Despite excellent soil, abundant farmland, and proximity to urban centers with consumers interested in locally grown products, Clark County farms haven’t been able to generate as much income per acre as nearby rural areas.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, the market value of products sold in Washington County, Ore., (also part of the Willamette Valley) was $1,911 per acre.
In Clark County, it was $522 per acre.
Many people in Clark County are working to bridge this gap.
At the Washington State University Clark County Extension, Regional Agriculture Specialist Justin O’Dea uses his experience working with farmers in New York state’s Hudson Valley (near New York City) along with his work in Clark County to help farmers create ways to get more value out of their land.
At the 78th Street Heritage Farm, O’Dea is experimenting with some high-value crops that he believes could grow locally, including shiitake mushrooms, specialty seed crops, and a hulless spelt developed by Washington State University. Artisan bakers throughout the country have taken an interest in working with ancient grains like spelt.
“The whole metro area is your market,” said O’Dea. He plans on taking Heritage Farm-grown spelt to bakers in Portland and offering spelt seeds to farmers. O’Dea also sees potential for farmers to grow grains for craft brewers.
Holly Hansen opened the Second Mile Marketplace and Food Hub in Salmon Creek several years ago as a centralized area for year-round aggregation, distribution, marketing and sale of locally produced food goods. The business includes a hub for farmers to bring their produce, a commercial kitchen, and an online marketplace for farmers and artisans to sell their products.
“It’s my work to strengthen those connections between farmers and artisans, to be the matchmaker,” said Hansen. Hansen’s match-making slowed down during the pandemic because people couldn’t gather at Second Mile, 11819 N.E. Highway 99, and make those personal connections. She’s also found it hard to get artisans who are just starting their small businesses to use locally grown products because they can be more expensive. In addition, farms in Clark County are small, so it’s hard to get them to produce enough for someone to grow a business.
Nonetheless, Hansen believes as farmers markets open, the growing season begins, and the pandemic wanes, allowing more in-person meet-ups, these connections can be forged over time.
“The mission of the Second Mile,” said Hansen, “is to identify things that grow well in Clark County with a high market value and find farmers to grow them.” Hansen thinks berries, herbs, and greens can all be used in products made in the on-site commercial kitchen.
Over the winter she’s used locally grown kale in soups. She’s created pasta recipes using Clark County-grown beets, roasted red peppers, butternut squash, and ravioli stuffed with pumpkin. Hansen also met with farmers to talk about what they plan on growing this season and share with them the market’s needs.
In addition to creating a space for these products, Second Mile helps with marketing and sells products through its online shop. Hansen earned an MBA in sustainable business at Marylhurst University. She has 20 years of sales experience including running her own media company, The 411 Media Group. “My job is to create the Clark County brands and suggest products to artisans,” she said.
Mark Lopez of Gather and Feast Farm and Crave Catering is a farmer, chef, and entrepreneur. He bought his 20-acre property outside of La Center to host events. Before the pandemic, Lopez held farm dinners in the summer, but he’s always envisioned offering the space for weddings.
Unfortunately, holding weddings on farmland in Clark County has become a contentious issue. In 2018, Lopez attended a town hall held by Clark County and a follow-up meeting to discuss weddings on farmland in Clark County. He thought the county would move forward and offer a permit for these events, but that didn’t happen.
For now, he plans to keep working with the county while focusing on drumming up business for corporate events. He’ll be making cold calls in the next few weeks to local businesses by presenting them with loaves of chocolate chip pumpkin bread along with promotional materials and launching a social media campaign to promote these events.
In addition, Lopez uses his commercial kitchen for his catering business to make valuable products like barbecue sauce made with Italian plums and tomatoes, frozen lasagna, and herb salts. All these products are made with items grown on Gather and Feast Farm and sold in his on-site farmstand.
O’Dea, Hansen, and Lopez are just a few of the people who have worked over the years to create a robust agricultural economy in Clark County. As the county develops and attracts visitors to popular new spots like The Waterfront Vancouver, these actors hope to create a vibrant marketplace for Clark County’s farmers.