The phrase “farm to plate” is on the lips of many in the region, but how does it actually happen? Social Venture Partners and members of the Cascadia Foodshed Funding Project hopped on a bus with Slow Money NW and PCC Farmland Trust to trace the journey through the local food system from Tahoma Farms to one of the Northwest’s premier food hubs, Charlie’s Produce.
Pierce County’s Puyallup Valley boasts some of the region’s most fertile and productive farmland, but development pressures have threatened it with conversion to other uses. Because of the rich soils and agricultural history, this area is a top priority for conservation for the PCC Farmland Trust. Over the last five years, the Trust has worked with stakeholders, State and local governments, as well as private donors and foundations to conserve hundreds of acres in the Valley. One of those properties is now home to Tahoma Farms. By purchasing a conservation easement on the property, PCC Farmland Trust was able to lower the cost of the farm by 50%, enabling Kim and Dan Hulse to pursue their dreams of owning their own farm.
Tahoma Farms is a 40 acre multi-crop vegetable farm that sells primarily through its home delivery service, Terra Organics. Dan, Kim and their two children live on the farm and operate the home delivery service, manage production, as well as a nascent agri-tourism business, hosting events at their outdoor banquet hall, a converted dairy barn. Because of the direct-to-consumer sales, Tahoma/Terra Organics has an onsite washing and cooling line, which enables them to clean and pack their produce for delivery to customers around the region, including restaurants, distributors, and CSA customers.
Given the seasonality of Washington State farming, Dan and Kim need to supplement the farm production with outside fruits and vegetables, and need to sell their surplus to a distributor, which is where Charlie’s Produce comes in. Charlie’s Produce is a local, employee-owned aggregator and distributor that has grown into the largest independently owned produce company in the Pacific Northwest. Charlie’s trucks zigzag across the Pacific Northwest, balancing the supply and demand for high quality fresh produce every day. Thousands of pounds of fruit and vegetables pass through their facility in Seattle’s SoDo industrial area each day, including sunchokes and carrots from Tahoma Farms. They supplement local supply with national and global products to meet their customer demand. Charlie’s also offers some minimally processed foods, such as cut and washed romaine lettuce, for restaurant and institutional buyers.
While the buyers at Charlie’s don’t have control over which products a farmer chooses to grow, they can offer advice about which products they have in local abundance and which they have to buy from outside the region. While the freshness and quality of local produce has a strong appeal, it’s often cheaper to source from California or Mexico, but right now, the customers are demanding local produce and are willing to pay a premium for it. Charlie’s is always open to new sources for great local food.
If we’d had more time, Dan would have let us pick, wash, pack and deliver the week’s shipment to Charlie’s, but . . . maybe next trip, we’ll actually get our hands dirty.