EVERETT — When pandemic panic buying led to empty shelves at chain grocery stores last spring, local Snohomish County farms struggled to meet a surge in demand without the infrastructure necessary to quickly ramp up their production.
That’s something a new Snohomish County Food and Farming Center may help remedy.
The lack of funds for infrastructure like washing stations, cooled storage, delivery trucks and commercial kitchens holds many Snohomish County farms back, even outside pandemic times, County Agriculture Coordinator Linda Neunzig said.
The county hopes to repurpose existing buildings at McCollum Park into a processing and distribution center and a commercial kitchen for farmers to use. There are also plans for a year-round indoor farmers market. It is contingent upon receiving state funding from the Legislature. The 78-acre park is located about a half mile east of I-5 at 600 128th St. SE.
The processing and distribution center will provide a space for farmers to wash, freeze and slice produce.
Smaller farmers can also use the space to combine their products together to fulfill big orders.
“If you and I have blueberries and we have a big order from a big institution and we only have enough if we package and deliver them together as one order, we as smaller farmers could meet that order,” Neunzig said.
Producers can also use the center to combine forces and outsource delivery, lowering cost and reducing time away from the farm.
“It opens up a market,” Neunzig said.
Eric Fritch, a livestock farmer on Snohomish County’s Agriculture Advisory Board, said many of the county’s small farmers would benefit from a more cost-effective method of getting their product to larger markets like Seattle.
“There are quite a few small farms that could produce more if they had an efficient method of getting their product to the market,” he said.
The county plans to convert a 7,500-square-foot former parks department equipment building into the distribution center. The building already has roll-up doors and other necessary commercial features.
Producers will likely pay a fee to use the center but remain independent operators, Neunzig said.
The building right next door could become a commercial kitchen. The 4,500-square-foot space currently houses Washington State University Extension offices. Those will relocate, Neunzig said.
In the kitchen, farmers can turn strawberries into jam, tarts and pies.
The kitchen will also act as an incubator for baking businesses interested in using local products.
“It becomes that stepping stone to get you started and allow you to grow before you get to the next level,” Neunzig said.
The county plans to ask for funding from the Legislature during its current session. That will cover the first phase of the Food and Farming Center — the processing center and commercial kitchen.
A structural assessment next month will determine how much it will cost to remodel the two existing buildings.
The second phase, an indoor year-round farmers market, isn’t included in the county’s legislative ask.
The center “will help make sure our small farms are viable and growing and able to produce so that when grocery stores have empty shelves, people know where to go,” she said. “If we lose farmers because of a lack of infrastructure, that makes our food system even more fragile.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; email@example.com; Twitter: @sanders_julia.