Cove, Conservancy partner on program
By Julia Babkina
As the weather gets warmer, a weekly delivery of produce makes its way to The Cove, the Methow Valley’s food bank in Twisp. This produce doesn’t come from a large distribution center, however, but rather from local farms in the valley, a product of a unique partnership between the Methow Conservancy and The Cove.
The Farms to Neighbors program, which is entering its fourth year, brings produce from local farms directly to The Cove. It not only provides high-quality produce to residents that would otherwise not be able to afford it, it also pays farmers market rates for their produce, a win-win for both parties. The program is supported entirely by donations earmarked for the program to the Methow Conservancy.
The program began as a means to help families in need during the pandemic, but as the pandemic waned, another insidious problem arose: inflation, coupled with a reduction of SNAP food benefits that were temporarily increased during the pandemic. Cove Executive Director Glenn Schmekel said he has seen an increase in people seeking assistance since the extra food benefits ended in March.
“When we first started it, we thought it was a stop-gap program and that it was serving a need that felt new, and then we realized that the need wasn’t actually new so we should continue to provide support,” said Bridger Layton, Education Programs Coordinator who administers the program at the Methow Conservancy. He said the conservancy hopes to raise another $10,000 to sustain the program this year.
The Conservancy contributes the time to run the program and does not take an administrative cut. All of the donations for the program go directly to purchasing food for The Cove. Donors can make a one-time or recurring monthly or annual donation on the program’s website, methowgrown.org.
“The money is flowing directly into the local agricultural economy and the food is going directly to community members, That’s a level of quality that is difficult for a lot of people to afford,” said Layton.
The Cove accepts donations and encourages community members to plant a “row for the Cove,” but the Farms to Neighbors program provides consistency.
“People appreciate getting fresh produce rather than getting canned green beans,” said Food Bank Manager Rick Lewis.
Sue Baldwin, Food Manager at The Cove, says recipients appreciate the high quality of the food. “They love it,” she said.
The program divides funds equally among participating farmers and runs when fresh produce is available. If there is money left over, the program continues into the colder months by providing products such as meat.
The Methow Conservancy is involved in not only land conservation, but also protecting farmland and affordable housing. Their foray into food security is tied to supporting local farmers and land conservation.
Protecting farmland and supporting farmers goes hand-in -and, said Layton. According to the Conservancy’s website, about 9,000 privately-owned irrigated and drylands acres in the valley are currently used for farming and ranching.
“We do a lot of those things in partnership with other folks,” said Layton of the Conservancy’s outreach. “That’s one way we can be involved in a lot of places. We don’t pretend to be ‘the’ organization that does all of those things. We want to do our best to be a part of this team that is this community and work to build a future that we’re all happy with.”
Any farm can apply to participate in the program and there is no contract involved. The Methow Conservancy places orders with the farm and the food is delivered directly to The Cove. The farm then bills the conservancy. Regular farm participants include Red Shed, Hoodoo Blooms, Double Tree, Willow Brook, Dear Table, Bluebird Grain Farms, Channing Farms, BCS Livestock, and King’s Garden. Offerings include a range of fresh vegetables, pancake mix, milk, and ground meats.
The Conservancy distributes funding fairly evenly among farmers. The program also contributes to the physical health of its recipients.
“The goal is to support all of those folks that want to be a part of the program and another benefit of that is that it creates variety in what we’re providing,” said Layton.
“We’re an organization that if you can inject intention into the way you think about and interact with the landscape we all love, you have a much better chance of building a future that works for everyone and maintains the things that we really love about the Methow Valley,” Layton said. “The agricultural economy here is a key piece of that so anything we can do to support agriculture in the future is ultimately going to help shape a future that matches the desires of the community.”
While some farmland in the valley is protected through easements, a formal legal agreement that protects the property from development, it doesn’t guarantee that the land will be farmed every year. Challenges arise in the cost of running a farm, which includes housing. Some farmland is leased and doesn’t include housing. This impacts the quantity of agriculturalists in the valley and the types of food grown due to economic factors.
“It feels really good to be able to pay farmers enough to actually sustain themselves on the land and also feed folks that wouldn’t have access,” said Layton. “Instead of going to the farmer and asking them to essentially pay a tax for caring about their community, they get to care about the community and provide for the community and also not have to take a hit to their bottom line. When we look at where there’s surplus of funding in our community, it’s not the farmers who have the ability to give all the time.”
The Conservancy offers farm tours that show the operations that bring local produce to farmer markets, Methow Valley Foodshed, and specialty outlets like the Mazama store and Glover Street Market.
“Once you’re connected to the food, you’re inherently connected to the land it came from and it just takes a little bit of conversation to draw that thread back,” said Layton.