By Amelia Veneziano, Daily News staff writer
Photo by Geoff Crimmins/Daily News
Buy local has been a growing mantra across the region, country and world for some time.
But as agriculture exports from the United States, especially dryland regions like the Palouse, continue to grow, finding local products in local stores is a little more difficult.
And ensuring they're grown sustainably and on family farms is another task altogether.
So about a year and a half ago. Pacific Northwest Farmers Co-op Specialty Foods was launched.
The Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, based in Genesee, is a 104-year-old cooperative with more than 700 members and 24 facilities across the Inland Northwest. Its specialty foods line brings local, sustainably grown and non-Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) lentils and garbanzo beans into restaurants and stores, be they in Moscow or Seattle.
"We have found that it always starts with one restaurant or one customer," said Bill Newbry, the PNW Co-op CEO. "And it's not just a Moscow-Pullman thing, it's not just a U.S. thing. It's worldwide, and people are clamoring for this. We're trying to fill a need, and we think we're filling it."
The specialty foods line is Food Alliance certified, meaning the independent Food Alliance inspects growers and facilities and deems them sustainable and properly grown - limited amounts of ground tilling, for example, said PNW Co-op Farmer Ambassador Jim Hermann, one of eight Food Alliance-certified farmers selling the specialty crops.
Hermann, a Genesee farmer, is part of an Idaho century family, meaning his family has worked the land for more than 100 years. Becoming Food Alliance certified just made sense, he said, especially after reading the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollen, which examines food sourcing and agriculture, and doing his own research into food.
"I'm a consumer and I like eating, too," he said, stating that he reads labels and is aware of where his own dinner-table fare comes from. "In fact, it's kind of a hobby of mine, and everybody has a right to know where their food comes from. We've got to be accountable for what we're doing."
So Hermann, and the other seven farmers - all within a 60-mile radius of Pullman-Moscow - open their farms up to Food Alliance inspectors, a third party that checks the entire operation for the chemicals used, employee treatment, soil and water conservation and protection of wildlife habitat.
Right now, there are three Food Alliance-certified lines of lentils, two lines of garbanzos and one of peas, said Kim Davidson of Davidson Commodities, the marketing company for PNW Co-op, based in Spokane. The specialty foods line was created to bring the product into local markets, as many of the PNW Co-op lines are exported overseas, she said.
"It's another revenue stream for farmers and it helps people know their neighbors are growing really great food," Davison said. "People can walk into a local store or restaurant and know that food is grown by their neighbors."
Products have been in stores across the region for about a year, Davison said. A year ago, the products were only available in two stores, including the Moscow Co-op. From there, they expanded into the Seattle area as a test market and arrived at the Moscow Huckleberry's in Rosauers quickly after.
"More than anything, we want to put in local vendors," said Jerrod O'Dell, the manager of the Moscow Huckleberry's. "We're trying to reach that market, instead of always having big corporate stuff."
Huckleberry's carries four of the five products, with the fifth under consideration depending on space, O'Dell said.
"They do very well," he said. "They kind of sell themselves because people know this is a local product."
The specialty foods line is in 34 stores and 17 restaurants in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho, including Sangria, Mikey's Gyros and Gnosh in Moscow and the Black Cypress in Pullman. The University of Washington recently signed on to serve the products, and Whitman College in Walla Walla was a partner last year. Gritman Medical Center also serves up the lentils and garbanzos.
And a partnership with the Bon Appetite Management Co. has introduced PNW Co-op Specialty Foods into Nordstrom cafes.
The next step is expanding both the product line and its locations, Davidson said. Although the Palouse may not be "local" to the Midwest or the East Coast, Palouse lentils are still more local there than China, and PNW Co-op plans to capitalize on that, she said.
"We'll continue to emphasize sustainability, non-GMO and that our products are grown on family farms," Davidson said. "Our farmers are rock stars, and the more we can do to reach out to educate people about the good work farmers are doing, I think that's important."
Hermann's farm is certainly family owned and managed. All five of Hermann's children have worked alongside their father on the farm, and one son recently came home with an engineering degree to rejoin his father.
"The family farm is not dead by any means," Hermann said. "We've been able to expand, and my son has been able to come back. I think that's huge."
And with his youngest son graduating from high school soon, Hermann plans to take a trip and check out his products on big-city shelves.
"I'd like to get out and meet the consumer," he said, mentioning Portland and Seattle as upcoming destinations. "I guess I need to get out more."
For more information, go www.pnw.coop or davidsoncommodities.com/pnw-coop-specialty-foods.
Amelia Veneziano can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 233, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.