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Island food hub links farms to customers

A woman smiles while wearing overalls and a plaid shirt crouched down while petting sheep.
Nancy DeVaux
Salish Current
Interisland ferry transportation makes for a complicated network, but the San Juan Islands Food Hub continues to grow, notes market manager and farmer Sarah Pope.

The San Juan Islands Food Hub (SJIFH) has established itself within a few short years as a valuable link between local farmers and retail customers who can order online and have curbside pick-up on each of three islands.

As demand for locally sourced foods has risen, many smaller farming operations have found it difficult to make the jump from selling at roadside stands and farmers markets to selling larger quantities to grocery stores, restaurants and other institutions.

An unfinished storage with laters and corrugated steel.
Nancy DeVaux
Salish Current
Expanded refrigeration space essential for storage of produce is under construction at the Brickworks in Friday Harbor.

Food hubs make it possible for producers to gain entry into new and additional markets that would be difficult or impossible to access on their own, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

All the pieces came together

Sarah Pope and her husband, Adam Greene, owners of Oak Knoll Farm, produce lamb and wool and currently raise 121 sheep. Pope is also market manager of the food hub.

Pope said that Greene has a background in technology and found a software platform that made for a seamless ordering process.

At that point “all the pieces came together,“ she said, “and it was pretty successful right out of the gate.” Pope taught farmers how to use the technology, and now they use it with no problems. Retail customers were added.

Every Thursday, producers list their available products and the price they expect to receive.

Customers place their orders from Friday through Monday, and on Tuesday the orders are delivered by producers to a location on each island for sorting, packing and delivery to other islands.

On Wednesdays, customers pull up curbside at their pick-up point, at a set time, and receive their order.

A room with hardwood floors and folding tables with bags filled with groceries.
Nancy DeVaux
Salish Current
Produce orders await customer pick up at the Brickworks. 

What’s on the menu?

The food hub showcases products from all the islands: Chinese sprouting broccoli and pork chops from farms on San Juan Island, microgreens and chevre from farms on Orcas, and mixed greens and lemon grass soap from Lopez.

A woman light blue jacket holding green bag
Nancy DeVaux
Salish Current
Dana Anderson has been a customer of the food hub since its beginning four years ago. “I live in town and walk down here,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful treat and it’s so fresh!”

Hundreds of products are available, Pope said. Besides produce, there are meat and eggs, pizza dough, soups, pastries and cookie dough.

The Market Manual specifies what can be sold through the food hub. San Juan County producers selling products that they themselves have raised, gathered, grown or processed in San Juan County have priority.

Value-added producers must use ingredients that were raised, gathered, grown, or processed, in order of preference, by themselves, other SJIFH members, or other Washington State sources who use sustainable farming methods and fair trade and fair labor practices.

Producer members may sell non-food, value-added items that they themselves make, such as soaps and household cleaning supplies. All non-food items must be approved in advance by the board of the SJIFH.

The board may limit the percentage of non-food items sold through the food hub to ensure that the focus of the food hub remains on local food and agriculture.

To become a participating producer, there is a $250 one-time fee for a share in the co-op.

Producers set the price, then 16% is added for retail buyers (12% for wholesale). This goes to the food hub to cover a nominal part of the software, transportation and management expenses.

The food hub accepts EBT (electronic benefits transfer) “because we believe access to fresh and healthy food should be a human right,” according to the FAQ’s on the food hub website. Per SNAP guidelines, only food and beverage items may be charged.

Challenges for making it all come together include coordinating ferry schedules and relying on the frequently-cancelled interisland ferry, transporting products between Eastsound and Lopez Villages and the ferry terminals, securing the use of refrigerated trucks for this process, and coordinating volunteers for fill orders on three islands.

“It’s safe to say we have the most complicated food hub,” Pope said.

Yet it’s all working. Producers are selling and customers are buying. Fresh, locally grown food is more easily available than ever to residents on all the major islands, making everyone happy.

The Salish Current is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, online local news organization serving Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties. We report local news with independence and strict journalistic integrity, providing fact-based information and a forum for civil commentary.

Nancy DeVaux is a member of the San Juan County Housing Advisory Committee.