Bringing Local Foods to Main Streets

SOTW-8-15-12_LocalFoods_MSWash_Banner

Although the cherries might be harvested just down the road or the cattle raised one county over, there is often a huge disconnect between local businesses in small rural towns and the local food system. Washington State’s Main Street Program, however, is working to strengthen the relationship between local businesses and the local agriculture economies, and in turn, revitalize these rural communities.

More than 400 crops or meat products are commercially produced in Washington State, the top five of which are apples, milk, potatoes, wheat, and cattle. The state is number one in the country in apple production—a $1.5 billion crop that is sold in all 50 states and around the world. Following apples, Washington’s top crops are red raspberries, spearmint oil, sweet cherries, pears, concord grapes, wrinkled seed peas, processing carrots, and hops. But this amazing array of local products doesn’t always turn up in the markets and restaurants in the state’s smaller towns.   

Why the Disconnect?

After spending just a few minutes at one of Seattle’s local farmers’ markets, local restaurants, or coffee shops, the vitality of Washington’s local food movement is evident. But, stray further from the metropolitan areas of Spokane, Tacoma, and Seattle into the agricultural heart of the state, and an odd trend emerges; it can actually be harder to access locally produced foods. One reason is that the food distribution hubs—the centrally located facilities that store, process, and distribute local and regionally produced food products—tend to be in more populous areas. So even though food may be farmed or produced in a community, it is more expensive for the farmers to provide food directly to restaurants and grocery stores if there isn’t a hub nearby. 

Defining “Local”

Experts suggest that the “local movement” is one of the major trends that will continue to drive small businesses in 2012. It’s all about local—local artists, local businesses, and most definitely local food. A recent National Restaurant Association survey of chefs showed that local foods made up five of the top 20 food trends.

But what exactly does “local” mean? The debate about the definition of local continues to churn. In a 2006 Washington State study, both consumers and farmers defined local food as coming from within their own county and possibly surrounding counties.

In practice, it seems that the definition of local or regional food is best determined by the individual consumer. Regardless of semantics, the entire point of the local food movement is to create “more locally based, self-reliant food economies in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption are integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.” 

The Role of Main Street

Washington State’s Main Street Program® provides communities with a structure and the right tools to revitalize their downtown commercial core, from supporting small businesses to rehabilitating historic buildings. It is important, however, to recognize that communities are more than just their Main Streets. Downtown is not the sum total of a town’s success, but it is a visible barometer of economic health. It is the heart and soul of a community; it is a snapshot of how the community has developed over time, a celebration of community pride, and a vision of the future. That said, it’s the surrounding agricultural land—the working farms and natural landscape—that has helped shape community identity in Washington State and is the reason for many communities’ very existence. 

[However,] access to local, organic, or small production foods is [frequently] seen as a luxury, not a necessity. For farmers, marketing to local consumers often requires more technical assistance and support than is available.

As such, Main Street programs can help businesses make the connection to the local agricultural industry, which in turn, will help create distinctive places that are attractive to visit and live. The following section highlights two Main Street communities that have capitalized on local agricultural products to enhance their local economies.

Walla Walla’s Burgeoning Wine Industry

Walla Walla, population 31,000, has always been an agricultural community—well-known for its apples, asparagus, strawberries, wheat, and sweet onions. More recently, it has become famous for its wine. 

The Walla Walla Valley, which is a certified American Viticultural Area, began with only four wineries and 60 acres of grapes in 1984. Today there are more than 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of grapes. More than 30 tasting rooms can be found in downtown Walla Walla alone—almost all are in historic buildings. Tremendous support for the local agricultural economy has brought life back to downtown—restaurants featuring local food, art and food festivals, rehabilitated buildings, and jobs have come back to the community.

The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation—a Washington Main Street community since 1992—has been instrumental in building partnerships with local wineries and farmers. The Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant, which is a part of Seven Hills Winery, is a great indicator of the foundation’s success. The building operated as a lumber planing mill and furniture factory from 1904 until its sale to the City of Walla Walla in 1988. The city planned to sell the building and the land as part of a development; plans called for the building to be torn down to provide parking. Public protest eventually stopped this transaction, and the building was acquired and carefully restored by its current owner, Salvation! LLC. Dining at Whitehouse-Crawford is a true Walla Walla experience. All the foods are sourced from local farmers and artisans, the wines are from local producers, and the restored dining area is a unique piece of Walla Walla history.

Wenatchee—The Pybus Public Market and Sustainability Center

Wenatchee is located in north central Washington, with a population of just under 30,000. Located east of the Cascade Mountains, the Wenatchee Valley produces apples, peaches, pears, and is the largest shipper of fresh market cherries in the world.

Early in 2009, the City of Wenatchee, with support from the Downtown Wenatchee Association, which became a Washington Main Street community in 1992, and others, created the Pybus Public Market and Sustainability Center. This proposed public-private, mixed-use development will be located in a historic WWII-era riveted steel building near the waterfront. The concept is to create a year-round indoor marketplace that will house a variety of local, independently owned shops and restaurants and provide space for a farmers’ market that supports more than 150 small family farms. The market will serve as a public incubator space and food distribution pantry for any fresh produce that is unsold during the day. There is a lot of pressure in Wenatchee to convert surrounding farmland into commercial and housing uses. It is hoped that this project will provide a mechanism to make farms more profitable, thus keeping land in productive farming. Construction is set to begin this September.

Come to Spokane

Learn more about "Agriculture on Main Street" at the 2012 National Preservation Conference in Spokane, Washington, October 31-November 3. And take a look at the Conference Schedule for other sessions geared to Main Street revitalization, such as "Energizing America: Success Stories of Sustainable Preservation," which will look at green rehab projects that have provided tenant spaces for local businesses; and "Connecting Town & Trail for Maximum Impact" that will demonstrate how the Trail Town Program along the Great Allegheny Passage uses preservation strategies to support economic, environmental, and cultural sustainability. To register for the conference, click here.