This study identifies and quantifies the opportunities for, and barriers to, increasing the availability of locally produced fruits and vegetables in the South Puget Sound region of western Washington State, particularly in the under-tapped retail and institutional food service markets.
A mixed-mode data collection approach combining online and mail surveys with in-person interviews was used to solicit input from produce farmers as well as retail and institutional food service buyers.
The South Puget Sound region is defined in this study as Mason, Lewis, and Thurston Counties, all of which are located along the dominant transportation corridor connecting the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro and Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton metropolitan areas.
- Responding produce farmers in the South Puget Sound region harvested an average of 14 acres of fruits and vegetables from 29 acres of farmland in 2012, and two-thirds of these farms fit the USDA definition of a small farm, which is one that produces and sells between $1,000 and $250,000 per year in agricultural products (USDA-NASS 1998).
- The largest percentage of farmer respondents (74%) and buyer respondents (57%) defined local as being a product consumed either within 100 miles of the point of production or the county of origin. When asked what percentage of their produce they would like to sell locally, 87% of farmers responded 76% to 100% of their harvest.
- The majority of farmer respondents sold produce at farmers markets (88%), directly to retailers (88%), at farm stands (64%), and directly to restaurants or caterers (64%). Within the next three years, 39% and 41% of surveyed farmers expected to start up or expand direct sales to retailers and restaurants/caterers, respectively.
- Responding farmers were most comfortable marketing their products by word-of-mouth or through the Internet. Person-to-person communication and recommendation was a very effective method for 82% of responding farmers, while websites/blogs and social media were ranked second in effectiveness.
- Most retail and institutional food buyers did not know who the farmers were or how to contact them; thus, they have not been active in approaching farmers to develop business-to-business relationships.
- Access to and/or cost of farmland was most limiting to those produce farmers who operated larger farms and were most economically reliant on their farms. Thurston County farmers were more farmland-limited than farmers in the two other counties.
- Sixty-two percent of farmers requiring agricultural infrastructure identified cold storage as the greatest need. The primary demand for additional cold storage capacity came from Thurston County produce farmers.
- A majority of responding farmers (64%) would consider aggregating and/or jointly marketing their agricultural products with other farms in order to access markets. The sharing of machinery and equipment was of primary interest, while farmers were divided in their interest in sharing cold storage, with 44% of respondents being moderately to very interested, and 33% being not interested.
Washington is the fifth largest vegetable-producing state by volume, accounting for 4.2% of the U.S. total (USDA-NASS 2013), and it accounts for about one-tenth of U.S. fruit-bearing acreage (USDA-ERS 2010). A recent analysis of major industry clusters in five counties of southwest Washington, including the three counties of interest to this study, found that crop production represents the largest volume of sales in the food production and processing sector, amounting to 11% of the sector total of just over $4 billion (PMWDC 2012).
The South Puget Sound region, which for the purposes of this study encompasses Mason, Lewis, and Thurston Counties, is situated along a route of strong consumer demand for local produce stretching from Seattle, Washington, to Portland, Oregon. Thus, many of the region’s produce farms have developed direct-to-consumer marketing approaches, including sales through farmers markets, farm stands, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
There are nine farmers markets in the region with membership in the Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA), including the Olympia Farmers Market, considered the second largest in the state.