Eat It Where It's Grown: Getting Rogue Valley Produce Into Local Supermarkets

Dec 3, 2015

The Rogue Valley boasts a thriving community of small family farms, many of them organic. But most of the food grown here is shipped out of the area.  If you want to buy this bounty locally, farmers markets and food co-ops have pretty much been your only option.

Now, farmers are getting together to put Rogue Valley grown produce where most people buy their food: the local supermarket. 

It’s December of 2014, just about exactly a year ago … At the Medford Food Co-op, produce manager Steve Swader details what he’s looking for from local farmers.

“I need a consistent flow of product,” he says. “Consistency of the product and consistency of the quality.”

Elise Higley nods in agreement. Higley heads the Rogue Valley Grown project, run by Thrive, a local economic development non-profit. She’s showing Swader a list she’s put together to make it easier for buyers like him to know what will be available from local farmers in the coming growing season …

“This is basically all that they are offering for the next year that they already plan to have available, and the months they will have them available.”

Swader says he’ll take a look. Higley says she’ll check back with him … Sitting at a table outside the co-op, Higley ticks off what she sees as some of the benefits of locally grown food becoming more widely available.

“We’ve got more jobs because more people are working on farms,” she says. “We’ve got happy farmers, we’ve got land that’s staying in agriculture and not being developed, the whole economy is thriving.”

But getting small farmers geared up to produce for larger, commercial supermarkets was an early challenge. Higley says that when she first approached supermarket produce managers about buying Rogue Valley produce, they were interested ...

“But we didn’t necessarily have that consistency that they were looking for because farmers hadn’t planned,” she says. “So now we’re in this great time of the year where we get to plan for next season.”

Higley’s aim for 2015 is to coordinate between growers and buyers so that the farmers are producing what supermarkets want to buy.

Fast forward to August ... The Ray’s Food Place chain has agreed to feature Rogue Valley Grown produce, and Higley has set up at a table in the Ray’s market in Phoenix. She’s passing out samples of a recipe made from veggies grown by Blue Fox and Whistling Duck Farms.

“So, this is a cole slaw, it’s made from cabbage and kale and carrots from the Rogue Valley,  and this is the recipe if you like it.”

Talent resident Laura Compton is impressed.

“It’s good. Really good,” she says. “Everybody should support their own in the Rogue Valley … that’s how people survive and get good food.”

Higley points Compton toward the Rogue Valley Grown signs in the produce department.

Fast forward again …. At a recent end-of-season meeting of local farmers at the Extension Service office in Central Point, most are firmly behind the effort to expand their reach beyond the farmers markets.

Olivia Hasey and her husband Michael run The Farming Fish farm in Rogue River. She agrees local growers need to be where the consumers are.

“If 95 percent of the food is being bought in restaurants and grocery stores, we need to work with restaurants and grocery stores.”

Christi Reilly runs TerraSol Organics, also in Rogue River, with her husband Kyle. She says the Rogue Valley Grown program is making slow progress with an existing system that’s not well-geared to the seasonal ebb and flow of locally-grown food.

“Potatoes are only available for a limited period of time locally,” she says. “So it’s adjusting the mindset of grocers and restaurants and other wholesalers that, ‘OK, I can buy local potatoes at this time of year, and the rest of the year I have to buy it from somebody else.’ And so it’s changing the paradigm and it’s just a re-education.”

Elise Higley says this past year has seen mixed success. The online system for grocers to buy directly from producers still has some bugs.

On the other hand, the crop planning to make sure farmers are growing what buyers want worked pretty well.

“The part that didn’t go well,” she says, “is that most of the customers at the Ray’s market weren’t necessarily the people that were wanting to buy Rogue Valley Grown produce.

Still, Higley says, the project is already gearing up for ­next season, hoping to build on the successes and find new approaches to get more locally grown food onto local dinner tables.