Saturday, November 14, 2009

Getting down to business

Earlier this week, I had the chance to check out a town marketed as a model of urban sustainability on the west coast. (Calm down, Portland and Eugene, you're in a different category. I'm talking small towns, but you could take a few notes.) I'd heard from my friend Pam that there were unusual levels of social and environmental consciousness in Bellingham, and as it was only a day and a half's bike ride north of Seattle (or a day's ride if I hitched along the last bit with my friend Kirsten's husband on his way back from work in Mt. Vernon), Ollie and I braved the blustery rain and made our way up Route 9, past quite a number of stunning vistas and Skagit Valley farms. In spite of the weather, flat #7 of the trip, and a pit stop to pick up fresh oysters at Taylor Shellfish along the way, we made pretty good time. (Hey, Taylor was right on my way, quite literally, and I had heard good things about the sustainable seafood operation from Dustin and... actually, there is no need for apologies: those were some darn good oysters. More on Taylor in a future post.)

On Wednesday afternoon, after a quick trip to the local food co-op (one of two, actually), I hiked over to meet with Laura who had recently taken over the Food & Farm Manager position at Sustainable Connections. As it was an unusually beautiful day, we decided to take a walk while Laura brought me up to speed on some of the innovative work her organization is doing to foster collaborative relationships among local vendors and promote thoughtful business practices. From waste reduction to green construction, Sustainable Connections -- I'll call them "SC" for short (probably not approved by their marketing dept, but it's a bit long to keep typing on the blackberry) -- seems to have helped quite a number of local groups become even more conscientious community players. I learned, for example, of the partnership between Mallard's ice cream shop and a number of area farms when Laura and I chatted with SC member Ben while he offered us samples of his tasty wares: apple pie, grape, and pumpkin were among the featured flavors with local, seasonal ingredients. (My favorite learning experiences always involve food -- what a surprise.) When farms have a bumper crop of berries or basil, they ring up Ben and drop off a few crates. Then the flavor experimentation begins.

What I was most intrigued by during my chat with Laura was SC's "Food to Bank On" farm mentorship program, whereby farmers just starting up in the area are given the opportunity to work with established farmers on everything from creating a business plan to troubleshooting during the growing season. Not only that, but the first year -- I think it was only for the first year -- new farms are guaranteed a market, selling a portion of their products to the local food pantry. I was curious to speak with some of the participants in the program.

On Thursday, Kirsten, Kendall, Marco, Lupe, and I hopped in the truck to visit a few nearby farms, including one listed on the SC business roster: Hopewell Farm. After admiring the kale and chard in the garden, Kirsten and I wandered to the farm stand where I was instantly taken with the gorgeous romanesco (a variety of cauliflower, I believe, with wild, beautiful spirals, and delicious when roasted with fennel seeds and kalamata olives, I would learn that evening). We struck up a conversation with Tiffany -- pictured here with the striking swirled brassica -- and Dorene, the farmer's wife. I learned that along with the mentoring and food bank elements, members of the SC also enjoyed benefits like discounts at fellow members' operations and regular opportunities for business development. While Hopewell was no longer an active mentor farm, and past experiences with that particular initiative were mixed, Dorene agreed that the benefits of SC membership were many and varied, and my impression was that she was among many happy local participants.

I'm hoping to follow up with a few more folks to hear their thoughts on SC's impact in Whatcom County, but so far this seems like a pretty amazing business community.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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