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Capital Press Agriculture Weekly
February 16, 2007
By James Goche

Growers, buyers forge business relationships

SEATTLE — Farmers and ranchers from around western Washington met with chefs, purveyors of food and food service professionals on Feb. 5 at the second annual Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection.

The daylong conference, presented by Washington State Department of Agriculture, Seattle Chapter of the Chefs Collaborative, Ecotrust, Cascade Harvest Coalition, King County and Puget Sound Fresh, was designed to link producers with buyers and expand direct buying and selling opportunities.

After welcoming remarks by Kirsten Schumacher of the Chefs Collaborative and Joe McGarry of Bon Appetit Management, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury presented the keynote address, "Preserving Local Agriculture and Protecting the Environment."

Bradbury offered his comments as an elected official who chairs the Oregon Sustainability Board and an ardent environmentalist and former restaurateur.

He noted that the 20th century model for industrial agriculture production and long-distance distribution is not working well today in light of rising energy costs, climate change and growing public interest in locally produced food.

Bradbury said that provided opportunities for smaller farmers who could react to changing environmental and market conditions more effectively and use them to create niche operations. He stressed that from the consumers' standpoint, the important question for food is "where is it grown, not where is it flown."

King County Executive Ron Sims seconded Bradbury's points. Sims stressed that proximity to food sources is essential for the long-term success of any society, saying, "We have to have fresh foods grown nearby, we simply have to."

Sims said locally grown food helps conserve oil, save transportation costs, promote health and preserve the environment, goals he believes are important from a personal and public perspective.

Bradbury and Sims agreed that elected officials must raise public awareness on those issues and support local growers who produce wholesome food.

Next was a series of panel discussions by buyers and growers. The first, which discussed "Does Size Matter?" was moderated by Seth Caswell and featured Luke Woodward of Oxbow Farm, Gene Kahn of Small Planet Foods (Cascadian Farms), Joe McGarry of Bon Appetit Management and Maria Hines of Tilth Restaurant. The panel noted that small-scale production allows for a closer relationship between chefs and growers, produces better tasting produce and provides traceability.

The next track offered three breakout sessions. "Current Events Affecting Local Policy" was moderated by Zachary Lyons, and panelists included Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards, Chris Curtis of NFMA, Claudia Cole of WSDA and Michelle Blakely of Growing Things Farm.

"Volunteering to Promote Sustainability" was moderated by Jen Lamson and panelists included Lynda Oosterhuis of Quillisascut Farm School, Allison Leber of Beechers Flagship Program/Chefs Collaborative and Karen Luetjen of Seattle Tilth.

"Cheese and Dairy Production/Unique Products" was moderated by WSDA's Fred Berman, and panelists included Kelli Estrella of Estrella Family Creamery, Will O'Donnell of Mt. Townsend Dairy and Curt Dammeier of Beecher's Handmade Cheese.

The last track of the day offered three final breakout sessions. "Farm to Schools, Institutions, Hospitals, Retailers & Restaurants" was moderated by Mary Embleton with panelists Abbi Little of Abbi's Northwest, Darin Leonardson of Bon Appetit Management, Goldie Caughlan of PCC, Tom French of Whidbey Island and Holly Freishtat of Farm to Hospital.

"RAFT in the Fields and Restaurants" was moderated by Lyons and included panelists Andrew Stout of Full Circle Farm, Jennifer McGann of Bon Appetit Management, Gerry Warren of Slow Food Seattle and Fernando Divina of Tendrils at Sagecliffe.

"Buying and Selling Locally Raised Meats" was moderated by Bruce Dunlop of Lopez Island Farm and included Linda Neunzig of Ninety Farms, Keith Swanson of Thundering Hooves, DeAnne Clune of Williamson Farm, and Tamara Murphy of Brasa Restaurant.

Overall impression of the conference was that it provided a unique opportunity for local growers to talk to buyers, learn what's important to them and build relationships that expand the direct-sale marketing opportunities.

"The essence of this gathering is connection and we aim to provide practical, hands-on tools that farmers and buyers can utilize to enhance sales and improve local distribution systems," said Andrew Haden, market connections manager for Ecotrust's Food & Farms program. "This event is a proven catalyst for fundamentally changing the way people think about, purchase and consume local food."

The Farmer-Chef Connection is in its seventh year of developing and deepening market connections throughout the Pacific Northwest. What started as a partnership in 2001 between Ecotrust's Foods & Farm program and the Portland Chapter of the Chefs Collaborative has expanded to include partners throughout the Cascadia region who are committed to advancing change in the region's food system.

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