Although the cherries might be harvested just down the road or the cattle raised one county over, there is often a huge disconnect between local businesses in small rural towns and the local food system. Washington State’s Main Street Program, however, is working to strengthen the relationship between local businesses and the local agriculture economies, and in turn, revitalize these rural communities.
More than 400 crops or meat products are commercially produced in Washington State, the top five of which are apples, milk, potatoes, wheat, and cattle. The state is number one in the country in apple production—a $1.5 billion crop which is sold in all 50 states and around the world. Following apples, Washington’s top crops are red raspberries, spearmint oil, sweet cherries, pears, concord grapes, wrinkled seed peas, processing carrots, and hops.1 But this amazing array of local products doesn’t always turn up in the markets and restaurants in the state’s smaller towns.
Why the Disconnect?
After spending just a few minutes at one of Seattle’s local farmers’ markets, local restaurants, or coffee shops, the vitality of Washington’s local food movement is evident. But, stray further from the metropolitan areas of Spokane, Tacoma, and Seattle into the agricultural heart of the state and an odd trend emerges; it can actually be harder to access locally produced foods. One reason is that the food distribution hubs—the centrally located facilities that store, process, and distribute local and regionally produced food products— tend to be in more populous areas. So even though food may be farmed or produced in a community, it is more expensive for the farmers to provide food directly to restaurants and grocery stores if there isn’t a hub nearby.
Experts suggest that the “local movement” is one of the major trends that will continue to drive small businesses in 20122. It’s all about local—local artists, local businesses, and most definitely local food. A recent National Restaurant Association survey of chefs showed that local foods made up 5 of the top 20 food trends.3
But what exactly does “local” mean? The debate over the definition of local continues to churn. In a 2006 Washington State study, both consumers and farmers defined local food as coming from within their own county and possibly surrounding counties.4
David Lively of the Organically Grown Company in Oregon defines “local” as food grown within 15 to 20 miles of your home, and anything beyond that is considered regional. Anecdotally, however, it seems many consider food local if it is produced within their community, their county, their state or within a day’s drive. To add to the confusion, Whole Foods Market dictates a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven hours or less by car or truck. WalMart labels produce local if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states while Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers end up just leaving it up to individual store managers.5
In practice, it seems that the definition of local or regional food is best determined by the individual consumer. Regardless of semantics, the entire point of the local food movement is to create, “more locally based, self-reliant food economies in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”6
The Role of Main Street
Washington State’s Main Street Program ® provides communities with a structure and the right tools to revitalize their downtown commercial core, from supporting small businesses to rehabilitating historic buildings. It is important, however, to recognize that communities are more than just their Main Street. While downtown is not the sum total of a town’s success, it is a visible barometer of its economic health. And as the heart and soul of a community, it offers a snapshot of how the community has developed over time. That said, the surrounding agricultural land—the working farms and natural landscape—have played an important role in shaping community identity in Washington State. In fact, it is the reason for many communities’ very existence.
Although some individual farms and small food producers have become quite successful at local sourcing, these remain small ventures that are not widely accessible to people outside the community. Often, access to local, organic, or small production foods is seen as a luxury, not a necessity. For farmers, marketing to local consumers often requires more technical assistance and support than is available.7
As such, Main Street programs can help businesses make the connection to the local agricultural industry, which in turn, will help create distinctive places that are attractive to visit and live. The following section highlights three Main Street communities that have capitalized on local agriculture products to enhance their local economy.
Walla Walla’s Burgeoning Wine Industry
Walla Walla, population 31,000, is located in southeastern Washington, about a four-and-half-hour drive from Seattle and only 13 miles from the Oregon border. It has always been an agricultural community—well-known for its apples, asparagus, strawberries, wheat, and sweet onions. More recently, it has become famous for its wine.
The Walla Walla Valley, which is a certified American Viticultural Area, began with only 4 wineries and 60 acres of grapes in 1984. Today there are more than 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of grapes.8 More than 30 tasting rooms can be found in downtown Walla Walla alone—almost all are in historic buildings. Tremendous support for the local agricultural economy has brought life back to downtown—restaurants featuring local food, art and food festivals, rehabilitated buildings, and jobs have come back to the community.
The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation— a Washington Main Street community since 1992—has been instrumental in building partnerships with local wineries and farmers. The Whitehouse- Crawford Restaurant, which is a part of Seven Hills Winery, is a great indicator of the foundation’s success. The building operated as a lumber planing mill and furniture factory from 1904 until its sale to the City of Walla Walla in 1988. The City planned to sell the building and the land as part of a development; plans called for the building to be torn down to provide parking. Public protest eventually stopped this transaction, and the building was acquired and carefully restored by its current owner, Salvation! LLC. Dining at Whitehouse- Crawford is a true Walla Walla experience. All the foods are sourced from local farmers and artisans, the wines are from local producers, and the restored dining area is a unique piece of Walla Walla history.9
The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation just hosted its fifth annual Feast Walla Walla, an event that stages the historic downtown as the backdrop for a celebration of local food, wine, and art. The foundation promotes the event as bringing together food and wine newcomers and industry tycoons and offering a “unique opportunity for residents and visitors to experience the amazing variety of the area.” This year’s event reached record attendance with more than 600 festival participants.10
Wenatchee—The Pybus Public Market and Sustainability Center
Wenatchee is located in north central Washington, with a population of just under 30,000. Located east of the Cascade Mountains, the Wenatchee Valley produces apples, peaches, and pears and is the largest shipper of fresh market cherries in the world.
Early in 2009, the City of Wenatchee, with support from the Downtown Wenatchee Association (which became a Washington Main Street community in 1992), and others, created the Pybus Public Market and Sustainability Center. This proposed public-private mixed-use development will be located in a historic WWII-era riveted steel building near the waterfront. The concept is to create a yearround indoor marketplace that will house a variety of local, independently-owned shops and restaurants and provide space for a farmers’ market that supports more than 150 small family farms. The market will serve as a public incubator space and food distribution pantry for any fresh produce that is unsold during the day.11 There is a lot of pressure in Wenatchee to convert surrounding farmland into commercial and housing uses. It is hoped that this project will provide a mechanism to make farms more profitable, thus keeping land in productive farming. Construction is set to begin this September.
Another exciting project in Wenatchee is the Farmhouse Table Market and the cooperative, multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture program. Founded in 2008 by self-proclaimed “locavores,” this group got its start in an empty storefront in downtown selling produce from small, local farms. The owners credit the downtown location as a major reason for their success. The owners have also started a “Farm-to-Chef” program that brings produce from numerous local farms into downtown Wenatchee for distribution to local chefs, restaurants, and caterers. They have been so successful in their first two years that they have twice moved into larger spaces and plan to move into the Pybus Market once it is complete.12
Snohomish—Celebrating Heritage and Food
One way to help expand farmers’ access to consumers and vice versa is to organize and sustain a community farmers’ market that can help launch these small producers into a wider marketplace. What is notable about many of these smaller ventures is the way they’re dusting off and celebrating the communities’ traditional identity by celebrating heritage through the connection with food. The impacts of this are far reaching, building the capacity of local entrepreneurs and providing the community with an opportunity to invest locally. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of farms selling directly to consumers has grown, from an estimated 86,000 in the early 1990s to about 136,000 now; and the number of farmers markets has about doubled, from 2,756 in 1998 to 7,175 in 2011.13
In Snohomish, a community just north of Seattle, the Washington Public Market and Wine Cellars of Washington just re-opened as a central distribution center for local products. The complex takes up an entire city block, with most of the interior space dedicated to promoting local products—both food and crafts. There are specialty food vendors and the Market Fresh Café, which sits directly adjacent to the second-floor Wine Cellar space, a tasting room with space for more than 25 small wineries. Instead of being hindered by Washington’s weather, farmers, vintners, and craftspeople are able to sell year round.14
Consuming locally circulates money locally. Dollars support small businesses that employ local people. Those people in turn support local business. All of the money generated downtown stays within the community, leading to a relationship- based economy. The more dollars circulating locally, the greater number of community linkages—which make for a stronger, healthier, and more resilient local economy. This is not just about how much money is flowing into the community, but how that money is circulated. How and where individuals spend money has a major impact on the community. In Washington State, some of the most successful revitalization efforts are proving that by connecting downtown with local agriculture, communities create a strong local economy that supports preservation, sustainability, and economic vitality.
1“The Pride of Washington State,” USDA, brochure, 2011. agr.wa.gov/AgInWa/.
2 Small Biz Survival, www.smallbizsurvival.com/.
3National Restaurant Association: www.restaurant.org/pressroom/social-media-releases/release/?page=social_media_whats_hot_2012.cfm/.
4 C. Clare Hinrichs, “Local Food Systems: Rural America,” March 12, 2012. americanbusiness.org/3442-local-food-systems-ruralamerica.html.
5 Down to Earth NW: www.downtoearthnw.com/blogs/year-plenty/2011/apr/04/consumers-andretailers-wrangle-definition-local-food/.
6 C. Clare Hinrichs, “Local Food Systems: Rural America,” March 12, 2012. americanbusiness. org/3442-local-food-systems-ruralamerica. html.
7 C. Clare Hinrichs, “Local Food Systems: Rural America”, March 12, 2012. http://americanbusiness. org/3442-local-food-systems-ruralamerica. html.
8 Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance: wallawallawine. com/.
9 Whitehouse Crawford: whitehousecrawford. com/home.php.
10 Downtown Walla Walla Foundation: downtownwallawalla. com/.
11 Pybus Public Market: pybuspublicmarket.org/ index.php.
12 Farmhouse Table Market: www.communityfarmconnection. net/.
13 USDA: www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ farmersmarkets.
14 Wine Cellars of Washington: www.winecellarsofwa. com/.