Wallowa County Food System Council sets priorities

October 15, 2012 01:30 pm

The Magic Garden in Imnaha produced three tons of food this summer. KATY NESBITT - The Observer
The Magic Garden in Imnaha produced three tons of food this summer. KATY NESBITT - The Observer

In little more than a year’s time, a group of local food producers have taken the dream of a sustainable, local food network and are making it a reality. 

The Wallowa County Food System Council, a group of gardeners, chefs, ranchers, and community organizers, formed the council over the past year in conjunction with a Community Food Assessment prepared by Josh Russell. 

Russell was a resource assistant for rural environments who interviewed dozens of people involved in food production and retail to determine what we raise, how and where it’s sold, and the needs of local consumers. He compiled the information into a document — a map of what is available in the county and what is hoped for in the future.

The council boiled down Russell’s work to a short list of priorities on which they will focus in the coming year. Their first priority is strengthening the food production and processing network through collaboration of information, resources, transportation and marketing.

The second priority is to continue the development and expansion of community and school gardens and secure additional funding.

The council’s final goal for the coming year is to encourage collaboration among all of the farmers markets and develop a strategic plan.

With the harvest season winding down, the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District invited Sharon Thornberry of the Oregon Food Bank to facilitate a morning of workshops to map out tasks for the coming year.

Each group identified communication as a top priority and tapping into multiple websites from a state-wide food hub site to the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce’s site.

Using the Wallowa County brand on food products was also suggested as a marketing tool. Wallowa County is a recognized name outside the region and beef and produce are already sold in Portland stores and restaurants.

The council’s focus is to also increase consumption of local products by local consumers. June Colony, with USDA grant funding, has a pick-up truck and trailer that can be driven into a field where produce can be processed. Up to 32 boxes can be put into a drop-in cooler and transported to a larger cooler on her farm.

Colony’s system can process local food and fills a gap for both processing and storage needed in Wallowa County.

Colony started a 4-H gardening club and would like to see each community have one as well, tapping into educational opportunities available through the Wallowa County OSU Extension office. Programs for adults such as Master Gardening and food preservation are also available.

Thornberry said through 4-H there is a framework for tested curriculum and agreed it was an excellent, local resource.

Long-term, members of the workshop would like to see renewable energy folded into the infrastructure of the
community gardens, said Jacquie Medina.

Finishing its second season, The Magic Garden, the brain child of Robin Martin and the Joseph Methodist Church, has grown exponentially and the need has arisen to hire a paid intern.

The garden grows food in Joseph and Imnaha for the Joseph and Enterprise schools and donates to the Community Connection food bank. Last month Slow Food of the Wallowas hosted a fundraiser and brought in $2,400 to support the intern’s salary.

Martin said three tons of food was grown in the Imnaha garden and another 100x100 garden plot has been donated by Janie and Doug Tippet.

For the last two years the Joseph and Enterprise farmers’ markets have promoted the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that Thornberry said help both consumers and producers. She said new machines are available to process the cards through the Oregon Food Bank. 

Ideas for the future of the farmers markets is expanding gardens in Imnaha and Troy where there are longer growing seasons and having shared booths for small producers.

Farmers’ market organizers envision a winter market with at least 10 vendors selling winter produce and other hand-made products. They would like to attract people who have not been involved in any of the markets in hopes to expand interest and products.

At harvest’s end, several activities are planned to celebrate.

Saturday is the final Joseph Farmers’ Market and cider press.

Lostine Harvest Days starts  Oct. 19 at M. Crow and Co. with soup and Lathrop Country wine tasting, a biggest potato contest. A cider press will be in action at June’s Local Market as well as many other craft and food items available throughout the weekend.

On Oct. 20 at the Tamkaliks Pow wow Grounds in Wallowa there will be a pumpkin patch and activities for families and a cider press.

Most of the work of the council and the other producers is about growing and selling delicious food, Thornberry said it is also about food security and ending hunger.

“We can’t end hunger through emergency food supplies, we need long-term solutions to rebuilding community food supplies,” said Thornberry.

To find out how to get involved in the burgeoning local food movement in Wallowa County, call Northeast Oregon Economic Development District at 541-426-3598.