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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Western’s Office of Sustainability connects Western staff, students to local farms

The Office of Sustainability has created a Viking Supported Agriculture program, set to begin fall of 2020

Various items found in one of Boldly Grown Farm’s produce boxes. // Photo courtesy of Amy Frye

By Sophia Galvez

Western’s Office of Sustainability has created a Viking Supported Agriculture (VSA) program that helps connect Western students and staff to local farmers for delivered, fresh produce. 

The Office of Sustainability found farms to work with through Sustainable Connections, which reached out to local farms, said Lindsey MacDonald, interim director for the Office of Sustainability.

Sustainable Connections, a Bellingham nonprofit, reaches out to local farmers and compiles a list of Community Supported Agriculture, or local food box providers, and shares that with employers such as Western, said Alex Smith, the food and farming outreach coordinator for Sustainable Connections. 

“We help find farms that are a good match based on the food they produce, the scale they operate on and their farming practices,” Smith said. 

Sustainable Connections uses sustainability indicators so consumers have transparency in selecting a farm, Smith said. 

Some indicators are Certified Organic, Whatcom Farmers for Clean Water

and Salmon Safe, which are all third-party certifications that indicate sustainability, Smith said. 

“We recognize that many small local farms are using sustainable practices but don’t have the capacity or desire to go through a certification process,” Smith said. “We encourage people to meet their farmers and many farmers are happy to talk with customers about their practices.”

VSA works with farms including Viva farm, Matheson farm, Tangled Thicket farm, Terra Verde Farm, Wright Brothers Farm, Sea to Shore Seafood Co. and Boldly Grown Farm, MacDonald said. 

Boldly Grown Farm is a family-owned, certified organic mixed-vegetable farm in Skagit Valley, said Amy Frye, one of the owners of the farm. 

Boldly Grown Farm became a part of the community supported agriculture program in Bellingham two seasons ago and had thought about trying to have a drop site at Western before the VSA existed, Frye said.

“My husband Jacob and I started our farm in 2015 on one acre, and now have grown to 12 acres,” Frye said. “Our primary focus is on growing high-quality fall and winter storage vegetables for wholesale markets.” 

Boldly Grown Farm sells to many grocery stores and restaurants in Western Washington and Oregon. The winter Community Supported Agriculture program, running from November to March, is an important part of Boldly Grown Farm and is a unique opportunity to receive a regular supply of local veggies during the typical off-season, Frye said. 

The Office of Sustainability works with various farms at once, MacDonald said. 

“We manage all of the logistics in terms of getting them a space to drop off, then customers work directly with the farm they’re interested in working with,” MacDonald said. 

People can select the farms where they want to order produce, MacDonald said. 

Not all farms have the same growing seasons, so which farm a person chooses to work with depends on what produce they want to receive and what time of year they want to receive it, MacDonald said. 

Boldly Grown Farm’s primary focus is on wholesale fall and winter staples, which coincides well with farm-to-school needs, Frye said.

“Though winter farming has its challenges, we love helping to feed our community during our dark, cold northwest winters, and are excited to see how we can grow the relationship with Western Washington University,” Frye said. 

A winter Community Supported Agriculture share consists of 10 biweekly boxes, each containing approximately eight to 10 different items, Frye said. 

Boxes have a rotating core of stalwart winter vegetables, which include items like beets and shallots, plus freshly harvested items like kale and collards. Products like sauerkraut and chili flakes are also sometimes added to the boxes, Frye said.

“Most people only get food from one farm at a time because it’s quite a bit of food,” MacDonald said. 

A typical box costs about $24 per week, MacDonald said.  

Some farms have adapted to allow people to pay on a weekly or monthly basis, or people can pay all upfront if that’s possible for the customer, MacDonald said. 

Programs like VSA support farmers because paying for produce at the beginning of the season means a farmer can count on that money at the beginning of the year, MacDonald said. 

“If farmers can’t sell some of their produce in one venue, like a restaurant, they have a definite market in another,” MacDonald said. “You kind of buy into the idea of supporting the farmers through good and bad times”. 

The VSA program is especially relevant now, as people are looking at ways to shop local and make fewer trips to the grocery store, MacDonald said. 

Sustainable Connections worked with the Office of Sustainability to identify farms that would work well with VSA. This year, Sustainable Connections also helped connect VSA and the Office of Sustainability with off-campus drop sites and delivery options, since campus has been closed, Smith said.

“People are still getting food right now, but because the campus is closed, we had to move our pickup,” MacDonald said.  

Now, the pickup for produce boxes is at Oven Pizza in Fairhaven, MacDonald said. 

“CSA (or VSA) is a safe way to get the best, freshest food and support local farms,” Smith said. “The food is touched by only the farmers, money can be exchanged online to eliminate contact and trips to the grocery store can be reduced or even eliminated.” 

Buying directly means a lot of the supply chain is cut from the farm-to-table process, so farmers get a larger cut of the total cost while consumers still save money, Smith said. Since the food doesn’t have to be moved through a supply chain, it typically goes from the field to your fridge in a day or less.

The Office of Sustainability started allowing donations this year to students who do not have access to fresh produce, MacDonald said.  

“Donations allow us to purchase extra food from farms,” MacDonald said.

The Office of Sustainability is hoping to bring the extra food to the pop-up pantries every Wednesday, MacDonald said.   

“We love that the VSA program offers the opportunity for participants to donate additional boxes to students in need,” Frye said. “We strongly believe local food should be available to all.” 

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