Whatcom County has a rich history in food processing and preservation. For millennia, the indigenous people harvested and processed the natural foods in this area. In the past century, farms, fisheries, and food-processing plants blossomed and prospered. However, as we arrived at the 21st century, food production here has changed dramatically.
How did we get here? What does the food landscape look like now? And how shall we approach the future?
The Whatcom County Food Network is a new committee in the early stages of being organized. It was born from a Whatcom County Ordinance in 2018 for the purpose of advancing the economic, social, and environmental health of our food system. They will examine and support many interconnected sectors; including land, water, fishing, farming, labor, processing, transportation, consumption, aquaculture, and waste.
On November 14th, they held their Fall Forum at Pioneer Pavilion Community Center. Speeches and discussions centered around the history, trends, and upcoming innovations of food processing in our area.
Tammy, a lovely indigenous story-teller from Nooksack, started the day with a native “Welcome” song. She told a folkloric tale about how the Coho salmon acquired a hooked nose. Then Tammy enlightened us about the native relationship with food.
In the old days, many families lived in the long houses together. Foraged and hunted foods were dried and smoked in the eves of the building. Root vegetables, herbs, and dried berries were tucked away in the cool corners to last through winter. Each individual brought a talent or skill that was shared and traded within the group. This person brought elk, that one salmon, this one medicine, that one tools, or songs, or clothing, or baskets, and so on. On a larger scale, each tribe excelled in some area or brought a natural resource that could be traded with other tribes – for example Nooksack canoes for Lummi shellfish.
In time, other peoples came to further cultivate and harvest from these rich lands and water systems. These farmers and fishermen traded on a much larger scale than the indigenous peoples did. But, like all industries, they experienced peaks and valleys.
Frozen vegetable processing in Whatcom County played a prominent role for about 80 years. At it’s peak in the 197s, there was a processing plant in Lynden, one in Ferndale, and two in Bellingham. Dave Green, now president and CEO of Skagit Valley Malting, worked in this industry during its glory years. He spoke on this topic and showed pictures of the pea harvesting machines that we always called “pea-viners”. Anyone living here during those years can remember the caravans of pea-viners traveling through the county, around the clock, going from farm to farm, gathering those time-sensitive pea pods. Green states that, at one point, Whatcom County grew about 8,000 acres of peas and provided nearly half of the frozen peas for the whole country.
Because the harvesting machines are so costly, they were owned by the processing plants. The processors negotiated with the farmers about what to cultivate, as well as the quantity and the timing. The processors provided the harvesting service for a fee. At the end of the season, farmers received their portion of the revenue from the sales of the produce.
In addition to peas, Whatcom County’s other large crops included carrots, corn and cauliflower. Green showed a 1931 newspaper clipping of a steam train, 21 cars long, carrying $65,000 worth of canned vegetables to the east coast and destined for Europe. That’s a million dollars of produce in today’s dollars. Remarkable for this little county to produce so much!
Challenges arose, however. The Bellingham plants had issues with waste water. The Lynden and Ferndale plants were bought by larger food processing companies in the mid-west. Eventually, due to shipping costs, these larger parent companies decided to close the far-flung plants in Whatcom County. This is unfortunate because it so happens that peas grow better here than in the mid-west. The maritime night air provides all the moisture needed by the spring crops and yields are higher than in other parts of the country. In a drought year, a mid-west crop could lose 50% of its yield. But here in Whatcom County yields rarely, if ever, dropped by more than 10%.
But, with freight costs and the changes in consumer buying patterns, the demand for Whatcom County’s frozen vegetables disappeared at the end of the 1990’s.
Now Dave Green’s company grows and malts barley for the thriving industry of craft brewers and distillers in this area. It turns out that barley thrives in the pacific northwest for the same reasons that peas once did. So, while some crops and industries decline, others sprout and prosper.
After Green’s presentation, we enjoyed a panel discussion by a group of stake-holders in our local agricultural industry. This included Dave Green, as well as Scott Korthuis of Oxbo International, Pete Granger of Legoe Bay Fisheries, and David Lukens of Grace Harbor Farms.
The group summarized their industries here in Whatcom County, spoke about the challenges, trends, and opportunities, and discussed how the community can provide support.
According to Pete Granger, there are at least 20 companies in Whatcom County that process fish and shellfish, employing about four or five hundred people. Much of the production here depends upon seafood coming into Blaine and Bellingham from Alaska. The processing here includes cutting and freezing, making imitation crab, and turning fish remnants into pet food. Some of the seafood is consumed locally, but most products, especially oysters, caviar, and crab are shipped to Asia.
A challenge to the seafood industry, obviously, is the diminishing supply of fish. Every year, the industry relies upon salmon predictions in order to prepare for the season. But predictions are wildly unpredictable. This year, for example, the prediction for sockeye was for 5 million fish. Actual numbers were more like half a million. It was the lowest run ever recorded. The pinks had a good run this year, but the fall chums are down. Additionally, the tariffs on China are affecting the sales of Whatcom County’s Dungeness crab. All of this unpredictability makes it hard to encourage skilled workers to stay in the fishing industry.
Scott Korthuis (currently the mayor of Lynden) spoke on behalf of Oxbo International – a world leader in specialty harvesters. If you eat frozen peas, beans, or corn, you can bet those crops were harvested by Oxbo equipment. One of their 10 plants in the U.S. happens to be in Lynden. Harvesting machines can cost as much as $800,000 apiece. Lynden is a prime location for building these machines because of the thriving berry industry there.
Harvesting machines of the future will need to involve more robotics and computerization. For example, apple pickers have traditionally been human. But now, with the shortage of laborers, farmers are asking for machines or robots that can pick apples. In turn, Oxbo collaborates with farmers to develop trellised apple trees that better lend themselves to mechanized harvesting. Furthermore, berry farmers are looking for gentler machines that cause less bruising. These innovations will open up jobs to skilled workers who can develop, test, operate, and maintain the machines.
Surprisingly, in the last five years, Whatcom County has lost its lead position as the biggest berry growing region in the nation. Lately, consumers have begun to expect fresh berries all year. California is capitalizing on this by raising berries on a different growing cycle. In turn, Whatcom County farmers have needed to find new markets, such making juice blends with berries.
David Lukens spoke about running a small dairy. He reports, “Fat is back!” Whole fat milk is hot on the market these days and skim products are waning in popularity. So, the horizon looks good for small, organic, and specialty dairies like Grace Harbor Farms. Lukens’ family dairy doesn’t want to grow large, it simply wants to do be the best in this category from Blaine to Tacoma.
Challenges for small farms like Grace Harbor are definitely centered around labor. They want to provide living wage jobs and foster long-term relationships with their employees. This is incredibly hard in the world of farming. The farmers themselves often work long hours for very little profit. Revenue must sustain the farm and the workers first; whatever is left over can be kept by the farmer. But these sacrifices are made by dedicated farmers who are passionate about their calling. To stay in business, some are converting to an employee-owned model. Lukens states that he and his father are looking into this option for their near future.
Lukens has seen many large dairies in Whatcom County close or consolidate with neighbors. He feels that the number of cows in the county has remained steady, but the number of farmers has drastically decreased. This may mean that cows aren’t cared for as well as they used to be. Crowded cows cause more damage to the environment. But small farms, with fewer cows that are grass fed, are actually healthy for the environment and can even claim a carbon neutral footprint. This is why it’s so important to foster an economy that supports small dairy farms.
Speaking of the carbon impact, Dave Green’s company, Skagit Valley Malting, has had a full-time sustainability coordinator for two years now. They’ve moved to a 100% renewable energy source from Puget Sound Energy. They consider the carbon impact of shipping when they decide where to grow and where to sell. Thus, 97% of their barley crops are grown within 12 miles of their processing facility and 90% of what they sell remains in Washington, primarily on the coast. This model shines brilliantly in comparison with a commodity grain producer in Minnesota who ships all over the country and draws grain from five states.
It turns out, quality small brewers enjoy having several varieties of barley to choose from. Smaller malt companies can provide such variety. Green says, “Imagine telling a wine maker that there are only two varieties of grape to choose from: red or white.” If the beer world had only a couple types of barley, then you could only drink Coors and Budweiser. So, cultivating a wide variety of barley is a key innovation for the future of the malt industry in this area.
To summarize the consensus of the panel, local agriculture could benefit from worker coops and employee-ownership models. Advancements in harvesting machines calls for a more highly skilled workforce and this means offering higher paid jobs. Technical colleges must provide and promote learning courses geared towards those jobs. Localized farming that processes and sells to a local market will reduce carbon impact. Farms and processing plants should strive to offer jobs with upward mobility, and provide interesting and varied tasks that eliminate repetitive-stress injuries and require continuous skill development. Workers should be able to choose their roles and work styles, and they should be listened to. Small employers need to innovate perks for workers, such as an on-call doctor who visits employees at the job site for checkups and preventative treatments. This idea is being tried out by Bellingham Cold Storage right now.
Following this panel discussion, we enjoyed hearing from Mauri Ingram of the Whatcom Community Foundation – a big supporter of the local food movement. Her foundation brings together donors with local projects that are designed to support the community. Mauri says, “Everyone who lives here should thrive here.”
One of those projects is the “Bellingham Millworks Project.” Their plan is to build a food-centered business hub on the Bellingham waterfront. The actual building site is walking distance from the Bellingham Farmer’s Market. The Millworks’ vision is still being shaped, but they have exclusive negotiating rights with the Port of Bellingham. This allows planning to proceed without the fear that another developer will snatch up the site before the project is ready.
The Millworks mission is to build a “virtuous cycle surrounding food.” So, the campus will be a place to foster small food-based businesses and, by extension, Whatcom County’s agricultural industry. Imagine a central kitchen used for peak-season ag/food processing. The kitchen will also welcome non-profit and public entities serving daily meals to under-resourced communities. Nearby, you will find business incubation services for food-based businesses. This may include training/classroom facilities or small office space, event space, and retail space.
The vision recognizes that “life happens around food” so they also plan to construct 70 units of affordable housing along with child-care facilities. Imagine a modern version of the Nooksack longhouses. This food campus seeks to mimic that structure where people live and work in the same area where food is grown, prepared, and consumed. These laborers should be able to partake of the very food that they worked hard to produce. There are egregious gaps in this food cycle today. But the Millworks proposes multiple ways to close those gaps.
Whatcom County’s food industry needs to be adaptable. We can’t continue to thrive on the same products and procedures that worked in the prior century. Therefore, the Millworks Project is currently interviewing over 40 community leaders to get a sense of what is needed here. Priorities are: economic development, job training and creation, building wealth for farmers and entrepreneurs, and to enhance the waterfront development efforts. For ideas and details, the project is examining other successful food-hubs like those in Baltimore, Portland, and Boston. For funding and sponsorship, the Millworks looks to the Whatcom Community Foundation to help find philanthropic donors and developers.
To support local workers, the project will heavily promote the employee-owned (or ESOP) business model. This model has proven to be a successful way to retain workers and provide better compensation packages. According the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO), employ-owned companies are 25% more likely to stay in business and enjoy 2.7% more return on assets (ROA) than traditional companies. ESOPs on average provide 2.5 times bigger retirement accounts and 5% to 12% more in wages.