Walking into Agricultural Connections this past week, I was an inexperienced outsider, invited on a tour of a facility that connects local farms to a larger network of restaurants, grocery stores and individuals. It was the first part of a gathering of like-minded individuals from around the Pacific Northwest who run facilities like Agricultural Connections, or who are looking to start their own. I was invited to the tour and information session by Sydney DeLuna of High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, another organization pivotal in the advocacy of the Central Oregon food system.
“Our struggle here in Central Oregon is that many people do not realize that we have a robust network of local growers and ranchers and that our food is readily available through a number of outlets,” said DeLuna in an email. One way that HDFFA is trying to alleviate this problem is by creating the High Desert Food Trail
—a self-guided tour that introduces people to local ranches, organic farms and craft food and beverage providers.
HDFFA designed the trail in conjunction with Travel Oregon, serving as both a marketing tool and an opportunity for locals to learn about the foodshed of Central Oregon. It also helps to dispel the myth that the region can’t produce local food year-round.
Central Oregon’s dry desert air and the sandy volcanic dirt doesn’t scream out, “robust local food system” to some. Before the tour, I personally associated organic farming in Oregon with the Willamette Valley with its pristine soil and wet environment. But Central Oregon does have a growing local food system.
Foodshed, a term originally coined in the 1920s to describe the globalization of food networks, has evolved to also describe 21st-Century networks of local and organic food production. Like the term “watershed,” which describes a system of bodies of water that drain into an area, a foodshed tracks how the production of food in a region flows from farm to table. This includes everything from where the food is produced, the land it grows on and the markets and distribution centers it goes through to make its way to the table.
Within this system, Agricultural Connections fills the role of a “food hub”—defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution and/or marketing of locally/regionalally produced food products.”
One of the central parts of the recent tour was the facility’s storage fridge, where AC stores the products sent to the organization by farmers. Agricultural Connections sets aside produce to send to restaurants and markets, and also creates produce bags for the public.
Bags were being readied during my tour, sitting on a long table packed to the brim with produce. The inside of the bag is reflective, providing refrigeration and keeping things fresh.Agricultural Connections works with over 15 farms and supplies over 20 restaurants. It maintains a close connection with HDFFA, another prong of the area’s “foodshed” that provides increased access to local, nutritious food.“We define good food as affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate food that is easily accessible and sustainably produced in Central Oregon,” HDFFA describes on its website. To achieve its goals the organization has developed programs that target specific issues, such as the High Desert Food Trail.
HDFFA’s Grow and Give is another of its programs, responsible for collecting and distributing food, annually providing over 26,000 meals for Central Oregonians through food banks and NeighborImpact.