Fresh from a farm

Farming wasn’t exactly a promising profession when Linda Neunzig started Ninety Farms near Arlington about 12 years ago.

Pastures once close to her childhood home in Snohomish had become subdivisions. Families who had cultivated the land for generations found it was more profitable to work elsewhere. It didn’t look good, despite her specialized business of raising heritage breed lambs.

Today Neunzig’s 52-acre farm, like most, isn’t making enough for her to raise her family and pay the mortgage without supplemental income. Flooding and coyote attacks recently cost her business more than $10,000.

So why then is Neunzig more optimistic than ever?

She can tell you in one word: local.

It’s a movement, a motto, a trend, a socio-political-economic lightning rod, a buzzword you’ll be hearing more often when the subject turns to food.

Local is the new organic.

“People want local food, and they’re willing to pay for the freshness, the taste, the quality,” Neunzig said of her locally grown vegetables and meat sold primarily to area restaurants. “They’re buying more and more local.”

Farm stands, farmers markets, home grocery-delivery services, seasonal vegetable subscriptions, farm tours and gourmet chefs who favor local food are all connecting urban consumers with rural resources, sometimes year-round.

“Ag is so exciting right now. I just can’t imagine a better place to be,” Neunzig said. “I think for a long time we felt like we were in a dying business, and now we feel like a growing business.”

All kinds of factors are driving the buy-local ethic, said Mary Embleton, executive director of the Cascade Harvest Coalition, which represents about 250 farm members.

“Certainly health and nutrition,” Embleton said, citing motivators such as childhood obesity and weight-related diabetes. “We know whole fruits and vegetables are better than processed stuff in general.”

Frustration with large-scale farming in recent years, including incidents involving E. coli and animal diseases such as mad cow, have pushed consumers to explore their local food supply.

The distance food travels, called food miles, and the fossil fuels used are other factors.

“People are concerned with protecting the environment and air quality,” Embleton said. “Having a healthy farm sector as part of your landscape adds to environmental quality.”

Government leaders have been watching the buy-local trend take shape too.

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has made financial success for farmers and, in turn, farmland preservation, a top priority during the past three years.

He hired longtime county employee John Roney to fill a new agricultural coordinator position so the county would have a full-time liaison to meet with farmers.

He also spearheaded Focus on Farming conferences to connect with farmers and a Web site that addresses regulatory questions.

Neunzig, in addition to running her farm with some outside help, is joining the county effort too, working full time as a project coordinator.

“When the government comes and says, ‘What you’re doing makes a difference,’ it’s a positive reinforcement,” Neunzig said.

Other groups are also working with farmers, including the nonprofit Burlington-based Northwest Agriculture Business Center, formed in 2005 to serve five counties, including Snohomish and Island. The Haggen grocery-store chain has partnered with the center to help farmers sell and market their goods in a retail setting.

Meanwhile, new distribution networks are emerging to help local farmers.

Abbi Little of Everett founded Abbi’s Northwest in 2004 specifically to distribute local farm products.

This year, she will help bring local farmers’ produce directly to people’s homes by partnering with Small Potatoes Urban Delivery, a weekly grocery delivery service known as SPUD that serves homes from Everett to Olympia.

Little also distributes thousands of whole-grain rolls a week – made by Schiavo’s Bakery in Everett – to the Bellevue School District.

“We should be doing this in Everett, and we should be doing this in Snohomish,” said Whidbey Island chef Tom French, who offers food education programs at schools that serve the rolls. “I’m confident we’re going to get there.”

Roney hopes the future of local farming can include not just farm tourism and local food at schools, but profitable crops for making biodiesel fuel, food-processing facilities for local products and a facility for the USDA-approved slaughter of animals for better access to local meat.

“Americans are used to a cheap food supply. The question might be, ‘What are you willing to pay for food?’” Roney said. “Would you rather have the ability to produce food to feed the people of this region or do you want everything to be either houses or a wetland?”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@heraldnet.com.

Puget Sound Fresh features extensive lists and maps of local farms, farmers markets, local-food retail outlets, a community supported agriculture directory, recipes, special events and easy-to-read charts of what foods are available locally and when. Go to www.pugetsoundfresh.org or call the Cascade Harvest Coalition at 206-632-0606.

Small Potatoes Urban Delivery, also known as SPUD, serves homes from Olympia to Everett with weekly deliveries of all kinds of groceries based on online orders. Go to www.spud.com or call 206-621-7783.

The Farm Trail Guide Map by the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau features local farms and agricultural events open to visitors. Call 888-338-0976 or go to www.snohomish.org.

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