A local food hub could provide a similar boost for farms of all types, Gardner realized.
Funding for the purchase came through Steward, an online lender specializing in agricultural projects that allows members of the community to invest in the loan and earn interest.
“We were blown away by all the support from the community for investing in this,” Gardner said.
Corey Omey, the architect behind the food hub and one of its co-owners, said the plan is to promote the building’s history, coming full circle as a local and regional food distributor.
“I think it’s a perfect historical backdrop,” said Omey, who owns EMA Architecture in Portland. “It’s really fun to bring that character and quality back into a space.”
Omey was introduced to Gardner last spring, and the two became fast friends upon realizing they had a shared vision for local food. Growing up in Western Michigan, Omey was raised in a food co-op, and said local food is part of his DNA.
“We have the same ethos,” Omey said. “When you meet someone who is so passionate about food systems, health and equity within farming, fishing and ranching … that’s exciting. It’s fun to be part of things like that.”
As currently envisioned, the 13,500-square-foot building will have two to four office and retail spaces in the front of the building, facing Marine Drive. The back warehouse area will be reserved for a cold storage, kitchen space and later a restaurant serving local food.
The building also has a 13,500-square-foot basement that will be retrofitted in future phases of the project for additional storage and processing space.
Benjamin Ariff, owner of Straw to Gold Productions in Portland, is another partner on the project, helping to envision its interior design. He said their approach is to create a hub that’s genuinely built for everyone.
“I think it is important for us as consumers to be more in touch with the food system and pay more respect to those people,” Ariff said. “We’re going to make some steps in the right direction toward that.”
While design and construction work gets underway, Gardner said the next step is to find tenants who in turn will become the heart and soul of the food hub.
At least one tenant is already interested in joining the project. The North Coast Food Web, an Astoria-based nonprofit, works with approximately 40 local producers in Clatsop and Tillamook counties, providing educational programs and running a weekly farmers market.
Jessika Tantisook, the group’s executive director and a former cranberry farmer, said the market was forced to pivot to online sales this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. She started working with Gardner at Nehalem Provisions to pick up and deliver produce that was sold online, since he was already on the road.
At the food hub, Tantisook said they would have more space for their retail store to sell local food products, and a demonstration kitchen where they can teach community members about healthful eating and sustainability.
The group’s board of directors is now considering a letter of intent to join the food hub.
“I hope that, in 5 to 10 years, we see the North Coast as a great place to be a producer,” Tantisook said. “Clatsop County has a rich history of agriculture, fishing and ranching. But I think that in the last few decades, a lot of that has gone away because there isn’t the support services for it. I hope that the food hub can be that entry point.”
Johnson, the Washington farmer, said the food hub is “absolutely” something he would be interested in joining.
“There are a lot of logistical issues going on (with small farmers),” he said. “That’s what I find fascinating with this place, because they’re actually focusing on those issues.”
If all goes according to plan and the project continues to attract investment, Gardner said the restaurant could be in operation by next spring, and the basement completed by next summer. More than 100 people have already registered their intent to invest in the next phase of the project on Steward.
“To me, it’s clear that people want healthy, good-tasting local food, and they’re willing to invest in it with their pocketbooks,” Gardner said.
Link to Capital Press Article