WSDA Local Buying Mission Tour and Business Networking Social

On a recent brisk, blissfully blue sky morning, rooted went on a mission.  Meeting in the early shade of the Bale Breaker Brewery in Moxee, Washington, we fell in with the Washington State Department of Agriculture and a host of ag-producers and ag-buyers to hit the open road on a giant bus.  This day was all about connection.  We were touring three smaller local farms in the Yakima Valley to see how they make their own connections and get their product out to the world.

Agriculture is a one of a kind industry in so many ways, the most notable and obvious being that it deals with products that are alive.  This provides unique challenges all throughout the season, but in terms of the endgame, once it is picked, the clock starts ticking.  That window when it is at its best and can fetch an optimal price is small.  Of course, having a plan is necessary.  To know who will buy it, and when, is the goal of any farm, large or small.

We started our day at a beautiful pocket of land in the Konnowac Pass area in between Moxee and Wapato, Washington called the Sunnyslope Ranch.  After a friendly greeting by owner Rebecca Hunt, she walks us down into the orchard and explains who they are and what they do.  An all organic orchard operation, largely cherries and stone fruit, they have created a niche for themselves by having a clear idea of who they are and how they want to be identified.  They are the small, family, organic farm, and want to sell their goods to buyers who value that type of production, such as the New Seasons Market.  Because of their size and the fact that they sell within the Northwest, they are able to pick when the fruit is more ripe, (rather than the early picks many of the volume producers have to do for longer shipping destinations), resulting in a beautiful, sweet, premium product.  She said there is also a market for her less gorgeous but just as delicious number 2 fruits.  Canners come every year in almost cultish fashion from the peninsula and load up.  Almost all of their fruit is sold before it is off the trees, which is the goal.Our next stop was out west at the McIlhrath Farm Market with Scott and Esther McIlrath.  They came to the Valley in 1976 from the Seattle area after purchasing 30 acres in Tieton and were hooked.  Now with 300 acres and two roadside fruit stands, they grow apples, stone fruits and organic cherries, to name a few, and even have cows and a milk, fruit and egg delivery service.  They were all about diversification, and boy, did they embody that concept.  Their large FRUIT sign and stand just off Highway 12 is just getting going for the year and has more than just fruit.  Hanging flower baskets, and veggies, herbs, and flowers for planting are scattered everywhere.  Asparagus, which they don’t grow but source locally, and a few apples from storage are under the tent.  They already grow a few strawberries, but Scott says they are going to try their hand at growing them hydroponically and we see where the set up will be under a new small greenhouse that is about to be installed.  In the off season, they sell Christmas trees here as well.  While they have gotten large enough to send most of their fruit off to the warehouse and sales desk at Domex Superfresh Growers, they enjoy selling direct to the public. He says about 80% of their business here is repeat customers.   About three years ago they purchased another fruit stand further west down the highway which boasts the same large recognizable FRUIT signage.  This one, he says is more for the tourists who like to come over from the West Side of the mountains.  As soon as Chinook Pass opens up, he says he sees a noticeable increase in business.  In this old, turn of the century fruit packing warehouse, in addition to fruit, they sell gifts and ice cream as well, and are going to try their hand at hot dogs and a cider press this year.  He says he sees how people enjoy the connectivity they find in buying directly from the farmer.Our last stop was at the Barrett Orchards Fruit Place and Gift shop.  We started our talk there in the u-pick cherry orchard with Mark and Cheryl Barrett.  A great spot off Pecks Canyon Road in Yakima, for about three weeks every year, they open up to ground only u-pick.  Mark says that on the weekends, they can get upwards of 500 people, largely from the Seattle area, picking cherries.  This season will be their 11th year of u-pick.  They tell us that people have so much fun, it becomes an annual family affair.  With a few picnic tables scattered among the trees in a beautiful orchard, it’s easy to see why.  They take us down to the gift shop in their big red barn next.  They sell all their own fruit, and veggies they source locally.  A really lovely shop, Cheryl says that the gifts are a terrific addition for a whole experience, and keeps people coming in the off season.  They have created another off-season following by creating gift baskets at Christmas time.  Apples of course, and whatever else your budget allows.  They show us a few examples and they really are amazing.

It was truly fascinating to see how three different smaller farms conceptualized and executed ways of getting their goods to buyers.  Back on the bus, it made for some thoughtful conversation.  The buyers were interested to know what and how the farmers were thinking, the farmers were collecting information and ruminating on the aspects that most closely would relate to their own operations.  We at rooted were just loving hearing so many Yakima Valley stories.  We see a lot of farms, and they are so beautiful, and filled with the grit and hard work which greases the wheels that bring food to our tables.  Getting a closer look at how those wheels turn as conceived by their owners, was amazing.

Back at Bale Breaker, after a little lunch and made by the talented Jessica Smith, rooted conducted a brief discussion with buyer Brad Masset of Birchfield Manor, and mushroom grower Michael Bennett of J&M Mushrooms. Brad described his point of view from the acquisition side, and Michael explained what it’s like to get out there and try and sell product.  The overall message being, create relationships.  We finished the day off socializing.  The highlight was a tasting of the Sorbatto from the growers at Blueberry Hill Berries in Wapato.  A combination of sorbet and gelato, this frozen treat was fantastic.  Amazing and dairy free, we are told it was derived from a recipe grandma used to make.  Only Four ingredients!  They made a buyer out of me.  Connection made.

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