Marketing Campaign Aims to Save Fruitland, Wash., Farm.

October 8, 2002

C.R. Roberts
The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington)

The 6-acre U-pick Linbo Blueberry Farm sits snugly in a neighborhood called Fruitland, between Puyallup and Summit. Across the road, a dozer claws dirt near a clump of new homes.

Another development, a handful of houses only a few years old, stands at the top of the farm. An asphalt cul-de-sac curves into the hillside.

Richard Linbo listens as Vivaldi and Bach play over the loudspeakers that stand like scarecrows above his field.

A 12-county project known as Puget Sound Fresh is out to save both Linbo the farmer and Linbo the farm, and in the meantime provide the people of the Puget Sound with fresh produce.

Produce of all kinds, from turf to surf: leeks, mussels, carrots, lettuce, chickens, eggs, dahlias, peaches, piglets, strawberries, flowers and Christmas trees. With tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. With eggs newly minted by hens and milk from nearby cows. With all sorts of fruits, vegetables, herbs, floras and faunas.

"If I can get enough exposure, and people want fresh food, hopefully this field will be picked clean," Linbo said one recent sunny fall day.

"I love the concept of Puget Sound Fresh. It's a cool idea."

The idea was hatched in King County a decade ago. It's a marketing campaign that identifies products grown in any of the 12 counties touching Puget Sound.

Using banners, ads, signs, stickers and other tools, the program helps growers market their local produce locally while letting consumers know the origin of those products.

As things go today, the typical foodstuff consumed hereabouts has traveled 1,300 miles and has gone through seven hands.

"A lot of people don't know much about their food," said Steven Garrett, a food systems and nutrition specialist with Washington State University Cooperative Extension.

The goals of the program, he said, include connecting consumers with farmers and developing public awareness of the importance of buying locally produced food.

"It puts money in the pockets of local farmers. To help the farmer, that's number one. And it saves local farmland, so we can continue to get fresh food," he said.

As it grows and succeeds, Garrett said, the Puget Sound Fresh campaign will provide employment as well as help the taxpayer.

"Most other property costs more in services," he said. "Cows don't call 911, and tractors don't need hospitals."

The only way to save farmland, he said, is to make sure farmers can receive a good economic return for their efforts.

He believes that farmland -- the pastoral views, the fresh food it provides, the lessons it teaches -- is part of our heritage.

"It would be a shame to pave it all over," he said.

Steve Evans, a farm specialist for King County, says that although a good deal of land has been preserved in King County, "the farmers themselves weren't being preserved. Puget Sound Fresh was born out of that."

The program started in King County and was soon joined by Snohomish County. Kitsap County followed two years ago, and Skagit and Pierce counties followed this past summer.

To qualify as a member of the campaign, a grower must harvest goods from any of the counties that adjoin Puget Sound. The program is funded by grants and materials that are free to the growers, although these details may change as a new nonprofit group called Cascade Harvest Coalition fully takes over operation of Puget Sound Fresh by early next year.

"We're now working to transition the program and to develop a membership base," Evans said. "The counties can't just keep paying the full freight."

Puget Sound Fresh works on an annual budget of about $100,000. Pierce County has contributed $7,000, Garrett said.

"The strategy, over the next few years, is to wean ourselves off of foundation grants and public money," Evans said. "The general goal will be to have it be self-sustaining, through grocers and member farmers."

Some 200 growers are listed on the group's Web site, and another 40 play a part. Members hail from all 12 counties.

Several grocers have voiced enthusiasm for the idea. Evans names Larry's Markets, Safeway, Puget Sound Co-op, Haggen-Top Foods and Thriftway.

One grocery, he said, sponsored a lettuce promotion last year using the Puget Sound Fresh logo. "They informed us that they had never sold so much lettuce, or had so many positive customer comments," Evans said.

Dick Carkner, professor emeritus at Washington State University and chairman of the 11-member Pierce County Farm Advisory Commission, said: "We're talking about changing consumer patterns. If we can get consumers asking for local, it will start a chain of events that can secure the real estate in perpetuity."

If successful, the said, Puget Sound Fresh can protect not only farmland, "but protect the farmers as well, and make sure new farmers come along," Carkner said.

"We can't compete with Third World countries and Southern California, but we can compete with freshness and quality."

It's a thesis proven by Linbo, whose farm this season had more customers than ever before.

Like Linbo, Cheryl Ouellette is a member of Puget Sound Fresh and a Pierce County farmer. She also is a member of the farm advisory commission, and a seller of home-grown eggs and piglets.

She hopes the campaign gives a message to the public that fresh produce is available.

Of farmers, she said: "I want them to know that people care about buying fresh. They just don't know how to find it. Farmers think the public doesn't care anymore where their food comes from.

"That's not what I'm finding. The public does care."

And with signs, bags, stickers, banners and other promotional materials, soon it will be easier to locate fresh produce.

"My hope, my dream, is that Puget Sound Fresh customers will get to know the difference in their food, and that farmers will fight off the urge to sell to developers," she said.

"I don't believe it's too late, but I don't think we have much time to lose."
Linbo Blueberry Farm
1201 South Fruitland, Puyallup, WA 98371
www.linboblueberries.com

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