Misc Morsels

Pecking at the barriers for “chicken of the middle” producers

Saturday, April 18th, 2015 by

Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s Food & Farms Director speaking at the Ecotrust Food Forum

On April 8, farmers, butchers, public health professionals, industry experts, and members of the media gathered at Ecotrust to talk about sustainable chicken production, and why it’s so difficult to achieve.

Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s Food & Farms Director, kicked off the second of three Food Forums hosted this spring by Ecotrust with a sobering statistic: Each year, more than 23,000 Americans die as a direct result of routine infections — infections that we should be able to cure, but for which the antibiotics we rely on no longer work.

Currently, there is a bill before the Oregon legislature that would limit the use of antibiotics in livestock production only to animals that are sick. House Bill 2598 is a response to the fact that antibiotics are routinely used in animal production not just to treat sick animals, but also to promote growth and to prevent disease due to unsanitary conditions and crowding. This practice has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs” and fears about the future of antibiotic resistance.

Despite the fact that demand for chicken has skyrocketed since the 1980s, access to and purchasing of locally raised poultry for Oregon schools remains paltry. Sobell referenced the recent USDA farm to school census, which found that “Oregon school districts invested nearly 10 million of their food dollars in local communities, and that beef was one of the top five locally produced foods purchased. But chicken was not on that list, despite being the number one protein served by schools across the country.”

Sobell went on to discuss the results of part of a yearlong study done by Ecotrust into the regional food system infrastructure. According to the study, there are no midsize chicken producers in Oregon. Instead, individual consumers are left with only two choices: more expensive, sustainably and humanely raised chicken from small-scale producers or cheaper, large-scale, factory-farmed chicken.

What followed Sobell’s introduction was a robust discussion about what many attendees and panelists referred to as “chicken of the middle.”

antibiotic resistance expert Gail Hansen smiles into the camera

Antibiotics in chicken production

Gail R. Hansen is a public health veterinarian with Pew Charitable Trusts based in Washington, D.C. She’s been at Pew since 2010 working on antibiotic resistance issues. Hansen supports the responsible use of antibiotics in chicken production and was hesitant about the phrase “antibiotic-free,” saying, “Sometimes bad things happen to good chickens.”

She estimated that animals in a healthy system only require antibiotics between two to five percent of the time. “If you need antibiotics to make animals grow, you know you’ve got a broken system,” she said. Hansen spoke later about the major difference that simply cleaning a facility can have on the health of chickens. Referencing the study Meat on Drugs published by Consumer Reports in 2012, she noted farms that don’t use antibiotics for growth promotion can do even better than those that do.

Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services Director speaks to attendees at an event

Chicken in school lunchrooms

Portland Public Schools has been one of Ecotrust’s closest partners in getting local foods into the cafeteria and onto the plates of kids. Gitta Grether-Sweeney has been leading the PPS child nutrition programs for 28 years and has been the Director of Nutrition Services at Portland Public Schools since 2010. When introducing herself, she said, “I run the largest restaurant in town.” Under her guidance, Portland Public Schools increased its local procurement by six percent in 2014. “But,” she says, “protein is the hardest nut to crack.”

Chicken is the number one meat served in schools because, it’s cost effective, kids like it, and there are fewer cultural barriers around chicken as compared to beef or pork. But in order to maintain that cost efficacy, chicken must fit into the tiny per-meal budget allocated for public schools.

According to Grether-Sweeney, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services is allocated $3.04 to serve a student one meal. After overhead costs are accounted for, just $1.38 is left for food. Operating within these constraints is difficult, but Grether-Sweeney has already formed a partnership that works.

Portland Public Schools buys drumsticks from a chicken producer in Nebraska. Drumsticks are less valuable than chicken breasts, and therefore within Portland Public Schools’ budget. The question remains, though, why aren’t partnerships like this forming locally? Why must Grether-Sweeney go out of region to buy chicken? According to Aaron Silverman, the answer lies in processing.

Aaron Silverman sits on a panel in a black and white long-sleeved t-shirt with a brick wall behind him

The missing piece

Aaron Silverman, owner of Tails & Trotters, which specializes in prosciutto cured from heritage pigs finished on hazelnuts, was originally a “chicken guy”. Before going into pork in 2009, Silverman was fifteen years into a career in midsize pastured poultry production. “I am the chicken of the middle,” he said.

In Noti, OR in 1993, Silverman started raising chicken on land he had purchased in order to revive the soil. His operation processed about 100 chickens every other week; customers would come to the farm to pick up their orders the day of processing.

By 2000, demand for his chicken had grown significantly, and he teamed up with three other families to found Greener Pastures. Greener Pastures successfully petitioned the Department of Agriculture to recognize the 20,000 bird exemption, which exempts producers that process 20,000 birds or less annually from federal inspection. Eventually, as demand continued to grow, the 20,000 bird ceiling was reached, and Greener Pastures was unable to raise the capital to build a central processing facility that would keep them in line with state regulations.

Silverman reasoned that producing 20,000 birds per year breaks down to processing and selling around 200 birds per week. (For comparison, Foster Farms processes around 150,000 birds per day.) Ultimately, this is not enough revenue to sustain that scale of production. A large, central processing facility would allow both smaller and midsize producers the facilities to more efficiently and cost effectively process their meat: “Until this happens, we will be left with fewer choices — large or teeny tiny.”

Connecting with consumers

William Betts, Vice President of Purchasing at Whole Foods Markets, oversees all purchasing for the Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia stores. Whole Foods is one of the only grocers to offer only 100 percent antibiotic-free meat. Betts emphasized that Whole Foods, like consumers, is ready for a midsize sustainable chicken operation: “Whole Foods would love to have a partner. We can tell stories. We can get you certified. We would love to have partners to get us there.”

The chicken supply chain

At one point in the evening, Grether-Sweeney responded to a question, saying, “Demand will drive change.” Ecotrust’s Food & Farms team has begun the process of forming exciting partnerships in attempt to fill in the gaps in the infrastructure of the regional food system. In addition to fostering conversation by hosting events like Food Forums, Ecotrust has been working with OHSU and Portland Public schools to assess how much demand there is for chicken raised without antibiotics among larger institutions.

Further investigating infrastructural gaps in the regional food system is the topic of the third and final Food Forum: Opening the Black Box of the Food System. Join us on May 14 to learn more about gaps in the aggregation, processing, and distribution of food.

10,000 Foot View of a Region

Saturday, March 21st, 2015 by


Thinking about farm to school programs: What’s next for the West?

The Western Region is full of pioneers, including in the world of farm to school. It’s led to some magnificent innovation: California birthed the National Farm to School Network; the Oregon legislature created a $1.2 million farm to school and school garden grant program; and from Alaska to Montana, Hawaii to Nevada, our region’s schools spend over $87 million on local food each year.

As the Western Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network, we at Ecotrust are lucky to work closely with many of the explorers who have charted this new course for farmers and schools in our region.

This year, Ecotrust’s farm to school team is wrapping up a three-year project working directly with school districts and farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to increase purchases of local foods. The project, funded by Kaiser Permanente, was an opportunity to support creative new ideas to move the dial on farm to school, such as Boat to School and Legislators to the Lunchroom. It was also a unique opportunity for our team to build deeper relationships with school food service directors, farmers, and distributors. At the end of our three years, we asked them: Having come this far, what do you need next?


This question also reflects a time of introspection for our team. Almost a decade into our work in farm to school, Ecotrust is looking forward to what’s on the horizon for our region. What will it take to make farm to school the new business as usual at every school, from Anchorage to Boise to Honolulu? We have a lot of resources in place — state leads who act as networking and resource hubs for each of the eight Western states (we even have a few state farm to preschool leads); state farm to school grant programs in Alaska and Oregon; vibrant statewide networks in Hawaii and California; and a rich partnership with our regional counterpart at the USDA, who makes much of this work possible through technical assistance and financial resources.

And yet, when we asked school districts and farmers in the Willamette Valley what they needed next, the answers were familiar. Small budgets, season limitations, a lack of scratch cooking in school kitchens, and the time-consuming nature of building the relationships vital to the work topped the list of challenges for schools and farmers alike.

There are workarounds for each of these obstacles, and they certainly haven’t stopped many school districts and farmers from creating vibrant programs and partnerships. But these ongoing challenges are symptomatic of a more fundamental bottleneck that remains even as we continue to innovate: Our region’s hard infrastructure — the kind that supports the aggregation, processing, and distribution of food — isn’t set up for local suppliers to feed local buyers.

Pineapple in school lunches in Hawaii might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not that simple. Dexter Kishida, School Food Service Supervisor at the Hawaii State Department of Education explains that most Hawaiian school kitchens don’t have capacity to deal with the whole fruit and that the state lacks local processing capacity at a scale to meet school district needs. The fruit must be shipped off island to be processed into slices and chunks and then sent back (with a resulting impact on cost and affordability for schools). And Dexter notes that this often means that pineapple from South America and the Philippines is more affordable than fruit grown in their own state.

Mardi Solomon of Whatcom County Farm to School relates how students in Washington State are served “baby” shaved carrots from California rather than those grown locally, since school food service programs cannot afford to pay staff for the time it takes to cut whole carrots into sticks. These are just two examples of how the system through which schools, hospitals, and college campuses buy their food in the West isn’t yet conducive to our vision of a resilient, regionally based food system.


We’ve still made significant progress over the past ten years and there are exciting and innovative solutions on the horizon. In Hawaii, Dexter tells the story of a small grower who is setting up a flash freezing facility with the potential to serve the school district’s needs. The facility will process the second and third harvests of pineapples to help provide a product that is more affordable for schools.

In Whatcom County, a new local vegetable processing facility at Cloud Mountain Farm Center is one effort to try to fill the infrastructure gap in Washington by processing local carrots and other veggies into the forms that schools need.


Farmers check out processing equipment while visiting Cloud Mountain Farm Center last fall on a mobile tour hosted by the Washington Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program

It’s clear that school districts and farmers value each other and want to work together, and many of them know how to overcome common challenges to make these relationships work. Now it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure that underlies this work — to shift the entire system so that farm to school and local food procurement is feasible for more than those who are deeply committed.

Focusing our collective attention on improving the methods through which buyers access local food — the aggregation, processing, and distribution that make this procurement possible — is the challenge of the next decade, and has the potential to transform farm to school into the new business as usual. It’s a monumental task, but we’re pioneers, and we’re heading for that horizon.


If I Could Buy You Each One Gift…

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014 by

“It would be a pressure washer,” says professional trainer and long-time farmer, Atina Diffley. Diffley is explaining to the small and midsize mixed vegetable growers who have come to the Wholesale Success workshop why an investment in a few key pieces of equipment, and the creation of a few standard operating procedures, could radically improve the quality and safety of food coming off their farm, leading to increased sales and better profitability.

“Don’t you hate scrubbing those harvest bins by hand, knocking your knuckles and having your hands in cold water for a long time? Makes you not really want to do that job, right? Having a pressure washer lets your pickers clean those things in a few seconds and makes it a lot more likely that the job gets done and done well.”

It was the type of practical advice that came rolling off Diffley’s tongue all day.

Copies of the course manual are still available. Please contact Gorge Grown Food Network, Nourish Yamhill Valley, Ten Rivers Food Web, Thrive, or OSU Extension Small Farms (Central Point).

Pick it cool, keep it cool, put it to sleep.” Getting field heat out of produce as quickly as possible can extend shelf life for days, so picking in the early morning before it heats up saves time and money in cooling.

Fresh produce should be seen and not heard.” If produce is audibly hitting the box or bin as it’s being packed, the crew is not being gentle enough and the product will probably have bruises. Because those bruises often don’t show up for a day or two, farmers may think they’re delivering pristine produce, but buyers may unpack boxes of bruised tomatoes.

If you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it.” It’s the rule of food safety regulation compliance – if you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it. Diffley coached growers to treat record-keeping like brushing their teeth: make it quick and easy and part of shutting down for the day. A great tip was to create a permanent grid on a white board and then fill in daily details with a dry-erase marker. At the end of the day, just snap a picture of the board with a digital camera or smart phone and save the picture in a dated file. Record-keeping done!

Wholesale Success is a program developed by FamilyFarmed.org with support from the USDA, and brought to four Oregon locations in January by FoodHub, in partnership with local community-based food organizations and a host of collaborators. Heaps of thanks go out to workshop hosts Gorge Grown Food Network, Nourish Yamhill Valley, Ten Rivers Food Web, Thrive and OSU Extension Small Farms, and to statewide partners Friends of Family Farmers, Oregon Food Bank, and OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems.

If you’re a produce farmer and missed the workshops, you can request the course manual by contacting one of the workshop hosts above, or by picking one up from FoodHub’s home office in Portland. Just email us at meet@food-hub.org. You can also access many of the course materials online by visiting Diffley’s website, www.atinadiffley.com.

‘Tis the Season to Connect

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by

The holidays are over and the seeds have yet to arrive, which makes February and March great months for chefs and producers to start making agreements for this year’s growing season. A host of upcoming events make it easy to connect live and get those important relationships rolling:

Can’t make it to one of those events live? Use FoodHub to search for the products you’ll want or have to offer this summer and get those connections going now!

FoodHub Connections: Genki Su gets Experimental with Seaview Cranberries

Monday, September 23rd, 2013 by

Takako of Genki Su samples some of her flavors at a yoga event. Photo courtesy Genki Su

When Takako Shinjo started Genki-Su Japanese Drinking Vinegars, she wanted to bring a taste of her Japanese culture to her Portland kitchen. About two months ago Takako joined FoodHub to find local flavors for her internationally-inspired product.

“I test a lot of different fruits, herbs and vegetables and I’ve always wanted to have seasonal flavors,” she said, “but now I want to work with local farms. I really like to look at FoodHub because I can tell what’s going on in the food community.”

Soon after joining, Takako created a Marketplace post looking for berry producers. Even though her Marketplace post said she was looking for strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, Scott McKenzie of Seaview Cranberries saw her post come through on his weekly Fresh Sheet and he thought his berries might be a good fit.

“I offered to give her a 25 pound case to experiment with,” said Scott. “I sell cranberries to a company called Stone Barn Brandyworks that makes a cranberry liqueur. I connected with them and did the same thing and that’s turned into a really good relationship.”

Cranberries from Seaview. Photo courtesy Genki Su

And while she still in the testing phase with Seaview’s cranberries, Takako is already thinking of ways to market a cranberry seasonal flavor to her customers.

“I’m thinking about making a holiday flavor,” she said. “Right now it’s summer and people want strawberry and blueberry flavors. Cranberry is going to be perfect for the holidays.”

To scale up their business and build demand for her product, Genki-Su launched another Kickstarter to begin production on a ready-to-drink tonic using their vinegar flavors as a base.

“We are running a limited a project to do a pre-mix bottle and that will make another market,” said Takako, “but we have to make the concentrate first. The production is the same, but we’ll start using a bottling facility. Right now I hand-bottle everything.”

While Scott’s donation of 25 pounds of berries to Genki Su will allow Takako to make 50-60 bottles of vinegar, as a business Seaview operates at a much larger scale. Scott’s total harvest for the year will likely be 700,000 pounds and he sometimes sells berries by the container load, which weigh out at 40 to 45,000 pounds. One of his clients, Hotlips Soda, (FoodHub’s 3,000th Member) buys fruit by the pallet to keep up with their demand. Despite the fact that Genki-Su and Seaview operate at different ends of the scales, Scott said he finds special satisfaction in working with other businesses in his back yard.

“I really like working with folks with entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “I want to promote them if I can and encourage them.”

Test, Test, 1-2-3

Building a quality relationship with a client or vendor can often be an exercise in trial and error. Here are three of our favorite quotes about how FoodHub can help businesses take the next step in building the relationships they need to grow:

“Having good vendors is so important. I’ve seen people almost go out of business because they don’t have good vendors in a critical supply. FoodHub is helping me find people that I need to start relationships with.” – Tom Burkleaux, New Deal Distillery

“It doesn’t do us any good to have one-time sales. What we’re looking for is someone who week in and week out is going to be a steady customer. One of things about FoodHub that I really like is that the people you meet there are very in the game. They want it to be more than a sale. They’re looking for a relationship.” – David Hoyle, Creative Growers

“FoodHub has opened doors by word of mouth to chefs who have tried our products and then referred some of their friends to our farm. We didn’t have to do the footwork or cold call them when they don’t have the time – they were just referred to us. That makes it worth those 10 minutes a day that I spend on the site.” – Cassandra Timms, Deck Family Farms

FoodHub Member Connections: Reister Farms Rounds Up Perfect Prospects

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by

Sheep graze at Reister Farms.

“FoodHub is a giant rolodex,” said Rachel Reister of Reister Farms Lamb, who joined FoodHub in 2010. “When we started looking for customers on the site we put in how many miles we wanted to travel and what buyers we were looking for and got a huge list of prospects. Then we looked at their menus and made a key list of clients who we shared common values with and wanted to sell our products to. The first restaurant we called responded.”

According to our research into how to make money using FoodHub, Rachel’s approach to prospecting is a winning formula.

Rachel and her husband Jake started Reister Farms Lamb after college and, having come from farming families, entered into the business fully aware of the challenges that would come along with it.

“We adopted a lot of sustainable methods for our farm,” Rachel said. “They were practices we believed in, but we realized that if we went the traditional route for selling our animals we wouldn’t make any money.”

Jake and Corbin Reister with one of their working border collies.

When the Reisters started direct marketing they sold nearly 100% of their product through farmers’ markets. Now, that number is closer to 10% as the Reisters have shifted to a direct to wholesale model and work with clients who buy product year-round, many of whom they found with FoodHub. Last year, Rachel said, they attributed more than $35,000 in sales to direct connections they made using FoodHub, or referrals from FoodHub clients.

“I would be at a loss without FoodHub because it saves us so much time,” Rachel said. “And no one likes to make a cold call. That’s the most intimdating part of marketing a product. FoodHub warms up a cold call for us because at least you know they’re engaged enough in the industry to put up their information. It helps me determine where my most valuable time is spent.” (more…)

Shedding false labels: ThisFish tracking seafood to the source

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 by

This is a repost from the Ecotrust blog, which is designed to inspire fresh thinking, spark innovation, and encourage investment in natural economies. Read more stories about Ecotrust’s work, and that of our partners and friends, at blog.ecotrust.org.

ThisFish Pacific Coordinator Chelsey Ellis and BC Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick announce new funding for promotion this week. Photo Courtesy of ThisFish.

Our friends at Ecotrust Canada have been working on ThisFish, a web-based seafood traceability program, for several years now.  Participating fishermen affix a code to each fish they catch and upload information about that catch to a website. When consumers get their seafood, they can use their mobile devices to trace the code back to the fishermen.

With close to 30 seafood harvesters,  and several large trade groups and retailers now partnering with ThisFish across Canada, the app is now gaining more acceptance. British Columbia officials delivered funding this week to promote it and make it more widely used across the province. (more…)

Ecotrust names Oborne new Director of Food and Farms

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 by

Amanda Oborne, Ecotrust’s new Director of Food and Farms.

Ecotrust President Astrid Scholz has announced that Amanda Oborne will take over as Ecotrust’s Director of Food and Farms.  Oborne, who heads Ecotrust’s FoodHub initiative, was introduced as the new Food and Farms director at Ecotrust’s Local Hero Awards last week.

“After a national search that yielded an impressive candidate pool, we were pleased to discover that the best candidate was right here in our midst,” Scholz said.

Oborne joined FoodHub as sales and marketing director in 2010 and took over as director in 2012. She has helped build the online wholesale marketplace’s membership to 4,500, spread  across six Western states.  Fast Company named FoodHub one of the top 10 most innovative initiatives in food in 2011, and the site has become an asset for large institutional buyers – particularly schools – looking to source food from regional producers. It has also opened up new markets for rural producers: 20% of members are located in rural counties, and FoodHub allows them to quickly find and connect with urban buyers. (more…)

Community Fisheries Network raising the bar on accountability

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 by

This is a repost from the Ecotrust blog, which is designed to inspire fresh thinking, spark innovation, and encourage investment in natural economies. Read more stories about Ecotrust’s work, and that of our partners and friends, at blog.ecotrust.org.

Community Fisheries Network members are pushing for new metrics for to track progress on sustainability and traceability. Photo by Scott Trimble.

As the seafood industry faces a wave of new questions about the legitimacy of fish labels, the Ecotrust-backed Community Fisheries Network is buckling down and working to build back public trust by establishing rigorous accountability on sustainability standards for its 13 membership organizations nationwide. (more…)

We Got Schooled

Monday, March 11th, 2013 by

OrganicologyNow a month hence, I find myself still thinking about Organicology, the bi-annual immersion in organic agriculture and gathering of its dedicated practitioners hosted in Portland in early February.

We at FoodHub took our whole team to the conference this year – it’s one thing to sit behind a computer creating tools and technology to facilitate commercial success in local food systems, and entirely another to meet the farmers, agronomists, researchers and innovators who are literally and figuratively “in the weeds” devising solutions for communities to feed themselves in a way that renews the resources upon which we all depend. In other words, we went to “get schooled”!

And schooled we did get. For two hours we listed to mycologist Paul Stamets hold forth on how mushrooms of different types have been shown to remediate toxic waste sites and oceanic oil spills, and saw evidence that mushrooms have helped cure breast cancer. You can get a flavor yourself by watching Stamets’ 2008 TED talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World“.

Curt Ellis, co-creator and co-star in the groundbreaking 2007 film King Corn (worth watching if you haven’t seen it!), talked about his latest project, FoodCorps. Like a Peace Corps for the sustainable food industry, FoodCorps trains a network of volunteers nationwide to connect kids to real food in hopes of helping them grow up healthy. The application process is highly selective, based on potential for long-term leadership as much as current passion and experience. Apply before March 24th!

And finally, Tom Philpott, food and ag blogger for Mother Jones and cofounder of Maverick Farms, held us rapt at 8:30 on a Saturday morning to learn about fracking. I was confused at first about why Philpott, a noted commentator on all manner of food system issues, spent his entire time at the microphone talking about fracking, but I had to admit I didn’t know much about the topic at all before I walked into the ballroom bleary-eyed and in need of coffee that morning.

Thankfully Philpott started with an explanation: fracking is a process of channeling a toxic mix of chemicals and water deep underground to be blown at porous rock formations in order to release natural gas (watch an illustrative two minute video here on National Geographic). What I came to understand is that food and ag are intertwined in the fracking debate in important ways: most obvious perhaps is the potential contamination of land and groundwater by toxic fracking liquid, but as important may be conventional agriculture’s insatiable appetite for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer made using natural gas. Get schooled yourself by reading Philpott’s excellent food and fracking article.

Hearty thanks go out to Organically Grown Company, Oregon Tilth, Organic Seed Alliance and Sustainable Food Trade Association (note: free FoodHub membership required to view member profiles) for co-hosting Organicology and making top quality speakers and content so readily accessible! School has never been this delicious.