Friday, December 7, 2012

From Farm To Table: A Lively Conversation

Above: The Flaming Eggplant Cafe at The Evergreen State College is a worker collective that isn't afraid to walk the talk on several issues. The cafe, which is open to everyone, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, and accepts only cash - not debit or card cards.
The college uses Bank of America as their banker and creditor. A poster at the cafe says, "Aside from evading millions of dollars in taxes a year and preying on the working poor with sub-prime mortgages, one way Bank of America makes its money is through transaction a result of this predicament, we will remain a cash-only service until an acceptable alternative presents itself...."
From Farm To Table: A Lively Conversation

by Janine Unsoeld

A diverse panel of six local food and beverage producers met at the Thurston County Fairgrounds for a couple of hours on Wednesday night, but it was clear they could have gone on all night. The speakers not only succeeded in forging new alliances amongst each other, but helped the audience gain a whole new appreciation for just how hard, but rewarding, it is to get local food to local tables.

The event was sponsored by the Olympia Lacey Thurston Visitors Convention Bureau, the Port of Olympia, and the Thurston County extension of Washington State University. About 50 farmers, community members interested in local food sustainability issues, and elected officials listened as the panel members discussed their businesses, their challenges, and future prospects.

Panelists included Jeff Schilter of the Schilter Family Farm, Mike Johnson of Johnson Berry Farm, Tom Bloomfield of Chelsea Farms, Will Taylor of Acqua Via Restaurant, Sara Rocker of the Flaming Eggplant Cafe at The Evergreen State College, and David White of Whitewood Cider Company. Each one expressed a deep passion and persistence for the continued success of their company.

Schilter Family Farm

Schilter Family Farm is most visible, the spacious 180 acre land you see on the right as you go north on I-5. Their pumpkins, clearly visible in fall, are great advertising. A former dairy farm, the Schilter family found that they could not continue to compete with the world market, especially after the Nisqually Valley flooded in 1996.

"We were looking for things we could do that would allow us to continue farming...." said Schilter. Pumpkins came first, then to extend the season, they started planting strawberries, raspberries, and sweet corn. Then, they brought in cherries and peaches from Eastern Washington, and started planting flowers and making hanging baskets.

Now, they are successfully "celebrating the four seasons" and have Christmas trees. "It has worked out well for's a real benefit to have customers come out in October, then have them come back in December....Our focus is agritourism, the experience of it. Sure, you could go to Costco, but we provide a farming experience - bring the kids. A grocery store can't replicate that. For us, it's building memories with families, a connection with the consumer."

Johnson Berry Farm

Jim Johnson, a third generation berry farmer, started selling berries at age nine, and is now best known for his family stall at the Olympia Farmer's Market and his roadside farm stand on Wiggins Road. In addition to his property on Wiggins Road, he leases 20 acres in the Nisqually Valley. He described his brief foray in providing berries to Top Foods.

"They were just beating us down, also getting berries from California and Argentina. I have no idea how those guys get product to market for $2.99 - it's crazy." Expressing his appreciation for the Olympia Farmer's Market, he said, "If I didn't have that market, I don't think that I'd be farming. The rent, for what they charge, is amazing. There could be a lot more markets." He added that he is aware there are parking issues at the market downtown. He would like the market to be open more days and longer hours. 

In a theme that was echoed by other panelists, there could be more markets on Olympia's Westside, Lacey and Tumwater. "Fifteen organic vegetable farmers all growing the same thing - they're killing each other - the competition is crazy," said two panelists.

Johnson said he doesn't think he wants his business to get much bigger but wouldn't mind offering more to restaurants. "In my business, I guarantee my berries for 24 hours. A California berry? Shoot, it's good in the refrigerator for a month! So if they want them, I'll give them a deal and deliver it whenever you want."

Above: This Johnson Berry Farm jam is a favorite in our household. Watch out! It's hot!

The segue was perfect. Two panelists were restaurant staff in charge of food purchasing.

The Flaming Eggplant Cafe

Sara Rocker, a staff member at The Evergreen State College for the student-run Flaming Eggplant Cafe, is also a co-founder of the successful Westside Farmer's Market that operated on the grounds of Gloria Dei Church this last season.

The Flaming Eggplant Cafe is a worker collective that started when students were tired of a lack of healthy options by corporate providers. Students wrote their own business plan and held a vote to successfully pass a one-time student fee of $125,000 to support its start-up. They voted on the name and opened on Red Square in 2008. Able to seat 85, they are now located in the student activity building. Rocker says the restaurant works with 30 vendors and students learn basic restaurant skills, produce identification and use with the development of a seasonal menu.

"We are very deliberate on knowing how far food comes to us, with over half coming from within 20 miles of the college." Calliope Farm, for example, is within five miles of the college. "For them to be so close reinforces a relationship - it's more than just a transaction."

Rocker said she is looking forward to seeing how local and seasonal she can go with the restaurant, and is working with CoFed, a national coop network of student collectives. She said the college is also producing graduates who are seeking jobs in local food, thus creating a whole new workforce.

Above: A map at the Flaming Eggplant cafe shows exactly where its food is coming from.
Acqua Via Restaurant

Acqua Via Restaurant chef Will Taylor wore a Kirsop Farm T-shirt, "stained with local food" and perhaps gave everyone the biggest lesson of all: persistence pays off. Taylor is a busy guy, doing his part in keeping his restaurant running smoothly, and said there is often a disconnect between the restaurateur and the producer of local food.

"Genine (of Kirsop Farm) would always call me and after a couple years, it paid off." Now Taylor buys most of his produce from Kirsop in what is clearly a win-win situation.

"Her marketing persistence was smart and influential. Other vendors, I never hear from them again. Building a relationship is really hard - she was willing to come deliver to me - you can't find that with big companies. Sure, it's easier and faster to go through a 1-800 number, but it's all the same crap all the time. We're not buying everything local, but I am trying and we make the effort to call each other, so hey, if you're four blocks away at the farmer's market and you're about to close up for the day, give me a call!"

Taylor said he is interested in hearing from local protein producers as well, and will start getting one cow a month butchered to his specifications from Thurston County's Colvin Ranch.

Above: Fresh Kirsop Farm cauliflower at Acqua Via Restaurant on Thursday.

Whitewood Cider Company

David White of Whitewood Cider Company is a third generation Washingtonian and began his journey with cider around 1999. Like many other panelists, he used plenty of humor in his presentation, and described how he built his specialty alcoholic beverage business from scratch.

White now has a cider processing plant on Rich Road off Yelm Highway and a cider blog,, documenting his journey of what he was tasting and experiencing. He has since been featured in national beverage magazines. White's apples are locally sourced, with contributions from Lattin's Country Cider Mill on Rich Road in Olympia, and from the farm of Jim Goche' in northeast Olympia.

Pressing apples is a slow process, and White pressed 300 gallons in 2012. Up to 80% of his cider was sold locally. White says his intent is to stay small, but he has more heirloom varieties coming in early January, and the small cider business category is poised for rapid growth. "It's an up and coming beverage," says White.

After the presentation, Goche' was pleased that his Friendly Grove Farmwas mentioned - it provided over a ton of apples to Whitewood Cider. 

"It was a great year for apples and they were extra sweet and juicy...I am looking forward to trying the cider when its ready. It's wonderful to work with an artisan like Dave," said Goche' after the event.

Goche' added that the panelists offered some useful tips about how to market locally-grown produce and work with local restaurants. He said that he especially appreciated the comments of Acqua Via Chef Will Taylor. Goche' said that the farm has sold raspberries and chestnuts to Acqua Via in the past but then took a laid-back approach to marketing so as not to be perceived as a "pest".

"Based on the comments this evening, however," he said, "it's clear that chefs are busy and local growers have to be persistent in marketing their produce to local restaurants."

Lucas Patzek, director of the Washington State University Thurston County Extension office, served as moderator, and wrapped up the lively conversation by saying that there are many options and opportunities. 

"We're at the point we need to be more deliberate, speak to growers and potential buyers, and partnerships will develop...I feel pretty good that things will move along...."

Several urban agriculture and agritourism efforts are underway by a wide variety of South Sound non-profit organizations, state, county, and local agencies.

One local non-profit organization is Slow Food at Community members are also organizing a Thurston County food council. For more information, go to

For more information about urban agriculture at the city of Olympia, go to or contact Jennifer Kenny, Associate Planner, (360) 753-8031 or

Thurston County has several agritourism efforts underway. For more information, go to Commissioner Sandra Romero leads monthly Agritourism Planning Committee meetings. This month's meeting will be held on Monday, December 17th at 4 p.m. at the Scatter Creek Winery in Tenino. The committee is different from the county's Agricultural Advisory Committee.

The Washington State University's Thurston County extension office leads the county's Agricultural Advisory Committee. For more information, go to or 867-2151.
Editor's Note: Little Hollywood just wrote an article this week about Tom Bloomfield, manager of Chelsea Farms, the world's third largest geoduck shellfish operation, and did not re-capture his comments here, as they were near-identical to the article I just wrote. Use the search button to find it at

Above: Acqua Via Restaurant in downtown Olympia on the corner of 5th and Capitol Way.