without an NABC?
Yes! The food hub model works. But there are many business models for farms to consider. The USDA and the National Good Food Network have excellent free resources on how to start a food hub.
Can you talk about struggles in this work?
Culture change. Convincing people that it is time to try this new way. And staying optimistic. Like farming, you have faith, energy and patience.
Who inspires you?
The farmers. The most inspiring are most engaged with the future – their own farms, their neighbor farms, their communities. They care about preserving farmland, sharing the wisdom of growing food, and they want to have a hand in shaping what farming looks like in the 20 years and beyond. Farmers believe that they are doing something good for the world – and they are right.
Do you notice a lot of women involved in agriculture? In what ways?
Heck yes. I almost feel like it is women-driven. I see more women farming and it has definitely grown in the last 20 years. In terms of food marketing, policy, sustainability and coordinating – all things related to good food – the movement is very female-dominant.
Why is NABC a member of Tilth Producers?
Tilth has maintained a very high integrity, is successful in keeping the old-guard farmers connected while attracting newer farmers.
Northwest Agriculture Business Center: http://www.agbizcenter.org/
USDA Food Hubs: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/foodhubs
National Good Food Network: http://www.ngfn.org/