Charles is 95 Years Young–A Life Well Lived

“You know, I’m going to be 85 next month.” I shot Charles Sleicher an astonished look. Surprisedly and with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Wait, no, I’m going to be 95 next month!” This is the Charles I know–the man that thinks he’s younger than he is. What keeps a 95-year old man so young? Curiosity and inquisitiveness are key.  

Curiosity Pulls a Life Forward

I met Charles more than 20 years ago at a local framing shop. His wildlife photography from travels in East Africa, Ecuador, the United States, and beyond was being showcased to a wine sipping, hors d’oeuvre eating crowd.

The next time I crossed paths with Charles, he was carrying a piping hot homemade pie to our block’s Neighbors Night Out potluck and picnic. It was brimming with freshly picked peaches from his backyard tree. I was pleased and intrigued to learn that Charles lived at the opposite end of my block. He left with an empty pie plate. His pie was that good.  

Charles and Kathryn on safari

Each year at the block party, I learned more about Charles. He had a long and distinguished career as a University of Washington chemical engineering professor including a stint as the department head. In the early 1970’s, Charles his wife and two children spent a year-long research sabbatical in Nairobi, Kenya beginning his love of East Africa. Every weekend his family clambered into the car to explore and photograph the Serengeti Plains stretching across southwest Kenya into north-central Tanzania. The Plains are miles upon miles of swaying grasses punctuated with knobby hills and meandering waterways nourishing over two million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles in their annual migration. Lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, warthogs, hippos, plenty of lesser-known animals, and more than 500 different bird species inhabit the vibrant, pulsating Serengeti ecosystem.

Five years after meeting, I spearheaded, with Charles as an active accomplice, the Washington Voter Registration Project, an all-volunteer, passion-driven effort to register voters after our country’s disastrous foray into the Iraq War. Over the year prior to the 2004 election, a small core of stalwart individuals eventually blossomed into 80 volunteers registering over 2,000 voters in the Puget Sound region. We targeted movie lines, festivals, food bank patrons, and any place we thought progressive, potential voters could be found. The list serve, the precursor to today’s social media, was our platform to coordinate volunteers, locales, and dates. Communicating via the list serve, Charles spent many days finding a willing partner to join him to sign up unregistered voters.   

Charles’ house became command central for our monthly organizational meetings, too. Unbeknownst to him, imagine his elation when a roomful of volunteers surprised him with a candle-laden birthday cake on his 80th birthday!

Sunrise from Ndute, Tanzania

Ten years ago Charles moved from the neighborhood to a vibrant downtown senior living community. Since moving into his new abode, continuing to be led by his curiosity and zest for life, Charles has organized multiple 12-passenger, 12-day Tanzanian safaris exploring the wildlife ecosystems in three of Tanzania’s national parks and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I’ve joined the nonagenarian Charles on two trips! Before signing up for the trip, he exclaimed, “I make the safari lodge accommodation reservations based on the quality of the food and wine.” Not surprisingly, each lodge has steller cuisine satisfying the discerning palate. Waking up before dawn, traversing the Serengeti to search for the elusive leopard, and sharing good food and wine together after a day’s excursion is an opportune time to learn more about one’s fellow travelers. Three-quarters of Charles’ long and interesting life was before I knew him!  Of course, new stories were revealed.

Why Drink Good Wine?

Sipping wine at his photography show or picking the best South African wine for dinner on a Tanzanian safari dinner is quintessential Charles. As photography occupies his retirement, winemaking absorbed his mid-life passion. More than that, Charles is an entrepreneur, too! He is creative, imaginative, and has a thirst to thrive!

I sat down with Charles over coffee to learn his winemaking story and Associated Vintners, Washington State’s first, fine wine incorporated winery. (Perhaps we should have been drinking wine rather than coffee, but it was 10 a.m.)

In 1950, when Charles was in graduate school at MIT, he garnered an internship at the French Petroleum Institute. As is the French way, his fellow workmates always drank a glass of wine with their leisurely lunch. Charles was intrigued and happily joined them in the lunchtime wine ritual.

Returning stateside to complete a PhD at the University of Michigan, he continued the good food and wine practice. Every Wednesday evening he prepared a gourmet meal paired with wine for fellow grad students. Finding locally grown and produced wine was a bit challenging in Michigan, but was accomplished. Charles asked one of the two Michigan vintners, “What is the difference between your Chablis and Riesling?”

“The spelling.”

Charles knew better wine! Blessed with a $600 G.I. World War II insurance payment and a developing wine palate, he and his grad school buddies pooled their money to purchase $1,800 of wine. The cache included reds and whites mostly from the Continent, a few Californian bottles, and a 1945 Chateau Margaux at a whopping cost of $7, expensive by 1950 standards. Because it was illegal to sell wine across state or national borders without excessive fees and a special license, a road trip ensued from Michigan through Canada to Watertown, New York to retrieve a wine shipment from the New York City based, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. (Remember this is long before the internet!) The return trip home followed Lake Erie’s southern shore to ensure the cache was not confiscated on the Canadian border upon re-entry into the United States.  

Searching for food to titillate the palate with complimentary wine to enhance the food eating experience became a hobby. Charles read Angelo Pellegrini’s 1948 prose entitled, The Unprejudiced Palate. Angelo had emigrated from Italy as a nine year old and ultimately became a University of Washington English professor specializing in Shakespeare. In his book, Angelo reminisces on the good food life, the joy of fresh, local ingredients, and of course, exceptional Italian wine. He harps on the rock hard peaches and partially ripe strawberries being sold at premium prices at U.S. grocery stores hundreds of miles from the farm. (Shipping unripe fruit long distances has been written about for more than 70 years!) And Angelo expounds on the intricacies of making wine.

Lo and behold, Charles shows up as a newly minted chemical engineering professor in August 1960 at the University of Washington. Was it predestined? Perhaps.

Not wasting any time, Charles contacted Angelo and asked, “Do you need any help making wine in your kitchen?”

Angelo replied, “How about tonight?”

Angelo had just picked up a load of grapes that Louis Martini (a famous Californian winemaker) had shipped on “the California grape train” to Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. It needed to be pressed immediately. One month later, Charles was pressing his own grapes in his own kitchen.

Associated Vintners classic wine label

Meanwhile beginning in the mid-1950’s, Lloyd Woodburne, a UW’s Arts and Sciences professor had been experimenting with wine production. By 1960 Lloyd had assembled a cadre of kitchen winemakers who all thrived on curiosity and discovery. Five were UW professors, several were downtown businessmen, one a child allergy specialist, and of course, a Boeing engineer. With Lloyd the other professors were: Charles Sleicher, the chemical engineer, Phil Church, the head of the meteorology department, Don Bevan of the fisheries department, and Cornelius Peck of UW Law. The multi-disciplinary team with a myriad of complementary skills and unending inquisitiveness for wine and business was a winning combination! One witty journalist quipped,” Among them they have enough PhDs to launch a mini-university.”1

Forming a company rather than staying in the kitchens, allowed the winemaking operation to be centralized, licensed, and to grow. By 1962, the 10 winemakers, turned investors, had each contributed a minimum of $5,000 towards the formation of Associated Vintners. Phil Church, meteorologist and former Eastern Washingtonian having worked on the Hanford Bomb Project during WWII, understood the prevailing Columbia River Basin weather patterns. He sought and found optimal farmground to practically match the latitude and sun hours of the best French wine growing regions. Associated Vintners purchased five acres of south-facing agricultural land on Harrison Hill near Sunnyside, Washington and planted six European grape varietals. The farm operation was tended by a local eastern Washington farmer, since the AV team all had day jobs and none were farmers.

Associated Vintners logo

Several years later, all the vines froze to the ground in a harsh winter. This delayed the first picking by several more years. With excited anticipation the first commercially viable harvest in 1967 bore bushels of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes. Grapes were shipped to the 40 foot by 40 foot Kirkland winery and warehouse to arrive Friday night with crushing to commence Saturday morning. The first crops of juice were fermented, bottled, and stored until ready for release. In 1969, AV’s first client, QFC at University Village, purchased the entire white wine release of Johannisberg Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Delivering all 60 cases via a circuitous route was necessary to avoid any steep uphill climbs in the classically underpowered Volkswagen bus. AV’s entire white wine production run sold out within a week. The reds were just as popular when released in 1970.

Eventually, no longer being a startup, outside money came into the company with new investors. In 1979 the only U.S. based Master of Wine, David Lake, joined the team. The company name was changed to Columbia Winery, tying the name to the land. Eventually, Columbia Winery was sold to Gallo.

After participating in a winery start-up, selling wildlife photography, and organizing international travel groups, I asked Charles, “What is still on your bucket list?”

He quickly replied, “To read. I formed a new group called the ‘Secular Humanist Forum.’ We meet once a month. I’ll be speaking on Charles Darwin next month. I did go to the Galapagos in the mid-1990’s and shot 150 rolls of film, most with my 1000 mm lens.”

Today I smile and toast Charles on his 95th birthday. Why drink good wine? It correlates with longevity! Charles is 95 years young. Staying curious, eating local, healthy good food, and drinking exceptional wines are the key to a long, rewarding, remarkable life. I’m learning from the best.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! 

1 Irvine, Ronald with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project, Washington State’s Winemaking History, 1997. 



Birthdays and Bread

Kathryn Gardow and Ellen Gray at The Bread Lab and King Arthur Flour Baking School

June 3rd, the expiration date on the Pepperidge Farm white, rectangular, pre-sliced, loaf of bread on the top shelf at the Washington State University’s (“WSU”) Bread Lab near Mt. Vernon, Washington. It’s my birthday dinner, two days before the bread’s expiration date. I am savoring a 4-course meal with 80 other attendees supporting the Mt. Vernon High School’s (no- cuts) Girls Tennis Team. What do the Bread Lab and girls tennis have in common with each other? My long-time friend Ellen Gray, former Executive Director extraordinaire for a non-profit that advocated for sustainable food and farming in Washington, organized a dinner at The Bread Lab while raising funds for a sport she loves and the girls’ team she coaches. It all makes sense! An amazing woman brings two of her loves together to support both! Girls tennis and a delicious meal at The Bread Lab and hence, supporting sustainable food and farming.

Dr. Steve Jones, Director of the WSU Bread Lab and Professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department, is WSU’s fifth wheat breeder in 125 years of breeding this ubiquitous crop. Steve, a no-nonsense type of guy, says it like it is. He introduced our Bread Lab tour asking the 50 or so guests, “How often do you eat food that is non- food?”

Granted most of us in the room are conscious of where our food comes from, what our food is and try to eat real food. Too often we could be considered “foodies” or “food snobs” or “food elitists”! Yes, those words are often said with a sneer or a sense of a “know it all ism.” I just want to know where my food comes from and how it gets to my table. If that makes me a foodie, so be it.

Making Good Food Choices

What do I think about when I make my food decisions? Where is it grown? Is it grown in the United States, Mexico, Canada, China or elsewhere in the world? You may ask, “Why is it important?” The simple answer is every country does not have the same standards for quantity and quality of artificial, chemical-based pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use. With industrial, big agricultural operations, chemical inputs to feed the good plants and kill weeds and bugs are usually used. Some of the chemicals have been outlawed in the U.S. but are still used elsewhere in the world. There are just too many unanswered and un-researched questions on the impacts of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on the human body for my comfort.

Monsanto’s RoundUp, a widely and commonly used herbicide, has been banned, its use restricted or considered for restriction in more than 20 countries around the world. (Monsanto has been purchased by Bayer.) Glyphosate, the key ingredient in RoundUp, has been linked to cancer. Remember how long it took to really know that cigarette smoking caused cancer? It took more than 30 years for the known effects of smoking to affect change. In the end television, radio, and print advertisements were restricted, no smoking campaigns were led, warning statements were placed on cigarette packaging and eventually the number of smokers decreased. Just as with cigarettes, the links between RoundUp and cancer are real. I’m not willing to wait 30 years for the science and public policy to catch up to what is already known.

Once I know where my food is grown, I want to know how my food is grown? Is it certified organic? Is it a non-GMO (genetically modified organism)? Is it grown hydroponically? Once it is picked or slaughtered, how is it processed? Is it processed with lots of salt, sugar or corn syrup, or artificial flavors and colors?

Local Roots CSA pickup site

If possible, food grown by a farmer I know is my first preference. Shopping at the farmers’ market makes that easy. Often the farmer is the salesperson! Another option is every Tuesday during the growing season, Local Roots my weekly Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) farmer, delivers a box of freshly-picked produce to my neighborhood pickup spot. A five-minute walk to the farmer’s Mom’s house to retrieve my box of fresh greens, radishes, kale, carrots, and kohlrabi or other assortment of fresh veggies depending on what the farmer’s picked that week. Local Roots makes it easy to eat organically without a side of pesticides and herbicides.

What if I didn’t have a local farmers’ market or CSA, what other ways can you eat better and more safely? The best reference to know which foods are the cleanest and which are the most pesticide laden is the Environmental Working Group’s (“EWG”) Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. EWG’s Dirty Dozen are the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue found in its testing. Strawberries have been at the top of the Dirty Dozen list ever since I started paying attention. Spinach and kale are now in the number two and three position with the most pesticide residue. (I guess it means people are eating more kale!)  Since purchasing organically is not feasible for many because of cost constraints or availability, the EWG’s Clean 15 is a reliable information source for those fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue. The cleanest are avocados, sweet corn, and pineapple, all produce you peel or strip off the outside skin. Check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists to get the best information on what foods are the dirtiest and cleanest with respect to artificial chemical residue.

The Bread Lab Seed Library

The Bread Lab is doing phenomenal work with farmers, processors, academics, chefs, non-profits, business start-ups, and bread eaters to bring back lost wheat varieties and strains. Western Washington was once a bread basket of the west before wheat became commoditized and optimized for industrial scale agriculture and grown more in eastern Washington. The resurgence in profitable and great tasting wheat products in lower Skagit River valley about one hour north of Seattle is heartwarming and exhilarating. In The Bread Lab library, there are so many jars filled with a multitude of wheat seed varieties. Wheat, until recently, has been a low value crop in the Skagit rotated between higher value crops to rejuvenate and revitalize the soil so it become more friable and nutrient laden. Now these specialty wheat varieties are showing up as milled flours at Cairnspring Mills, in breads at the Breadfarm in Edison, in beer at Pike Brewing Company at Pike Place Market, in pastries and treats at Damsel and Hopper in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, and at distilleries found on the Seattle Trail Map of the Washington Distillers Guild. Skagit wheats are showing up in so many places and taste great! I had a great Manhattan made with Copperworks whiskey made on Alaskan Way in Seattle!  

Back to the White Bread

Steve asked us to look closer at the Pepperidge Farm loaf. It’s still squishy. That’s the sign of a refined wheat loaf more commonly known as white bread. It means it’s not whole wheat or multi-grain. The loaf hadn’t dried out and hardened, which typically happens when artisan bread isn’t used quickly enough. That is when chefs make croutons! And the loaf was still totally white, meaning it hasn’t molded and turned green or purple or blue. It’s good that a loaf of bread has two more days of shelf life and is still saleable and edible. However, upon closer look, the expiration date was actually June 3, 2018. The bread’s shelf life expired 363 days before my birthday. Wow! And it’s still soft and still white! Now that is cause for concern! What is in it that still makes it appear edible? I don’t think I want to know.

I’ll stick with eating genuine, bona fide, real food! Thanks to Ellen and Steve and the rest of the team for creating a meal at The Bread Lab that was memorable, tasted good and was real food, not non-food and celebrated my birthday, too!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!


Artisanal Ingenuity–Tieton Farm & Creamery

Being an infrastructure nerd, I remember public works catastrophes. Ten years ago the City of Tieton, Washington‘s water system failed. Multiple water lines broke throughout the city. The State of Washington funded emergency repairs. The calamity was my first introduction to Tieton. Last summer, University of Washington held an alumni event in Tieton. Despite not going, I was intrigued and I still didn’t know where Tieton was. Last month, I bought delectable soft cheeses at the University District Farmers Market from Ruth and Lori Babcock, owners of Tieton Farm and Creamery. My curiosity was piqued.  A Tieton trip was destined.

Tieton Farm & Creamery on a winter’s day

On a brisk December morning, after a significant Cascade Mountain snowfall, fellow adventure seeker Robbie and I ventured from the maritime Puget Sound to the frigid Washington interior. I-90 was still slick, but blue sky sucker holes lured us eastward. A Seattle ritual is an April trip to Yakima County to explore wineries and to climb treeless hillsides to be rewarded with commanding Mt. Rainier views, all while soaking in as much sunshine as possible.  A winter visit is only for the hardy and properly clothed. We were prepared. Excitement around our adventure heightened as we climbed Naches-Tieton Road, 850 feet above the Yakima River Valley farms, to the Tieton Basin plateau.    

The slow steady ascent on the sweeping road, hugging the slope’s rise, we finally entered through the final notch to the Tieton plateau. As a child, I was mesmerized by ever expanding vistas. Being on the brink of a slope and above a valley let me savor, even if for a brief moment, the views of what appears to be endless landscapes. A sense of calm, peace, and wonder pervades. There is a feeling smallness and at the same time immensity. A sense of awareness and possibility of something new, something exciting. My curiosity to explore was awakened again.

The plateau was bathed in mid-afternoon subdued light as we were only two weeks from the winter solstice.  Mere inches of snow covered windswept farmland. We arrived at our destination, Tieton Farm & Creamery at 2:30 in the afternoon, just in time to help Ruth with the farm animals’ afternoon meal.

Ruth & Lori

Ruth grew up in Wenatchee in the heart of apple growing country, having worked summers picking fruit. After college, she landed in Seattle in the financial accounting software business, which demanded a lot of sitting time in front of a computer. Lori worked at the same company and had a passion for cooking. Ruth and Lori connected in the late 1990’s and dreamed about their future together.

I met Lori about the same time, when we served as Trustees together on the PCC Natural Markets Board. PCC Natural Markets is the nation’s largest natural foods grocery cooperative, founded in 1953, now with 12 stores throughout the Puget Sound region. PCC is more than just grocery store, as it sells high quality and sustainably grown food, some grown and produced by small independent farmers, such as Lori’s cheeses. Lori and I had forged a connection around the board table in our efforts to support the environment and ensure healthy, organic food without the additives, pesticides and fungicides for Puget Sound eaters.  

Our time on the farm

Our farm chores took about one and a half glorious cold hours on the 20-acre property. The property, a former orchard, had been scourged by fire and in 2009 was a canvas ready to be painted by a new farmer. They got to work and now have 56 goats, 70 sheep, two pigs, a few cows and a steer, a couple of horses, and a flock of fowl including geese, turkeys, ducks, and chickens. All had to be fed and given water.

We met the goats first: Sonnet, Black Pearl, Rheba, and more. All named for their temperament–living in a large, new, open-ended hoop barn, since the older barn had been destroyed by an electrical fire the previous year. Eastern Washingtonians must always be vigilant around fire as their land is susceptible to summer and early fall fire threats, because it is so dry with only nine inches of yearly rainfall. The 2015 wildfire season was the worst in Washington’s history with 1,600 square miles burned (almost the same size as Pierce County’s land area)!

Patiently waiting goats

The goats with expecting looks on their faces waited patiently, as we filled the troughs. All 56 goats lined-up along the trough, as orderly kindergartens do before heading to the lunchroom. In December, all the animals are in their dry period or non-lactating cycle, when they stop producing milk prior to the next birthing and milking season. This cycle is totally normal and likely unbeknownst to the common eater, including me! Not having milking responsibilities consuming six hours daily created a perfect time for our visit. During peak season, with 90 animals to milk, farm days are long with endless farm duties of  feeding, cleaning, milking, rotating fencing, and irrigating. Thankfully, there are plenty of daylight hours. In the milking season, electric fencing is rotated every three days to ensure fresh forage for the animals and to limit manure build-up in the fields. Monthly fence rotations are only needed in the winter, as the animals are farmer fed.  

Robbie Petting the Pigs

Next stop–the pigs–which are raised for pasture-raised pork products. Grain was scooped from a large barrel and sprinkled on the ground. We called for the pigs, but no pigs. Finally, the pigs braved the cold and moseyed out of their hovel for affection first and dinner second. Each animal grouping has their own fenced area and a water trough.  With frigid temperatures, most troughs have a small electric heater element to ensure water and not ice is available to drink. The pigs used to confiscate their heater for hut warmth. Those pesky pigs outsmart the farmer! Now hot water is carried to the pig’s water bowl to ensure winter liquid refreshment!

Farmer Ruth Poised to Feed the Sheep

The cows and sheep are fed organic hay, purchased for winter feedings. With herd mentality, the sheep watched and followed our every move, as we peeled off “flakes” or about a three-inch thick square section of hay bale to toss into the pen. A five sheep group ate three flakes of hay. Two tips for hay heaving, never aim for a manure pile and always use a side arm throw rather than over head toss. Being dressed in grass flecks confirmed I was a novice thrower. 

All the fowl are cooped together with both inside and outside space. Grain was sprinkled in a make-shift snow trough. The chickens immediately started eating while the turkeys and geese took their time preening themselves before deciding it was time to eat. In each animals’ pen, we refilled the drinking trough with a garden hose. The hose was quickly drained by lifting the hose from one end to the other to ensure an empty hose. Frozen cracked hoses are useless. 


Lori makes the finest artisanal cheeses–the soft cheeses Bianca, Sonnet, Black Pearl, and Rheba are named after the goats–using pasteurized milk as required by law. The hard cheeses, Venus and Calypso are made using unpasteurized raw milk. My favorite is Rheba, as it has a Camembert consistency with sharp overtones. But, why do the soft cheeses need to be pasteurized?

Pasteurization was a technology breakthrough in the mid-19th century by Louis Pasteur’s to heat liquids to kill bacteria, whether wanted or unwanted. Cheese can be made with raw milk, provided it is aged more than 60 days. Raw milk aficionados contend there are beneficial microbes that not only add superior flavor and complexity to cheese, but perhaps may even help humans with more robust belly flora. Harmful bacteria, such as listeria, can harbor in milk products when animals are kept in dirty, confinement conditions and the udders are not properly cleaned and treated, prior to milking. The 60-day aging rule was established in 1949 as the minimum cutoff date when the acids and salts in the cheese making process would destroy any harmful bacteria in raw milk. Visiting the farm, and observing the intensity, dedication, and attentiveness that Ruth has for the animals’ health and well-being brings utter (or is it “udder”) confidence in the cheese products that Lori creates.  

The life of a farmer varies in pace from winter to summer, and in the different cycles of the animals. With attentiveness, knowledge, and love, Ruth ensures happy and healthy animals to produce the finest milk, cheese, and meat products. As with Ruth, Lori’s cheeses vary with the seasons. The artisanal ingenuity is evident in the rhythm and care of the farm and the flavor of the cheese. Now visiting Tieton is a “must-do” on an April jaunt for sunshine and perhaps for the Mighty Tieton spring open house! 

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!


Food Dollar Math: Who Benefits from Your Food Dollars

Western Washington along the Interstate 5 corridor are some of the world’s most prolific farmlands. Puget Sound is blessed with a maritime climate with warm summers, cool winters, and mountain snowpacks that provide ample irrigation water  through most of the growing season thus generating hefty harvests.

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley, Pierce County

Despite an optimal growing climate farmers gross revenues are between 4¢ and 7¢ per square foot according to the 2012 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census. Whatcom County on the Canadian border has the highest agricultural revenue at 7¢ a square foot. Snohomish County, just north of Seattle and Boeing’s home with the world’s largest manufacturing building, has the lowest agricultural revenue at 4¢ per square foot. These numbers also compete with downtown Seattle Class A office space leasing at $30 per square foot. Just a basic home selling for $100 per square foot out competes the arable land value, too. Despite agricultural lands being intrinsically valuable for our health and well-being–we all do eat–the economic value of the land that grows food cannot begin to compete with development. Looking at the huge chasm between development and farm land values is one way to begin to understand  why our country is losing 50 acres of farm and ranch land to development per hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. Farmland valuation versus development values is one gauge, but purchasing food is another measure to understanding why we lose farmland.

Do you know how much of each dollar you spend on food goes back to the farmer? Only 3.5¢ for every dollar spent goes back to the farmer, when eating out, whether at a restaurant or fast food joint. This number is astonishing, but not surprising when looked at more carefully. Farming is not known as a lucrative business. A farmer is better compensated with food prepared at home and gets 16¢ of every dollar spent. The USDA, through the  Economic Research Services division have analyzed these numbers in their Food Dollar Series (2014).

At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

Where does our “at home food dollar” go? Almost one-quarter or 24¢ of it is spent on food processing, which is the creation of products from the raw materials. We all eat food that has been processed. Processed food staples are bread, noodles, yogurt, cheese, crackers, meats, and multiple forms of tomato products. Some products such as tomato paste have been processed a little bit, while others such as bread combine multiple ingredients. Processed foods in a grocery store, show up in the middle aisles, the freezer  section, or the deli. They are in cans, boxes, bags, and jars. There are infinite opportunities to satisfy hunger with processed food! Whether the food is over-salted, has too much fat, sugar, or artificial color is another matter. I use a combination of minimally processed foods like tomato sauce and paste, and dried herbs with fresh ingredients like onions and garlic mixed in a crock-pot, to make a home cooked meal of spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s easy! The packaging of the processed food is small and only adds about 3¢ to the cost of at home food costs.

Once the food is out of the ground, processed and ready to travel to a store, this is bulk of the costs for the “at home food dollar”. Many people are involved in the effort of getting the food to us. Truckers transport food across the county or the country, wholesalers–also known as the middleman– buy raw and prepared products and sell it to retailers, grocers purchase, stock and sell food, and baggers carefully pack bags. All of these trades and more add incremental costs to food, so that in the traditional grocery store model close to half of the “at home food dollar” or 42% is spent on getting food from the farmer to you.

About 15¢ of the “at home food dollar” is spent on all the support services for the food industry around growing, processing, and selling food.  The on farm inputs are called “agribusiness” and cost just over 3¢. Inputs include seed, fertilizer, farm machinery and all that is needed to grow food. Energy is almost 6¢ of the “at home food dollar” equation and covers the cost of getting the oil, gas, and coal to power the food industry. Advertising, legal services, accounting, financing and insurance are the remaining 6¢ of the “at home food dollar”.

As a consumers we are inundated with advertising on television, web pages, billboards, mailboxes, on the radio, and in magazines and newspapers. As a result of these advertisements, one would think that advertising would be a much larger slice of the food dollar, but in reality, it is just a few cents of the “at home food dollar”. Even so, it is incredible to think with the value of the total U.S. food industry at $835 billion (USDA, 2014), that the advertising slice of the “at home food dollar” is about $21 billion. These numbers put some context into the enormity of the United States food system. It’s because we all eat!

Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

Eating food away from home supports farmers less. With almost three-quarters of the “eating out food dollar” spent on foodservice, there is not much less for anybody else including farmers. Restaurants, bars, clubs, fast-food joints and all the other venues where we buy prepared foods eat up 72¢ of the “eating out food dollar.” Food processing, packaging, wholesaling, energy, financing and insurance, advertising, and the other category including agribusiness, legal and accounting, are all a nickel or less of the “eating out food dollar”, as shown on the adjacent dollar. Farmers get a mere 3.5¢ back for every dollar spent eating out. That’s not much.

Making money as a farmer is tough. A farmer earning 3.5¢ on the “eating out food dollar” or 16¢ on the “at home food dollar,” cannot begin to earn enough money to compete with developer looking for a place to put new homes. With the average age of farmers being 59 years old and nearing retirement, it makes farmland even more vulnerable to being sold for houses.

Food Dollar Math Benefiting the Farmer

So many kinds of beets at Nash's Organic Produce stand

Beets at Nash’s Organic Produce Stand

Shopping at farmers’ markets is a great way for money spent on food to go directly to farmer and not to any middleman or retailer. Once a farmer’s fixed costs for seeds, fertilizers, insurance, table space at the market, labor, licenses, and transportation are covered, any revenue is his. Purchase a seasonal food delivery subscription directly from the farmer through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA subscriber is typically asked to pay a deposit for the subscription before the season starts allowing the farmer to cover his costs for seed, fertilizer, irrigation tape, labor, and other supplies before the first CSA box is delivered. Puget Sound Fresh is a great beginning resource for the CSA search.  Stop by a farm stand on the way home to support your favorite farmer. An eastern Washington farming family has just opened the Tonnemaker Woodinville Farm Stand on 14 acres. They’ll be growing western Washington produce on-site and mixing it up with their outstanding selection of eastern Washington crops like peppers, apples, pears, melons, and more! Washington grows great food and we ought to do our best to support the farmers that grow it!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!


Zanzibar–The Spice Island

In the middle of Zanzibar are the spice farms, far from the bustle of coastal resorts and Stonetown, the island’s main commerce and tourist city. Departing Stonetown, we passed miles of roadside commerce tucked into open-air storefronts adjacent to the macadam road. Young and old alike walked from shop to shop picking up their daily necessities. Soon fields or forests hugged the road and were occasionally interspersed by a village. Each small community had several small retail shacks, surrounded by hovels and huts where people lived. Still there were people walking on the sides of the roads or waiting for the “daladala”–the open-air privately run bus system. Pods of children of all ages, laden with bookbags walked determinedly on the side of the road heading home after morning classes. About 30 minutes outside of Stonetown we turned onto a winding dirt road heading into the forest. Ten minutes later we arrived at Issa Spice. I was at the end of the road but knew I was also part of the economic lifeblood for this small rural community. Issa Spice is livelihood for the village and much of their money is made by tourists just like me wanting to learn how the exotic spices of the tropics are grown. Our dozen westerners walked through the equatorial landscape with our guide, in what felt more like a Zanzibarian jungle than a farm. Looking back, I know we were on a farm and not just in a forest, because every tree, shrub, grass or vine we walked by had a flavor to try.

Zanzibar is a group of semi-autonomously governed islands in the east African country of Tanzania. It is home to almost one million predominately Muslim agrarian peoples. Its location about 20 miles off the east coast of Africa meant that historically it had been a major trading stop. As a result, the island has been influenced by the Arabs, Persians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, and Brits. Even now, the world continues to flock to the island as tourism is Zanzibar’s second and perhaps more important economic driver after agriculture. As with centuries of early spice traders, I was drawn to learn about the flavors of the tropics and to do my part to support a local farm and economy.

As with every spice farm, Issa Spice has its own version of Gharam Masala a mixture of cinnamon, clove, ginger, cardamom, cumin, coriander, black pepper, and nutmeg which is used in making African and Indian flavored curries and pilaus (commonly known as pilafs in the States). Every Gharam Masala has its own flavors and intensities, as every spice company puts in varying quantities of each spice. Hence, no Gharam Masala tastes the same.

Gharam Masala–the Concoction

Cinnamon Tree

Cinnamon Tree

Cinnamon is the first ingredient in Issa Spice‘s concoction and it’s one of the most recognized flavors in the western world. What’s probably not known is that cinnamon is tree bark! Nothing like gnawing on a tree for flavor! Our guide peeled off a piece of bark for us to take pleasure in the sweet cinnamon smell. Before it can be used in western cooking, the bark is dried and ground into its common form–cinnamon powder.

Cloves are the flower buds of huge trees, towering upwards of 50 feet high, that are harvested, dried and sorted for world markets. Harvesting the flower buds requires the farmer to clamber up the tree to find the blooms. Zanzibar is noted for its premium clove harvest that happens from September to November during their short season rains. Cardamom, a lesser know spice to the American palate, is one of my favorites especially in Christmas cookies and sprinkled on top of broiled grapefruit. Searching for new ground to populate, the main cardamom plant sends out runners on which seed pods are attached. This is similar to the way strawberries send out tendrils to start a new plant. The kernel inside the cardamom seed pod is the spice nugget. Keeping the pod whole until it is ready to be used is recommended as ground cardamom quickly loses its flavor. For peak flavor, it’s best to use ground Gharam Masala quickly, too!

Cumin and coriander were not shown on our tour, but are likely cultivated as a field crop. Cumin are the seeds from the flowering plant of the same name, while coriander are the seeds from cilantro, a parsley-like looking plant grown throughout the world and is an essential ingredient in Mexican cooking, too.

Pepper, as in black pepper and not green pepper or chilies, grows on a vine in small clusters and once dried are called peppercorns. Peppercorns and ground pepper are found throughout the world as a mainstay spice. The nutmeg fruit is pale green and grows on a tree as tall as a two-story house. Inside the nutmeg fruit, the seed is slightly larger than a gumball and has a red-laced sheathing. The seed is dried and ground to produce the spice we know as nutmeg. All of these wonderful flavors are combined to create the savory, sweet, and exotic flavor of Zanzibarian Gharam Masala.

But, what is done with the nutmeg’s red-laced sheathing? It too, is dried and ground into a spice called mace–a peppery nutmeg powdered flavor.

Other Treats from the Zanzibar Farm

Harvesting Star Fruit

Harvesting Star Fruit

The other jungle farm treats were outstanding–turmeric, ginger, jackfruit, starfruit, and other tropical specialties. A young man scrambled high into a starfruit tree to bring down a juicy almost green grape-flavored, mouthwatering sample. Starfruit is a bright yellow six-inch long fruit and when sliced crosswise, each section is shaped like a star. Seeing a ripe jackfruit hanging on its tree is just bizarre. It hangs on to the tree trunk by a thin stem similar to the tubing for the mouthpiece found on a bassoon. The jackfruit has a matte spring-green nubby skin and is about the same size as an old-fashioned oblong shaped watermelon. Our guide clipped the fruit from the tree and opened it for tastings. The bite-sized chunks has just enough sweetness to satisfy and a more mellow flavor than a starfruit. It has the texture of a slightly dry pineapple with a small marble-sized pit inside. Tumeric is eaten as a spice for longevity and ginger is a flavoring that can settle the stomach. Both are both roots. Tumeric stained my fingers and gave me a bright orange tongue, while the ginger just smelled wonderful!

Ripening Vanilla Pods

Ripening Vanilla Pods

On the other side of the path, vanilla pods, looking like green string beans hanging on the vine were slowly ripening to be ready for picking and processing. Vanilla, a member of the orchid family, is one of the most expensive spices to grow, as each flower must be individually hand pollinated. Even in eastern Mexico, vanilla’s ancestral agricultural home, there is a one percent chance of unassisted pollination success from a specific bee species. Hence the necessity for hand pollination wherever commercially viable vanilla is grown and the costly expense.

After our tour, we ate a hearty lunch sitting on the floor of curry and rice–spiced with the flavors of the farm. Since coming home, I’ve cooked with all these spices in sweet and savory dishes. The flavors of the tropics warm the spirits and send me back to Zanzibar–The Spice Island.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!


Malting in the Skagit

Malting! As a kid, it meant malted milkshakes and Whoppers–malted milk covered in chocolate. Ugh! Whoppers were the rage in my Trick or Treat bag, but they tasted awful.

Now I savor a malted drink–Hefeweizen–the German malted wheat beer of my heritage. I like Lagers, IPA’s, and whiskey–all malted. I even add a quarter cup of Nestlé Malted Milk powder to my pancake mix. Yum! But, what is malting?

Malting is…

Wheat Varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Wheat varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Malting is an age-old process, fostered first in ancient Egypt about 6,000 years ago where kernels of barley, wheat, rice or other cereal grains are germinated in water. When the shoot reaches about 3/8 of an inch, germination is abruptly stopped and the sprouted kernels are oven-dried. Depending on the timing and the oven temperature, the dried grain develops differing flavors. The sprouting and drying process allows the grains’ starches to develop sugars, which the palate desires. Up until last century, the malting process was labor intensive. Damp, sprouted grains were spread out on cavernous floors, heated from below, and the grains were turned manually with large rakes until dry. With the advent of mechanization, malting grains were commoditized and standardized.

All superior beers are crafted with malted grains–most often barley or wheat–and then water, yeast and hops are added to the mix. Budweiser is produced from unmalted grains–either corn or rice. (No wonder when my German cousins visited when I was a kid and couldn’t stomach American beer!) Beer aficionados probably already know that mainstream beers are unmalted, but my being only a casual drinker of a good, well-crafted, specialty beer on a hot summer eve, I now know why I like crafted beers! It’s the brewed combination of malted grains, tangy hops, fermented yeast, and cold spring water.

A New Malting Dawn

Now, a new malting dawn is rising an hour north of Seattle in Skagit County, home to Skagit Valley Malting, Dr. Stephen Jones of Washington State University, and a multitude of folks all working to ensure that the region reigns as a preeminent, world class agricultural powerhouse, with products that create flavor, value, and terroir–a sense of place.

Grains ready for malting

Grains ready for malting

Imagine my amazement when Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting said, “there are 15,000 varieties of barley and 20,000 strains of wheat that can be malted!” Just in barley varieties, there are black, purple, red, and many shades of gold. Astonishingly today, in American beer brewing, including the craft brewers, only 10 barley strains are malted according to the American Malting Barley Association. Further, over the past 30 years, barley acreage has dropped 77%. This leaves a multitude of grains to test in the Skagit soils, to create the finest flavor, foster the hardiest plant, find the biggest producers, create the preeminent malts and build the agricultural economy. Dr. Stephen Jones is the Director of WSU Research in Mt. Vernon, the heart of Skagit County in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences with his research concentrating on improving wheat and grain varieties and to support the growing Skagit grain economy.

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Historically, prior to the United State’s commoditization and consolidation of agriculture following World War II, the Skagit agricultural lands had record wheat yields, two times those found on the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington and three times those found in Kansas, which hails as the Wheat State, since it grows more wheat than any state in the Union. Despite the fact that Skagit County lost their wheat and barley markets, the farmers have to grow grains because it is a necessary rotational crop in a healthy agricultural ecosystem. By including grain in a field planting sequence, disease and pest cycles are broken.

Skagit specialty red potato fields

Skagit specialty red potato fields

For example, if potatoes are grown in a field in year one, that same acreage cannot be planted with potatoes until year four. Other crops, such as tulips, grasses, cabbages, cucumbers, and grains can be rotated in. By not planting a field with potatoes again, harmful insects or diseases never get to call that acreage “home” and move in and multiply. No matter what though, by year three, a grain planting cycle is a necessary rotation to maintain soil health, because it returns organic matter to the soil, and the deep root system (about the same height as the steam and wheat spike) breaks up clay soils, allowing natural soil aeration. However, grain rotations are not as profitable for the farmer with gross earnings between $500 to $1,000 per acre ($0.01 to $0.02/square foot). When compared to peonies ($52K/acre or $1.19/SF), tulips ($15K/acre or $0.34/SF) or the specialty crop Skagit Red Potatoes ($12K-$15K/acre or $0.34/SF to $0.28/SF), grains have been downright a money loser.

Now Skagit Valley Malting is selling their malted grains to breweries in Washington, DC, where premium beers are sold at $21 per pint. Pike Brewery in Seattle sells specially crafted beers brewed with Skagit malts. Malting is not only for beer, but for bread, too, such as the loaves at the Breadfarm in Bow, Washington, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, and Manhattan’s Blue Hill restaurant–all featuring malts from Skagit Valley Maltingt!

Opportunity in malting!

Skagit farmers, entrepreneurs, agricultural researchers, and others see opportunity! Beer drinkers rejoice! The Skagit region is charging ahead as an economic agricultural powerhouse in the changing edible landscape. Eaters and drinkers everywhere are looking for new, wholesome, and vibrant taste experiences. Growing grains is getting exciting and is expected to be a money maker!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and a member of the American Planning Association’s Food Interest Group. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 


Baldor: Making Food Special

Food is special, as it fuels us to accomplish the mundane to the extraordinary. Without food, we are lackluster, lethargic, and lazy. But, eating just any old food calorie can starve us and even kill us, rather than nourish the body.

Healthy food topics energize me in part because I have lost family members needlessly to bad food choices. It is easy to be tantalized during countless televised football games by ten golden chicken nuggets offered for $1.49 or 14 cents apiece. Breaded chicken cubes glisten on the screen enticing us with four special sauce choices. What is most disturbing is how little a farmer earns from this crappy food. Farmers are paid as little as 3% of the retail value on most processed foods and in this case a farmer earns only four cents (4¢) for the whole set of chicken cubes! These nuggets aren’t golden to a farmer!

When we eat cheap food, it’s easy not to value the farmer that grows it! I want to support farmers and businesses that build and grow a good food culture.

So, visiting Baldor a successful business that thrives on sourcing and selling good, local food along with delectables from the around world is heartening and gets my brain cells salivating on continuing to work on a thriving food and farming economy.

The Baldor Experience

Baldor is a an exceptional fresh produce and specialty food wholesale distributor flourishing on excellence, in the backwaters of the Bronx at the Hunts Point Distribution Center. A multitude of smaller produce wholesalers fill the Center in low-slung concrete buildings separated by swaths of asphalt maneuvering and loading areas, while Baldor as one of the larger businesses occupies the former 180,000 square foot A&P warehouse space.Baldor Signage

Baldor has created the “go-to” work place for employment and great food. We were greeted with the sign “We love Baldor & Baldor loves you!” Granted, sorting, unloading, packing and distributing food is not a glamorous job, except for a few top positions, but with free medical insurance, a company store with at cost food purchasing power, cafeteria service at $4 per meal, an on-site gym, and English as a Second Language classes, it’s a great place to work. Baldor provides for their employees while supplying nurturing food for their customers’ soul.

The Cavernous Aisleways at Baldor Dressed to Protect the Food

The Cavernous Aisleways at Baldor Dressed to Protect the Food

Our group of 45 Urban Land Institute real estate professionals arrived just after 9 a.m. and donned caps, gowns, and beard covers (if needed), to enter a controlled food environment. Our tour started in the food storage warehouse section. Again, the warehouse reminded me of a cavernous COSTCO with metal shelving reaching 25 feet into the air, filled with boxes and bags of potatoes, onions, pears, winter squashes, pumpkins, apples, and more. Lower stocked shelves were laden with tiny half-pint containers filled with pepquiño (small round cucumbers with watermelon-looking skin), six-inch long corn shoots, nasturtium flowers, grape tomatoes, and mint cress (micro-greens) used to color and flavor a salad or plate. The corn shoot had a mild corn flavor while the pepquiño was a shot of cucumber, similar to eating a cherry tomato!

Baldor not only sells produce but has expanded into other specialty foods such as CHOCOLATE! Kept chilled and in its own storage room, the chocolate aroma permeated the double-garage sized high-ceilinged room. Chocolate from around the world arrived in bags, boxes and five-gallon barrels, ready for distribution to the finest retail and restaurant establishments. I was the last in the room, savoring the smell.

Connections to Local Farmers

With one-half of their total yearly offerings being local product, Baldor is keeping the regional farming economy strong. Sourcing from local farms originally started when the owner realized that delivery trucks that supplied outlying customers were coming back to the City empty. Recognizing that great food was grown regionally, Baldor trucks started returning to the City laden with local product from Hepworth Farms, a family-owned farm established in 1818 in the Hudson River Valley, Satur Farms founded in 1997 keeping 160 acres of Long Island in farming, Red Jacket Orchards beginning as a small farm in 1958 and now producing orchard products on 600 acres in the Finger Lakes region, and many more. By making a commitment to working with local farmers, regional varieties and specialties were established and the nuances of food traditions and flavors are fostered.

Having eaten an east coast Macoun (pronounced Mă cō ĕn) and a west coast Macoun (Mă coon), I have tasted the terroir–or the geography, geology, and climate of this specialty apple. Here in the northwest, I’ve done blind taste tests with the northwest’s Nash’s Best Carrots and California’s Bunny-Luv carrots and can taste the difference. There is terroir in food, as there is in wine, provided we take the time to savor and pay attention to it! Baldor strengthens the ties to terroir. Their terroir doesn’t stop with just local food, but includes farms across the country and around the world. Bringing the tastes of the minerals, water, and sunshine to customers that discern the diversity of product and the genuine flavors of real food!

Fresh Cuts

Busy Fresh Cut Room at Baldor

Busy Fresh Cut Room at Baldor

Our next stop–the 34 degrees Fahrenheit room where Fresh Cuts are produced! Ensuring our gowns and caps were secure with no stray hair, we entered what can only be described as “Willy Wonka’s” produce factory. Workers doing their tasks were donned in winter jackets and gloves underneath their sterile white clothing. A conveyor belt of peeled carrots were dropped into clean water to be scooped up by an employee and loaded either into bags for shipment or barrels for further processing. Fresh chopped onions, cubed butternut squash, and trimmed yellow beans filled garbage-can sized bins. Other employees stripped ruffled Tuscan kale leaves from its stems or separated mushroom stems and caps, for the thriving restaurants, catering, and food service clients Baldor serves.

Fresh Cuts was an unexpected business opportunity for Baldor, when a client ten years ago inquired whether cleaned, stemless and gill-less portabellas could be delivered. The customer asked, Baldor delivered and a new business venture ensued.

The WOW Factor

Prepping Beans at Baldor

Prepping Beans at Baldor

Just the stats of this company are impressive. A $400 million company, receiving 2,700 calls per day, and shipping 80,000 boxes to customers with just two pages of backorders every day. A minimum order size is $100 with an average $400 order size. Call as late as midnight for next day delivery guaranteed within a two-hour window (in NYC traffic)!

Baldor serves not only restaurants and caterers, but every private school in NYC. Next stop is feeding the City’s public school kids. Based on research, 80% of children will eat from a salad bar, if they get to make their own choices while 80% will not, if it is handed to them. Already 200 donated salad bars have been installed in public schools. Baldor is on a mission to help more children eat great produce to grow healthy kids!

Baldor makes fresh food special with their commitment to their clients, employees, and children they serve. They know it is all about the relationship. It’s the bonds that are important. Farmers make a commitment to the soil. Baldor is linked to the farmer. The customer is connected to Baldor. Baldor’s food fuels the body to accomplish the extraordinary.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 


Two Commercial-Scale Produce Hubs

Visualize fresh produce. Where do you see it? At the grocery store? On your plate? At your farmers market? At your local restaurant? At the farm? How do fresh fruits and vegetables leave the farm and show up on your plate? Food travels on average 1,500 miles from farm to fork. As an eating nation, we have come to expect asparagus in the fall, which is an early spring product in our northern climes, demonstrating how disconnected we really are with where our food truly comes from.

In 2014, I continued to learn more about our food system and wanted to know, “Where does produce go once it leaves the farm?”

Available wholesale produce at Hunts Point Produce Market

Wholesale produce for sale at Hunts Point Terminal Market

I toured two large, commercial scale produce food hubs, the State Farmers Market in Atlanta and the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx section of New York City (NYC), both of which occupy considerable real estate acreage, tucked away in their city’s backwaters as work-horses, employing lots of people. Each food distribution center is located in a lower rent district and on government supported properties. In total these food hubs with their satellite operations, feed about one-third of the U.S. population. The 168-acre Atlanta Market is located beneath Hartsfield International Airport’s flight path on state-owned land but is strategically located within minutes of the interstate highway system to whisk food to southeast markets. Supported by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the 329-acre Hunts Point Center is in one of NYC’s lowest income neighborhoods in the Bronx, but is well-placed to serve 20 million eaters in the New York metropolitan area, notwithstanding the rest of the northeast market.

Despite food being vital to my health and wellness, I did not know where my produce could travel and I was fortunate to learn so much on these two visits.

Georgia State Farmers Market

The State Farmers Market in Atlanta is a state-owned food hub which leases facilities to private businesses which aggregate, distribute, and market edible products throughout the southeast. On Saturday afternoon in April, the western half of the 168-acre state market is sparsely filled with small, independent vendors selling everything from giant stuffed animals, boxes of produce, and packaged goods to a handful of customers. The Georgia Department of Agriculture has redevelopment aspirations to build a more vibrant, thriving market here, which will only happen when money and legislative-will are found.

The eastern half of the property is home to private food distribution businesses that collect food from the two major southeast growing regions—the Piedmont region, a higher elevation with more clay-like soils and the coastal plains, an area with abundant water and superior growing soils–and other national and international markets to supply a burgeoning food economy.

General Produce, a privately held company located on the State Farmers Market property, occupies four warehouses with 178,000 square feet of space and serves eleven states. Cal Folds, one of the owners and members of the founding family led us on the tour of the more than 50-year old business. General Produce is a 24-hour operation sourcing and delivering fruits and vegetables to grocers, institutions, and restaurants in their own company-owned satellite equipped tractor-trailers from this central location and four other smaller facilities.

Pallets of Well-Pict Berries at General Produce

Pallets of Well-Pict Berries at General Produce

It was my first experience being in a distribution warehouse, which had the character of a COSTCO with rows of metal shelving holding abundantly filled boxes of produce from across the United States and around the world. Boxes of Well-Pict strawberries were stacked to the ceiling. Bagged Vidalia onions lay horizontally on pallets 30 or more feet deep and at least 30 feet high. Boxes of local peppers, Washington asparagus, Idaho potatoes, Chinese ginger, non-GMO Brazilian papaya, Canadian rutabagas, and oodles of other produce were waiting to be ordered by customers for shipping to stores, restaurants, and institutions. According to Cal, all food except that which is storable, such as potatoes and apples, are shipped within four days of arrival at this facility to their final destination.

Banana ripening enclosures at General Produce

Banana ripening enclosures at General Produce

What was most intriguing was General Produce’s 22 banana ripening rooms! The average American eats 10 pounds of bananas per year! (Calculate it! The U.S. population consumes more than 3 billion pounds of bananas per year!) Bananas arrive green from Central America. To hasten the ripening process bananas are placed in ethylene-filled boxes for three to five days to achieve the yellow glow. Ethylene is considered the “ripening hormone” which naturally occurs in apples and pears, but can be chemically formulated for creating the optimal banana!

I was wowed by the Atlanta Market but didn’t know another mega-food market was in my future.

Hunts Point Food Distribution Center

I arrived in NYC after a non-stop cross-country flight on an October Sunday evening. I willed myself to be at a 6 a.m. Monday morning bus departure to ride to the sprawling Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, a 329-acre wholesale food market with the new Fulton Fish Market, the Hunts Point Cooperative Market, the New York City Terminal Market, and a multitude of other food-oriented businesses.

Skies were just starting to lighten, when a busload of 45 Urban Land Institute real estate professionals arrived at the bustling New York City Terminal Market–the produce market. About 50% of the City’s produce moves through the 660,000 square foot warehouse space stretched along four narrow buildings, which if laid end to end would stretch more than one-mile long. Just the Terminal Market generates 3000 jobs and $2.3 billion in sales. In the wee hours, long-haul trucks lumber down the driving areas between the buildings lining up to park perpendicularly to the open-air loading docks delivering fresh product. At our 7 a.m. arrival, the larger trucks had left and the smaller delivery trucks were being filled with orders of fruits, vegetables, and packaged goods to be delivered to restaurants, convenience stores, schools, and other customers throughout Metro NYC. In the pre-dawn light, not wanting to disrupt commerce, our group wound its way between hawkers, piled high dollies, and awaiting trucks.

Red Potatoes Being Sorted at Hunts Point

Red Potatoes Being Sorted at Hunts Point

We slipped into Joseph Fierman & Son, Inc., a long-established potato, onion, and other root vegetable sorting and distribution business. Huge bins, and 50 pound boxes and sacks of potatoes were awaiting processing. Once placed on the conveyor belt, the tubers were mechanically sorted and dropped into sacks rotating on the automated, analog-scale, packaging machine. In the pristine, all-concrete room, the clickity-clack of the machine was rhythmic, but noisy. As the sun was starting to brighten, we walked across the truck staging and maneuvering area to the Tomato Division of Armata Fruit & Produce. Tomatoes were rolling down a conveyor belt (with an occasional bounce) and each orbs’ color was assessed by an electronic sensor directing the fruit to the appropriate chute and an awaiting box with similarly colored fruit. As boxes filled, workers stacked them by readiness for market, with greener-hued tomatoes needing more maturing prior to store delivery. The Armata spokesperson said the 40,000 pound batch of tomatoes from Williams Farms that we were watching would be processed within three hours. Armata expected to sort tomatoes from two more farms by the end of the day!

About 9 a.m. we arrived at Baldor the pre-eminent NYC food supplier with $400 million in annual sales. Baldor is the New York, Boston, and Washington, DC “go to” food supplier serving hotels, restaurants, private schools, and retail. I was so impressed by Baldor that it deserves its own story.

So Much to Learn

As a kid, my Dad taught me to grow tomatoes and took me blueberry and strawberry picking. My grandmother lived in rural western New York and I picked U-pick apples on her neighbor’s farm. I have a 5,000 square foot city lot with a plum tree, blueberry bushes and over-wintering garlic getting ready for the next agricultural season. I visit the University District Farmers Market regularly. I get my food from many different retail outlets.

However, visiting the Atlanta State Farmers Market and Hunts Point and feeling the pulse of the thriving wholesale food economy is incredible and so different from anything I had ever experienced. Watching the workers swiftly move large quantities of perishable, tender product that must be appealing to the eye as well as the stomach is astonishing. The food distribution story is unknown to most, but an important to appreciate. Our eating culture is dependent on ensuring this system flourishes, as having abundant, good-tasting, nutritious food is vital to a healthy community. Next time you eat asparagus begin to imagine how it got to your plate!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on ULI-NW’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world.