Online market offers fresh produce and more
Late in the summer, the Methow Valley FoodShed’s website is bursting with color — offering everything from rainbow cherry tomatoes to purple basil to golden beets.
The Methow Valley FoodShed is a project aimed at supporting local farmers and connecting them directly with members of the community. Through an online market, customers can purchase a variety of fresh groceries for weekly pickup, including beef, lamb, pork, milk, eggs, fruits, veggies and honey.
The FoodShed was founded in 2021 by BCS Livestock co-owner and operator Casey Smith. He said that when the pandemic slowed BCS Livestock’s wholesale operations, they decided to branch out and begin selling products online. In the process, Smith also connected with a handful of other local farms — including Twisp River Grain and Mill, Doubletree Farm, Wild Plum Farm and Nettle Grove Farm — to develop partnerships and offer a wider range of foods to online customers.
The Methow Valley FoodShed is a food hub — a business model that helps take on the burden of marketing and distribution for local producers and make local farming a more viable livelihood, said Madelyn Hamilton, an organizer for the Methow Valley FoodShed.
“Food hubs help us reeducate our communities about the importance of food and the people who bring it to us,” said Emily Himmelright, business administrator and acting finance director for LINC Foods, a Spokane-based food hub. “Having food hubs helps recenter the importance of food in our society and in our communities.”
Food hub benefits
One benefit of the food hub model is that it cuts out the “middleman” typically involved in wholesale arrangements at grocery stores, allowing local farmers to make a higher profit. Smith said he makes about 40% more through meat sales via the FoodShed.
“For us as a small farm, being able to get the final retail dollar versus the wholesale value out of our products is really important,” Smith said. “And that difference can be huge in trying to make our business viable.”
Food hubs also allow farmers to set their own inventories based on the number of orders they receive each week, allowing greater flexibility and reducing waste. They also provide an additional outlet for selling and accessing local food, allowing vendors and customers to directly engage with one another.
For vendors, the Methow Valley FoodShed is one piece in the puzzle of getting local food out to the community.
Along with sales through the FoodShed, Sam Thrasher Soodak of Doubletree Farm sells her vat-pasteurized, non-homogenized whole and raw milk at several local outlets; Deb Jones-Schuler of Wild Plum Farm sells her pasture-raised pork as pork shares on her farm; Ashley Utskot of Nettle Grove Farm sells veggies to Glover Street Market and the Mazama Store.
“There is no one perfect model that everyone can use that’s going to magically fix the food system,” Hamilton said. “It’s going to take … a diversity of outlets and a diversity of models that we can call upon, and food hubs offer a different model that really works well for some people.”
Each week, the FoodShed’s online store is open until Tuesday at 11 p.m. From there, Smith sends order information to the different vendors involved in the FoodShed, who deliver their products to Crown S Ranch, the FoodShed’s home base, by Thursday afternoon. Orders are then transported to local drop locations in Twisp and Winthrop, where customers can pick up their goodies on Friday morning.
Smith said over the past year, the Methow Valley FoodShed has made positive forward momentum; since last summer, the number of local farmers involved has likely doubled. But the FoodShed also faces challenges — some specific, like the need for additional refrigerator space, and others broader, like navigating the difficulty of getting the word out. One key challenge is keeping local food affordable.
According to TwispWorks’ 2021 Comprehensive Economic Study of the Methow Valley, nearly 60% of working Methow Valley families earn under $55,000 a year. Wealth in the valley is concentrated among incoming residents, with remote workers earning over three times more than local working families.
Hamilton said at this point in time, the Methow Valley FoodShed’s online platform is unable to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), the system that issues food stamps to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants.
“There’s this constant tension between paying farmers what they deserve and what they need to make a living at the important work that they’re doing, but then also keeping food affordable,” Hamilton said. “And in a place where we are experiencing off the charts widening of the income inequality gap, that’s just really challenging.”
The Methow Valley FoodShed isn’t the only food hub working through the challenge of affordability. Himmelright, LINC Foods business administrator and acting finance director, said LINC Foods is in the midst of its third year trying to get qualified to accept SNAP.
LINC, short for the Local Inland Northwest Cooperative, has been in existence for just over eight years and works with over 40 farmer owners. Himmelright said one way they try to address affordability is by offering a variety of sizes and rates for food boxes.
Himmelright said another key to navigating the difficulties of running a food hub is to have a passionate, reliable team working behind the scenes. For the Methow Valley FoodShed, this doesn’t seem to be a problem.
“Often, I think I couldn’t be doing what I am doing anywhere else but in the Methow,” Thrasher Soodak of Doubletree Farm said. “Because there is this base of people who value good food, and there’s people like Casey who value it, but also are producing it, and also are thinking outside the box on how to connect all these pieces.”
Looking ahead, Hamilton and Smith said they hope to continue to increase awareness of the FoodShed and expand its reach. The FoodShed recently began a trial partnership with a vegetable farm in Cashmere to provide a once-a-month meat add-on to CSA boxes. Hamilton said the connection gave her hope for future collaboration.
“It was so fun and energizing to hear from them that our model was super inspiring, and it was something that they had been thinking about in their own community,” Hamilton said. “I like thinking about these small networks potentially then connecting with each other, and strengthening the food system that way.”
Those interested in learning more about the Methow Valley FoodShed can visit its website and sign up for a weekly newsletter at mvfoodshed.com, check out its online store, and follow the Methow Valley FoodShed Instagram, @mvfoodshed.