John Neumeister, founder of Cattail Creek Lamb near Junction City in rural Lane County, buys lambs from three Oregon farms that raise them on a protocol he established. Neumeister buys live lambs on contract and ushers them through processing and marketing, selling primarily in Portland. He sees his dependence on urban eaters as a simple truth.
If rural farmers and ranchers want to succeed, they need to get their product to where the money is. In the Pacific Northwest, the food money is in the trendy restaurants, specialty markets and institutional buyers of Portland and Seattle.
For Neumeister, it works. He said he’s making money, and he said the three lamb growers get paid up to $1 per pound more than the going market rate.
Tapping the urban market put him in collaboration with earnest activists — “food futurists” is an expression among some — who frankly hope to see more equity and sustainability in our economic system, beginning with the food system. Among other things, Neumeister’s processed lamb gets pedaled to Portland customers by riders on solar-charged cargo trikes.
“If Portland and Seattle are quirky, well, you’d better get quirky,” Neumeister said.
Urban customers, rural producers
Urban quirkiness, or even more so urban favor, does hold promise for rural producers. Beef from Wallowa County’s Carman Ranch is known by name in the Portland area, for example, and owner Cory Carman is something of a celebrity in food circles. As in, she’s someone The New York Times seeks out for interviews.
Her beef customers include the food service at Oregon Health & Science University, which delivers 1,200 meals daily to patients’ rooms and feeds several thousand more medical staff, students, instructors and visitors.
Carman said rural producers need to be heads up about what’s going on now in Portland. She said regional, appropriately-sized food systems are the future.
Which brings us to The Redd, the new food hub in Portland’s Central Eastside industrial district. Carman said storage, distribution, aggregation, production and other services at The Redd can solve a big piece of the puzzle for small- to mid-size farmers and ranchers. Most of her in-town restaurant deliveries go through The Redd. Her beef buyer club members go there to pick up their shares. She uses the same storage and trike-delivery services as Neumeister, the lamb marketer.
Why? Because she said America has seen the “peril” of highly-industrialized food.
“People given up too much to get lower cost,” Carman said. “We’ve lost a lot of choice, we’ve lost nutrition. We’ve gained low cost, but lost choice, nutrition, transparency, flavor.”
She said the existing food system puts pressure on farmers to produce what national food companies most want: consistency and low cost.
The desire for locally-produced, healthy food is strong, but many small to mid-size farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers are stalled on an economic plateau. They’ve outgrown the roadside stand, farmers’ market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription scenes, but aren’t big enough to sell to national grocery or restaurant supply chains.
A 2015 study by Ecotrust, a Portland non-profit deeply involved in social justice, food and natural resource issues, dubbed such producers the “ag of the middle.”
In identifying infrastructure gaps that hinder growth, the report said mid-size growers often can’t “scale up,” or expand production, because they’re mired in chores of planting, harvest, labor management, processing, packing, storage, marketing and distribution.
“A lot of economic opportunity is just leaking out” from what could be a much more robust regional food system, said Amanda Oborne, Ecotrust’s vice president of food and farms and the report’s co-author.
Oborne estimated the food markets in Portland and Seattle — the amount of money that changes hands between producers, handlers and eaters — are worth $4 billion and $6 billion annually, respectively.
Ecotrust, pulling together funding and other help from like-minded public and private organizations, set out to solve some of the problems it identified in the 2015 report.
The most glaring snag, and first to be addressed, is what food system researchers call the “last mile” distribution. That is, producers such as Neumeister of Cattail Lamb can get their product to Portland just fine, but then face the puzzle and cost of storage and distribution. Driving a delivery vehicle the “last mile” to a series of restaurants or stores in Portland traffic is nobody’s idea of fun.
Ecotrust’s first answer to such problems is The Redd, a 76,000 square foot, two-building campus in Portland’s Central Eastside industrial district. The $25 million facility takes its name from its location on Salmon Street; a redd is the egg nest a spawning salmon scoops from a streambed.
Redd East, which formally opened March 2, is the campus community space, capable of holding 670 people for events, with smaller spaces for board meetings and offices. A spacious kitchen with a built in video system can be used for product development, catering, or in-person or online demonstrations. The building began life in 1918 as an ironworks business.
Redd West, which has been operating since 2016, is a warehouse, cold storage, production and distribution hub built into a former marble stoneworks sales building.
Its most visible occupant is B-Line Urban Delivery, which uses human powered, battery-assisted cargo trikes to deliver greens, fruit, coffee, meat and fish to 300 customers a month, most of them restaurants. The trike batteries are recharged by a solar array on the roof.
B-Line was solely a delivery company in the past — Office Depot used it at one time to deliver paper to Portland State University downtown — but its role at The Redd is more expansive. B-Line rents pallet rack storage, cooler space and freezer space to producers who need a holding spot, then handles distribution for some with its cargo trikes.
Another key Redd West tenant is Wilder Land & Sea, which brokers meat and seafood to restaurants and uses B-Line to deliver some of it. On a mid-February afternoon, Celilo tribal fisherman arrived unexpectedly with 300 pounds of freshly caught Columbia River sturgeon.
Wilder’s co-founders, Nathan Rispler and Kyle Swanson, bought the fish, rolled it into storage, and alerted a network of Portland chefs to the availability. They expected to have the sturgeon cut, wrapped, sold and delivered within a few days.
Neumeister, of Cattail Lamb, said the The Redd eliminates the weekly hassle of driving 110 miles to Portland to make deliveries himself.
The biggest practical effect, he said, is improved customer service. Storage access is available 24-7, and Wilder Land & Sea and B-Line can respond quickly if a restaurant or market needs lamb.
He’s had no problems with cargo trikes delivering his lamb.
“It took me quite a while to convince my insurance agent,” Neumeister said with a laugh.
The trikes are heavy duty, capable of hauling 600 pounds, yet can park on the sidewalk outside a store or restaurant. “That’s a big one in Portland,” where traffic is thick and parking thin, Neumeister said.
Having storage in Portland’s inner core, where most of the city’s leading restaurants are located, is a major bonus.
“As soon as I heard about it, I went to (Ecotrust) and said, ‘I’m in,’ ” Neumeister said.
He sensed it would help his business, but he also welcomed a large, well-funded philanthropic organization, Ecotrust, turning its attention to the food system.
In its public declarations, Ecotrust touts the “economic multiplier effects” and potential “rural revitalization” that accompany a thriving network of small and mid-size farms, ranches and food entrepreneurs. Benefits can include “restorative production and responsible water stewardship,” local hiring and even climate change mitigation.
At the same time, urban residents gain better access to “nutrient-dense, fresh, local food.” Ecotrust envisions a food system that helps solve what it calls the “vexing challenge” of making good food affordable to low-income and “vulnerable” people.
“I wanted a seat at the table,” Neumeister said. “I believe in those people; they’re doing good things for the planet.
“We all eat,” he said. “It’s a natural thing to organize people around food.” Other small producers have more basic needs.
Brothers Jesse and Aaron Nichols, who operate Stoneboat Farm in the Helvetia area west of Portland, use Redd West for cold storage. They grow vegetables, and this winter stored 13 pallet boxes of root vegetables such as carrots, beets and turnips.
“It is very hard for small farmers like us to find things like that,” Jesse Nichols said. “There’s a huge need. The cold storage industry is not geared for small-scale production.”
The brothers improvised some cold storage at their 30-acre farm and have used a neighboring orchard’s storage unit in the past, but it wasn’t enough. Jesse Nichols said the farm’s need for winter vegetable storage is just under the minimum size required by large cold storage companies.
Stoneboat sells mixed vegetables to restaurants, CSAs and at a farmers’ market. When they have orders to fill, they drive 25 minutes to Redd West in Portland and get what they need from the boxes, which are the dimensions of a pallet and are 5-feet high.
Nichols said many producers don’t know the cold storage option is available.
“I still think the food system and the farmers around here have a lot more need than there is capacity,” he said.
About 200 growers and entrepreneurs now use some aspect of Redd West. A crew from GroundUp, a Portland company that makes almond and cashew nut butters, uses Redd West as a production site once a week.
Founders Julie Sullivan and Carolyn Cesario started making nut butter in their home kitchen Cuisinarts. They expanded to Redd West as their nut butter found favor at farmer’s markets, and it’s now on the shelves in 100 Pacific Northwest grocery stores.
They store raw ingredients at Redd West and use the facility for production, labeling and distribution. B-Line handles their local deliveries.
“It’s an affordable form of distribution, we save ourselves lot of time running around in our cars making deliveries,” Sullivan said.
They’ve increased production from two or three jars every 30 minutes in the early days to making an average of 20 cases per hour, she said. In three years, the staff has grown from the two partners and a part-time intern to nine employees. GroundUp specializes in hiring women who have been homeless or in other rough situations.
Sullivan said she and Cesario eventually want to have their own production facility.
“We appreciate and enjoy the Redd,” she said. “We will reach a point where it’s time for us to go.”
The time it takes to go anywhere in Portland led to the involvement of another key partner: the Portland-based New Seasons grocery chain and its “Green Wheels” program.
New Seasons stores favor local producers, but managers found themselves besieged at their back docks by fleets of small delivery vehicles as vendors hopped from store to store.
A Champoeg, Ore., farmer was a case in point. In 2015, he was gathering, inspecting, packing and delivering hundreds of dozens of pasture-raised eggs weekly to a couple dozen New Seasons and Grand Central Bakery outlets in Portland, 35 miles away. Partly as a result, his eggs sold in the $6 per dozen range; he’s since shut down that part of his operation and sells processed turkeys and geese online at the farmgate.
New Seasons now funnels small vendors to Redd West, where products can be stored, aggregated, labeled and distributed. B-Line’s cargo trikes handle deliveries.
Chris Tjersland, New Seasons’ director of brand development, said the program eliminated 11,800 vendor trips in a two-and-a-half year period ending in December 2018.
Traditional distribution can be costly, and many small producers don’t appreciate the time cost of doing that “final mile” logistics themselves, Tjersland said.
He said Redd West’s storage and delivery system is simply structured and could be reassuring to smaller vendors worried about losing control of their product.
“Vendors are literally in the facility all the time,” he said. “It’s about as hands-on as you can get.”
Still, scaling up to meet an urban market doesn’t always work out.
Rieben Farms, the last hog farm in Washington County west of Portland, thrived for a time under an agreement with New Seasons. The chain bought whole hogs from farmer Greg Rieben at an assured price, and its meat managers even traveled to the farm to help erect additional outdoor shelter for his animals. New Seasons asked for a few tweaks in Rieben’s production methods, helped him bring them about, and for a couple years its meat counters featured his pork by name alongside product from a much larger Washington producer.
But New Seasons shifted into seeking what are known as primal pork cuts instead of buying whole hogs. Rieben said he would have had to pick up the additional processing cost, and decided against it. Their buying arrangement terminated at the end of 2018.
“I wasn’t big enough for them,” Rieben said.
But Rieben said he and New Seasons parted on good terms. Even as their agreement was ending, the business committed to buying all of the hogs Rieben had raised with the expectation of selling to New Seasons.
“They totally stood by that,” Rieben said. He now sells to two other, smaller buyers.
Does it bridge divide?
Will it work? Will the food system revision represented by The Redd be a game changer, the bridge that spans the urban-rural divide?
“That is the great experiment we are all part of right now,” said Sam Appelbaum, who manages B-Line’s storage and delivery operations at Redd West.
Appelbaum said the “lofty notions” of Ecotrust’s food system visionaries don’t always line up with the day-to-day realities of running a warehouse and shipping hub.
He said the facility is a “slam dunk” for small urban manufacturers such as GroundUp, the nut butter maker that uses processing and packing space once a week.
“It helps small food entrepreneurs,” Appelbaum said. “But connecting the rural economy with the urban core? We’re still working on how that is successful.”
The sustainability piece is solid, he said. By using its cargo trikes instead of a standard delivery truck, B-Line avoids 30,000 to 35,000 vehicle miles per year and eliminates production of 80 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Appelbaum based the estimate on what a typical delivery vehicle making the same trips would travel and spew.
Emma Sharer, who manages The Redd campus for Ecotrust, said the food hub aligns with the group’s principle of doing business as a source for good. Programs purposefully involve women and people of color who have been “marginalized,” she said.
“My perspective on that is we’re try create a new kind of economic system centered around food,” Sharer said. “The Redd is one of those infrastructure pieces to support what we’re envisioning.”
Sharer said most consumers aren’t familiar with the complicated details of the supply chain that brings food to stores and restaurants. At the same time, there are “fishers, farmers and ranchers all over who could use the support of the buying power we have in the heart of Portland,” she said.
“We have all this incredible food being grown outside of Portland,” she said. “How do we get more of this bounty to the people who really need it?”
Cory Carman, the Wallowa County rancher who sells beef in Portland, is on Ecotrust’s board of directors. She said the urban and rural food connection and the mutual benefit represented by The Redd are a work in progress.
“You start out with no infrastructure,” she said. “As the infrastructure evolves, you have to figure out the business model. When the infrastructure is a complete roadblock, you focus on that. Then you move on to the next challenge.
“Rural producers can’t look at The Redd and say, ‘Here’s my solution,’ but we can build a supply chain that supports them,” Carman said. The Redd provides a “huge piece” of the answer to storage, aggregation and distribution questions, she said.
Carman is optimistic that The Redd will succeed. There is growing interest, she said, in where our food comes from and how it’s produced.
“This is all driven by consumers,” she said.