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Island farms gear up to sell fresh produce to schools
Farmers at four Island farms are planting a few more rows of radishes, leeks, carrots and greens than usual this spring, now that a farm-to-school program is poised to come to fruition.
After a couple years of discussion and a few bumps along the way, the Vashon Island School District has a purchase order in place to buy fresh produce from four Vashon farms — GreenMan, Island Meadow, Sun Island and Naughty Dog. The effort will be modest, in part because the farmers’ prime growing season doesn’t correspond with the school district’s academic schedule.
Even so, those involved in the effort say, it’s a milestone for both the school district and Vashon’s small-scale farm community, as well as a sign of the farm community’s blossoming market sophistication and capability.
“The fact that these farms are in the position to make this commitment is a powerful indicator of the growing maturity of the small farms on the Island,” said Mark Musick, a longtime champion of small-scale farming who has helped to bring the farmers and school district together.
“It’s a long, slow process. But when you look back and see the progress we’ve made, we’ve come a long way, and we’ve reached a major milestone. Who knows where we’ll be in five years,” he added.
The farmers involved in the project have been working for some time to get to this point. Last year, they formed a growers’ cooperative, called the Vashon Island Producers Co-op, or VIPCO, and secured grant money that enabled them to purchase a $1 million insurance policy to cover liability. Two winters ago, Sun Island actually sold some crops to the district.
But the effort hit a snag when Tom French, the school district’s consultant at the time, said the farmers needed to get a third party to certify that they were using safe food-handling and growing practices — a costly requirement that proved hard to meet, Musick said
After hearing from farmers, school district Superintendent Michael Soltman decided such a certification process wasn’t needed — in part, he said, because all of the farmers in the program have developed food safety programs that appear to be rigorous and thorough.
Soltman said he plans to visit each of the farms, “but not from an inspection standpoint. … I just want to see them.”
“To me, if farmers are rigorous and committed to their safety plans and we’re rigorous about cleaning food, I think that’s the best we can do,” he said. “And it’s probably reasonable within the whole scope of farm-to-table practices we have today.”
“I really want to work with our farmers,” Soltman added. “I want to be able to purchase from them.”
Farmers said they’re pleased the district dropped the certification requirement, which had felt like an unreasonable burden. Of the 73 farms that sell to Charlie’s Produce, which provides the bulk of the school district’s fresh fruits and vegetables, only 10 have third-party certification, said Celina Yarkin, co-owner of Sun Island Farm. And of those 10, she said, most are mono-crop farms, growing potatoes, onions or berries.
The third-party certification, she said, “was really a sticking point” and one that made selling to the school district seem out of reach.
“What makes (certification) difficult is our scale. The more onerous it is, the more undoable it becomes,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said, the four farms in the program have developed strong food-handling plans that she and others believe will ensure that the vegetables reaching the district’s cafeterias are safe.
“Most important is that we have our food safety plans and follow them,” she said. “What’s important is that we make this something that really works.”
Farmers involved with the program, meanwhile, say they’re impressed that the district has taken on the extra burden of working with Vashon’s farmers. Greg Reed, who runs Island Meadow with his partner, Caitlin Carnahan, said they decided to participate in the program in part because they’re so pleased the district is going to the effort of working with them.
“The fact that they’ve shown interest is incredible, and as a local producer I want to support that,” Reed said. “It shows an incredible commitment to the students.”
Reed recently joined Donna Donnelly, Soltman’s assistant, and Lisa Cyra, the district’s head cook, for a one-day workshop on farm-to-school programs in Olympia. Reed said he’s struck by the district’s commitment, as well as Cyra’s makeover of the school lunch program, an effort that has made the school lunches far more nutritious.
“They’re bucking the trend,” he said of the district. “The students are lucky for that.”
But farmers say their sales to the district will, out of necessity, be small and infrequent. The height of their growing season is in the summer, when school is not in session. What’s more, they note, to make ends meet, farmers on Vashon need to sell most of their produce directly to customers at retail prices — not to a school district at wholesale prices.
Yarkin, the mother of three school-age children, said she plans to plant a few crops — carrots, greens and radishes, for instance — with an eye towards selling them to the schools. At the same time, she added, she expects her sales to the district will be minimal.
“Selling to the schools is real exciting, but we’re going to be taking small steps,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity, if we can make it pencil out.”
Reed also sees it as a fledgling but noteworthy experiment. Monday afternoon, as he paused from weeding long rows of strawberries, he said he’ll find it financially hard to sell some things to the district at wholesale prices when he can’t meet the retail demand he currently has for some of his organic crops.
At the same time, he said, he hopes over time to increase his production at Island Meadow, one of the oldest organic farms on the Island, and thus he sees the farm-to-school program as a way to plan for the future.
“We’re looking ahead,” he said.
The farm-to-school program, he added, “is such a good idea. But it’s tricky.”