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Stevens County Works to Develop Value-Added Food Industry

Washington State University

In Stevens County in northeast Washington, there’s an effort brewing to build a more robust local food industry.

“And especially with the world, at least Washington state and the whole West Coast, moving toward a trend in local food, it seems like now is a really great time to sort of reestablish our area as a major supplier to Spokane,” said Nils Johnson, extension coordinator in the WSU Extension Office in Stevens County. He’s also part of the Community Agriculture Development Center in Colville.

Johnson says the county’s agricultural peak came about 100 years ago when it had four times the number of farms it has now and produced about five times as much food. Now he says there’s a bit of a revival. The county is seeing an influx of people, some baby boomers and retired veterans, who want to farm. Many of those, he says, simply want to sell their crop and start on the next one. But some have expressed an interest in creating value-added products that might fetch a higher price.

Following the results of a recently-released feasibility study, Johnson’s group is making plans to build a processing plant for crops that are not grains. He says the facility would be tailored to create five types of specialty foods.

“Pickled garlic. Garlic grows really well in our area. So that goes into jars," he said. "And pear and apple butter. They’re another trending product line. And then, on the frozen line, frozen corn on the cob, frozen broccoli florets and a frozen root vegetable medley that would probably have potatoes and carrots and turnips and parsnips. It could have a range of things in it. It’s chunks that are frozen and ready to cook or perhaps already cooked.”

Johnson says the frozen foods would most likely be sold to institutions such as schools and hospitals. The food in jars would be produced with farmers’ markets and specialty stores in mind.

He says the produce plant would be the county’s third food processing facility. There are already two small scale government-licensed meat processing plants, one for beef, one for poultry. Ranchers rent them to prepare and package their meat for sale.

“We found that there were a lot of people who were not going to sell their chickens but they were renting it because it made processing them for their own home use easier,” Johnson said.

So now that the local agriculture folks have decided a produce facility is a good idea, they have to decide on the details. How big should it be and where? And how much can they afford to spend to build it?

“I don’t think there’s enough margin in this to do it for profit. And so it’s going to take some creative mix of non-profit and for-profit to make it work,” Johnson said.

But, he says, it could create new opportunities for Stevens County farmers who have small operations to make a living in a place they prefer to live.

“It would be pretty easy for someone to have all the work they could possibly do growing, let’s say, a quarter acre of garlic and making pickled garlic and selling it year ‘round," Johnson said.

Dan Wallace, who lives near Kettle Falls, is one of those new farmers.