Gorge farmers offer fresh foods and convenience online
By Drew Myron
A loyal supporter of local farms, Alison Hodges knows her produce.
“Now this,” she says, appraising a plump red berry, “is a real strawberry. This has flavor. This isn’t some mass-produced tasteless grocery store thing. This is what a strawberry is supposed to be.”
For more than a year, shopping for strawberries and other locally grown goods has lived as a bucolic memory of a time before the pandemic closed businesses, limited gatherings, and thwarted farmers harvesting crops for buoyant markets.
When COVID-19 slowed down shopping options, farmers throughout the Columbia Gorge kicked into high gear to meet customer needs in a safe and convenient way. During the economy’s slump, two local companies—Gorge Farmer Collective and Gorge FarmBasket—created online farmers markets.
Both services operate with the same model: Shoppers go to a website where farmers offer the latest harvest. Customers shop as they would in a physical market. Orders are placed and filled weekly, and shoppers choose from a variety of local pickup locations. Payment is made online.
Unlike Community Supported Agriculture programs—or subscription services—customers have no recurring commitment. They shop when they want and buy what they want.
Gorge Farmer Collective is a partnership of 20 farms, most in Oregon. Hood River Valley farmers include Wildwood Farm, Tamiyasu Orchards, Peachwood Orchard, Allegre Farm, Stamboom Meats, and Kelly & Friends Natural Meats.
The seeds for GFC were sown in March 2020 during the initial COVID-19 lockdown.
“The farms that produce year-round in the area—such as mushrooms, microgreens, and meat—saw their wholesale and restaurant sales screech to a halt, with most if not all accounts disappearing overnight,” says Kiara Kashuba, who serves as secretary on GFC’s five-member board of directors. “Seasonal farms with flower, fruit, and vegetable production had already ordered seeds and began propagating and were worried about where they would sell their harvests for the upcoming season.
“There was also a period of uncertainty surrounding whether farmers markets in the Gorge would be allowed to continue under new COVID restrictions. Knowing at the time we couldn’t rely on our existing sales channels to move our products, a small group of farmers came together to devise a pivot, and the Gorge Farmer Collective was born.”
Each member owns an equal share of the business and has an equal vote in how it operates. Members commit to work a few shifts a month. Farm members receive dividends at the end of the year.
“It’s truly a grassroots approach that practices deep collaboration, self-governance, and autonomy,” Kiara says. “We believe our local food system is stronger when we work together.”
The cooperative approach allows for a variety of offerings, including a range of vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs, mushrooms, eggs, and meats.
“A Hood River peach tastes different than a Mosier peach, a Lyle tomato and a Parkdale tomato are worlds apart in flavor and seasonal availability,” Kiara says. “We wanted our customers to have as much choice as possible, create some friendly competition among growers and experiment with a true free market economy that pushes all of us to grow our best products and fill our niches.”
Operating with a similar model, Gorge FarmBasket launched in April 2021. Headed by local farmers Ronny Tannenbaum of Nature’s Finest in Parkdale and Bonnie Cox of Oak Rose Farm in Hood River, Gorge FarmBasket features items produced by a dozen farms within a five-county region of Oregon and Washington.
Hood River Valley farmers include Springwood Farm, Cody Orchards, Lost Lake Apiaries, Stamboom Meats, and Tamiyasu Orchards.
Bonnie notes the online market is a good alternative to the traditional farmers market, which can be a labor-intensive effort for small farmers who have limited time and resources.
“It’s a struggle,” she says. “We’re all small farmers and we’re all busy. We have to fill a lot of roles aside from the farming, from bookkeeping to tractor maintainence to customer relations.”
The beauty of the online market, Bonnie says, is that everything is picked to order, ensuring customers get fresh products and farmers reduce waste, especially during the pandemic.
“We wanted to have a more resilient model and have other ways to reach people,” she says. “Having a direct route to the customer is better for the farmer and the customer. We’re creating a framework that can benefit all.”
“We’re giving people what they want,” says Micaela Ballinger, who grows more than 100 tomato varieties at Stepping Stone Farm in Mosier. “This shopping model fits any family size and schedule.”
For years, Allison strolled the farmers market in downtown Hood River, where she would buy Bonnie’s strawberries. Now, she shops online and sees Bonnie during weekly pickups at the Rockford Grange.
“This way is super convenient, and it supports our local farms,” Allison says. “I like that. And it’s worth every penny. Have you ever planted, weeded, and packed to sell? It’s worth a lot more than you’re paying. And to know your farmer? That’s so great!”