Skagit Valley Farmers Band Together

When a family or individual wants to “eat local,” it’s not too tough to find a farmers market somewhere in the Seattle area, even in winter. But where do restaurants, companies, and large healthcare providers look when they want to use their dollars to support local agriculture? In 2010, farmers in Skagit Valley formed a wholesale farmers market offering their products from a parking lot once a week. They became farmer-owned in 2016. Today, they’ve blossomed into the Puget Sound Food Hub (PSFH) with more than 65 members, complete with an online ordering system, cold-storage, and twice-weekly aggregated delivery to the Seattle area.

Harley Soltes of Bow Hill Blueberry Farm provided the PSFH’s first cold storage solution before the co-op procured its current space. He says the goal of the organization is to be able to sell year-round to grocery stores, corporate cafeterias, and healthcare providers — a list that includes 425-area clients like the Seattle Seahawks, PCC Community Markets, Novelty Hill Januik winery, Cedarbrook Lodge, and The Herbfarm restaurant. Our nation’s food distribution system favors large-scale enterprises-making it exceptionally difficult for small farmers to sell their products in the wholesale market. The PSFH organizes a means to that end so farmers don’t have to chase down individual buyers.

Ordering from PSFH means you’re “ordering from the field, not a warehouse,” as Soltes puts it.

A Peek at Two of the Farmers…

Harley and Susan Soltes

Photo by Julie Arnan

Harley and Susan Soltes thought it would be fun to buy an old farm and revive it, so in 2011 they did just that, transitioning the farm from conventional to organic from day one. The farm was first started in the 1930s, growing strawberries and goldenseal. In 1947, the farm’s original owners planted heirloom blueberry varietals like Jersey and Rudel. Unlike the giant, grape-sized blueberries found at most grocery stores, heirloom varietals are small, and have thicker skins; a higher percentage of antioxidants; and more natural sugar-making them taste sweeter. But they don’t hold up more than a day after picking, rendering them unfit for selling as fresh berries.

Plus, as Harley points out, it is difficult to stay financially viable with a product that has a six-week availability window. The Solteses decided they would freeze and juice their berries. Each 16-ounce bottle contains 1,094 Jersey berries. But juicing all those berries meant piles of discarded skins and the Solteses didn’t want all that nutrient-dense material to go to waste. By dehydrating and then grinding the skins, they developed a blueberry powder packed with flavor that works very well in smoothies.

Prior to a career in heirloom blueberry farming, Harley served as The Seattle Times’ Seahawks photographer. The Seahawks are now loyal customers utilizing Bow Hill’s blueberry juice and dehydrated blueberry powder in their training center smoothie bar. Bow Hill blueberries can be found in institutions like Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, retailers like PCC Community Markets and Haggen stores, at restaurants like Canlis and Molly Moon Ice Cream, in a Fremont Brewing sour beer, and at Amazon cafeterias. They also produced delicious pickled blueberries utilized by local bars in cocktails. bowhillblueberries.com

Samish Bay Cheese

Roger and Suzanne Wechsler were just getting together two decades ago when they decided to start a dairy farm. They both have a background in the food industry — in the corporate and co-op ends of the spectrum — and wanted to do things their own way. What began as a 15-cow operation has grown by 100, with about 40 cows in milk production at any given time.

Roger Wechsler

Photo by Julie Arnan

Samish Bay Cheese was the region’s first organic artisan cheese. At their peak, the Wechslers were selling their cheese at 15 to 16 farmers markets per year on a weekly basis. So, on top of caring for the cows, milking the cows, and making the cheese, they were driving all over the Puget Sound area, setting up a booth, and selling to customers one wheel at a time. Though they still sell at a handful of farmers markets, much of the selling goes through the PSFH now.

Two years ago, they were able to expand their farmstead store, and now visitors also come to them. In addition to a variety of fresh and aged cheeses (like Ladysmith — a natural rind gouda), they also sell labneh, yogurt, kefir, vache, and organic beef sourced from their farm. Other local products like cider and wine also are available. And guests lucky enough to visit on a cheesecake day are in for a real treat – Suzanne’s labneh cheesecake is unbelievably amazing. samishbay.com

 

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