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Home Grown: A celebration of local culinary enterprise

Janelle Maiocco, Farmstr.com *

Janelle VanderGriend grew up close to the Canadian border, in Lynden, where the Dutch Village Inn on Front Street features a real windmill. Her family, like many others, had a berry farm in Whatcom County's dairy country. She worked in restaurants (Schwartz Brothers), went to culinary school (Art Institute), earned an MBA (Seattle Pacific) and put it to use in the food industry (Pasta & Co.). Then she and her husband James Maiocco took off for Europe, and in the course of a year in Italy came to appreciate the "clean, humble food" they found in Florence.

The Maioccos returned to Seattle determined to recreate that connection. Janelle joined direct buying clubs and bulk buying groups, but soon realized that she was seeing only the "demand" side of the business: consumers who wanted fresh food grown without pesticides; on the other were farmers, bakers, ranchers, and fishers with products to sell.

Gee, you might ask, isn't that what markets are all about? A place for buyers and sellers to meet? Isn't that what the farmers markets in two dozen Seattle neighborhoods are all about, organic carrots for yuppie householders? Not to mention the grand-daddy Pike Place Market, or the "fresh, local" aisles of a few enlightened supermarkets.

All well and good, but it's worth noting that there aren't enough farmers to go around. Too many markets! Every neighborhood wants one! And a farmer can only be in one place at a time. So if there's more than one market on a given day, the farmer has to pay an employee to staff the booth (not to mention a percentage of the day's take to the market master), which kind of takes the edge off the whole exercise.

But what if you didn't have to depend on physical markets, on parking lots and canopies, on market masters and health inspectors? What if you could use (wait for it) this thing everyone uses every day to watch cat videos? The internet, right! C'mon, this isn't brain surgery, it's nothing less than Amazon.com's business model. No need for book stores. In fact, Amazon did try shipping groceries (as if they were books), without great success. But Janelle Maiocco's motive was different: connecting farmers directly with shoppers.

Farmers have a tough enough time dealing with agriculture. Even if they weren't already working 18-hour days in their barns and fields, they're not particularly skilled at business development. So she created a website to facilitate their outreach to consumers. She named it Farmstr.com, and today it connects about 80 producers (farms, ranches, dairies) with about 500 buyers. The producers list whatever they want to sell (from a dozen eggs or bucket of organic honey to half a hog), the items are added to the buyer's cart, and click! Just look at what you can buy: goat bones, kidney and heart; a share of pasture-raised Red Angus beef; grass-fed alpaca as braising steaks, or hamburger, milk, cream, eggs.

The farmers are located as close to Seattle as Auburn and Monroe, as far afield as central Washington and eastern Oregon. Pickup points vary: that's the bottleneck, obviously, so expansion of the Farmstr.com concept is going to depend on adding more "partner drop sites," as they're known. Several are close to downtown Seattle. But there's a feel-good element involved as well. Buyers meet farmers at their drop-sites, and often sell additional items. "Farmstr means better margins for local producers and lower cost for local consumers. It's like the airbnb for local food," Janelle says. "It's a big deal for us to see small farmers succeed."

There's an even bigger success story: within the last three weeks, Farmstr has received $1.3 million in funding (private placement, angel investors) to expand its services.

Julie O'Brien & Richard Climenhage, Fireflies

Quick, name something that's fermented. Beer? Wine? Okay, now name something fermented that's not a liquid. Having trouble? Here's a hint: you make it from cabbage. Fermented cabbage? Yes, sauerkraut! And who doesn't love sauerkraut? Many types of pickles are actually fermented. Kimchee? Fermented. Kefir? Fermented. Miso and kombucha, fermented.

Now that you've got the basic idea, keep thinking "Kraut of the Box." In fact, Julie O'Brien and Richard Climenhage have built an entire business-Firefly Kitchens-around fermented foods. Originally, of course, before the advent of reliable refrigeration, you would salt or pickle or ferment vegetables in order to preserve them.

Fermented foods have beneficial properties: they're "probiotic" by virtue of the living organisms created during fermentation, helpful to digestion. Grocery store shelves have plenty of probiotic supplements. But even cheese and yogurt are fermented. And then there's sauerkraut, a "gateway" food as far as O'Brien and Climenhage are concerned.

Firefly markets their sauerkraut in three varieties. The simplest, "classic," is just green cabbage and salt. There's a "ruby red" with beets, red cabbage, carrots, and onions. And a fancy "cortido" with jalapeños, oregano, red chilies, and onions, which won a 2012 Food Award in the pickles category.

The production facility in Ballard is notable for the one thing it doesn't have: a stove. No oven, either. Nothing they make here is cooked. And how to eat it? Right out of the jar, at least a tablespoon a day. (Use a clean spoon, don't double-dip.) The benefits, according to true believers: better digestion, better health.

June 2014

* farmstr.com closed in early 2015


Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based journalist who specializes in food, wine and travel. He has worked for KING-TV, Seattle Weekly, and Chateau Ste. Michelle; his blog is www.Cornichon.org.


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