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Amanda Oborne: Helping the “Ag of the Middle” Thrive

by Rootstock Radio

April 29, 2019

by Rootstock Radio

Today on Rootstock Radio, Amanda Oborne, Vice President of Food & Farms at Ecotrust, talks about what nearly nine years spent working toward an equitable, prosperous, climate-smart future at this organization has taught her.

From a “boots-eye view” to a “bird’s-eye view” she’s especially interested in helping mid-sized local food producers find their way within infrastructures designed to support either the large-scale commodity level or, increasingly, the small, family farm level. Where does this leave the “Ag of the Middle,” the local producers ready to run something larger than a small-scale operation but who don’t want the huge industrial model?

William and Dennis Baese, Organic Valley dairy farmers from Michigan, in front of their milking parlor.

Tune in to hear about:

  • The Redd on Salmon Street, a working hub for local food that Ecotrust recently launched to provide warehouse space, cold storage, distribution, fulfillment and CSA/CSF drop sites, as well as office, co-working, and meeting space to “ag of the middle” producers.
  • The importance of biodiversity within the agriculture industry itself, including small, mid and (conscientious) large-scale operations!
  • How the Ag of the Middle Accelerator Program helps farmers get to a place where they can support themselves exclusively through their farming.
  • The way that Amanda and Ecotrust are working to help the Portland, Oregon area food system flourish at a regional level.

Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rootstock Radio Interview with Amanda Oborne

Air Date: April 29, 2019

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Amanda Oborne. Amanda is the vice president of Food and Farms at Ecotrust, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon. And Amanda, I think she can be described as a conscientious eater, a for-profit/for-purpose optimist, activism, just all the good things that we want when we talk about food and farm change. Amanda, I’m very honored to interview with you today.

AMANDA OBORNE: I’m so honored to be here, Theresa. Thank you for the invitation.

TM: Yeah! You have been doing this kind of work with Ecotrust and other organizations for how long, Amanda?

AO: Well, I’ve been at Ecotrust almost nine years now, coming up on nine years.

TM: Wow. And what did you…how did you get to Ecotrust?

AO: Well, I had come from a corporate background, actually. I had worked in marketing, and I had moved to Portland and really wanted to put my magic powers of marketing to use for good and not evil. And I had read Omnivore’s Dilemma and the veil had been dropped for me about what really is going on in our food system. And I had grown up and gone all through my twenties and half my thirties, really, being completely ignorant of what was happening in food systems. So that book was a real revelation for me.

And at the same time, my parents had retired a little early and bought land and buffalo. Dad is originally from northern Montana and had always wanted to raise grass-finished buffalo and really understand those animals. And so right at the same time I read Omnivore’s Dilemma and moved to Portland, my parents embarked on this small ranch, small farm journey in central Oregon, and so I was getting sort of the bird’s-eye view and the boot’s-eye view at the same time. And it really changed the way I see the world and the way I eat and the way I teach my children, and everything. And just every single facet of my life and work and personality really got affected by those two things. And so I jumped on the opportunity to join Ecotrust.

TM: Boy, I sure like that term “boot’s-eye view.” That’s the first time I’ve heard it. Wow, how appropriate!

AO: I just made it up.

TM: Oh, did you? Oh, it’s lovely! And also, thank you, Michael Pollan—

AO: Right?

TM: —for inspiring so many of us with the kind of work that he’s done. You know, it’s so good to hear that something that you read, a book, changed your life. And it did this to me too—for me, it was Frankie Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. But that’s lovely. And so you found Ecotrust. Now, Ecotrust is a lovely Portland nonprofit, and it started out doing a lot of forestry work, but now is also food and farming.

AO: Yeah, forestry and fisheries and food and farming.

TM: And of course all these things are all connected in so many ways.

AO: Mm-hmm. And in fact, it works, we’re based here in Portland but we do work from northern California, far northern California all the way up through Alaska, which is basically, we refer to it as Salmon Nation, the territory where the wild Pacific salmon have historically run. So it’s a pretty broad regional approach. I find that to be a really interesting scale: not too small, not too big. There’s a lot that we can do at a regional level that we can’t do at a national level or just at a community level.

TM: You know, what I’ve always loved about the Ecotrust model is that it really is deeply both respectful and aware of how all those issues impact community. And one of your projects, I know, has been this amazing building here in the southeast, they call the Redd. I also just saw it when it was first purchased and it was like this concrete, ugly building, and I went, “Goodness, what did they do?”

AO: (Laughing) “What are they gonna do with that place?”

TM: And then last week I drove by and it was red! It was really red, and it looked beautiful.

AO: Yeah, it’s gone through an amazing transformation.

TM: Tell us about that project, and how is it that Ecotrust got involved in it? And then what was your role in it?

AO: Yeah, there are sort of two threads to the story that come together at a moment. The first is that Ecotrust bought the building where our home offices are and did one of the, I think it was the first LEED certified historic renovation nationally anywhere. And that was such an interesting and powerful community project that a few years later, so maybe five years ago, the board started saying, why did you never do that again? Why did you have such a great success in building this very community-grounded project in the form of this building and then never build on that expertise and do that again?

So that conversation got started at the board level, and Spencer, the founder of Ecotrust, Spencer Beebe, had it in his head that he really wanted to do another project like that, another renovation, community-based project. And at the same time, my team in Food and Farms at Ecotrust had started really digging into the problem of infrastructure and the missing infrastructure. And when I say “infrastructure” I mean the cold storage, the slaughtering plants, the post-harvest handling facilities—all of the sort of the stuff that we learned, in Omnivore’s Dilemma, that’s behind the scenes, that we don’t see, about all the factors that bring food from the farm—

TM: Right, the infrastructure that you really need to get it right from the farm to the store.

AO: To get anything—right. So all that stuff that’s totally hidden. So back in the ’50s and the ’60s, when we were a very agriculturally kind of grounded and based society, we had community-level food infrastructure and agriculture infrastructure. And that all got dismantled as industry consolidation and federal ag policy, get big or get out—that whole world really ripped out all of that sort of mid-scale, community-scale food infrastructure.

And so our team had started digging into this, and we went all over Oregon and Washington and tried to really understand what’s preventing local food systems from growing up beyond farmers’ markets or beyond CSAs, which are incredible, wonderful outlets but they only reach a relatively small percentage of the population. The vast majority of us still buy most of what we consume at a grocery store or at a restaurant or at some kind of grab-and-go facility, or we eat at school or work or whatever. So local food wasn’t making it into those mainstream outlets, and we were trying to understand why.

TM: It just wasn’t big enough to fit into those massive, highly efficient lines.

AO: Right, exactly. Exactly.

TM: Which is now our food system—mass-produced food.

AO: That’s right. And coming through just a couple of, I think of it as the big industrial pipes, the big distribution, global, industrial distribution systems. And so what we came to understand is, if we want to really help the food system develop at a regional level and become more diverse in terms of scale and size and product categories and the things, you know, getting the kind of robust diversity that we would like to see on our plates and on the grocery store shelves and all of that sort of stuff, then we were going to need to understand this infrastructure question better.

And so, as a result of all this research, it did a couple of things. One is it helped us understand that it’s not just the warehouses or the trucks or the cold storage or the physical assets of infrastructure, which are important, but it’s also community, it’s also relationships. It’s also networks of people being able to share ideas and product flow and all of those things that exist separately from—often linked to but separately from—the hard asset infrastructure. So there’s this need for a different kind of connective tissue, basically, in relationships.

So as we were doing all this research, and we published a report in 2015 that was just very boringly titled “The Oregon Food Infrastructure Gap Analysis,” that report just really led us to focus on a particular scale—and this will come up again, I’m sure, in our conversation—that there’s plenty of infrastructure out there if you’re operating at the commodity level and you’re selling into the export markets. There’s a certain amount of established infrastructure that works well if you’re in farmers’ markets or in CSAs. But there’s almost nothing in the middle. If you’re a little bigger than farmers’ markets but smaller than commodity—as Fred Kirschenmann, who defined the term “Ag of the Middle,” would call it—then there’s nothing for you. You don’t meet the minimums required of the big processors or cold storage facilities or any of that, but you’re really too big to be effective at a farmers’ market level. So you’re really kind of stuck. It’s sort of this desert that you have to walk through if you’re going to stay in the game.

(10:07)

TM: Yeah, it’s just interesting what the tradeoff is when we decided, oh, we have to get big, get big or get out. And those who were in the land grants and supported that are so in regret right now. But I don’t think, at the time—and you might comment on this as we talk about, well, why should we care about local food systems? Why should we care about local food? Why don’t we just go to Costco and just fill it up, or Kroger, or Walmart, and just big is beautiful, or whatever? But I think the tradeoff that people aren’t understanding is there’s this huge change in our culture, both in our communities and in our families. And these stories that we used to tell about our food and where it came from have been lost.

AO: Yeah, I mean, you’re the best person in your position, dealing with those many, the thousands of small farmers, small and mid-size farmers that you deal with, to answer that question better than anyone: that what comes with local food is pride, is connection to land, mystical soil, you’re feeding humans, you’re feeding your families, you know where your food is going. There’s so much that’s unspoken and nonlinear about what food systems can be when they’re done at a regional or local scale rather than the sort of global, anonymous scale.

TM: Yeah, and also the quality of our food has suffered so badly by our, quote, “drive for big and efficiency,” rather—

AO: Right, and suffered on multiple dimensions.

TM: Multiple dimensions.

AO: The flavor has gone out of it, the nutrition profile has gone down…

TM: It’s just heartbreaking, actually.

AO: Yeah. Well, so, recognizing all of those issues, Spencer Beebe, Ecotrust founder, at the direction of the board, had identified this property that you mentioned, this sort of industrial kind of warehouse property in the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland and was thinking about what to do with it, now that… You know, how would we renovate it? How would we put it to work for the community? And he was entranced by this notion of having it be a component of the food system in some really beneficial way, but wasn’t quite sure what that should look like. And at the same time, our team was just finishing this “Infrastructure Gap Analysis” research. And so we started talking about wanting this building to have cold storage and dry racking and all of the sort of scaled-down, right-size, kind of Goldilocks version of the type of infrastructure that’s really needed to make local food accessible to more buyers, to more eaters.

Anyway, the point came down to we had redone the drawings many, many times to try and figure out how you would get a 52-foot truck to back into where this place is, and how you would put the…and then put up the racking but then still have a beautiful entry. And would the public be able to access this space, or would it not be a public space? And as we were going through all of this, the building next door became available. And it had been a marble-and-tile showroom and warehouse. So it was already almost, with a little bit of tweaking, it was sort of ready-made to become the kind of warehouse that our team, the Food and Farms team at Ecotrust, really knew the food system needed, which would then leave this sort of old-bones, iconic, kind of industrial, beautiful space to be adapted in a way that could be publicly accessed.

So, at the end of the day, we managed to get the financing and get the partners in place to acquire the property next door as well. So now the Redd, as you said, R-e-d-d, that’s a two-city-block campus right in the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland, and one half of it is what those of us in the food system, food reform system, might refer to as a food hub. It’s got warehousing, cold storage, commissary, kitchen space, co-working space—all of the services that a small or mid-size producer would need to help get to market. And then the other building is an absolutely stunning state-of-the-art public convening space.

So we just had our grand opening. The big Redd Reveal! was just a few weeks ago in that space. And it really brings community together in that area, where it’s mostly commercial buildings. This is a public convening space right in the heart of the old industrial area of Portland.

(14:55)

TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Amanda Oborne, vice president of Food and Farms at Ecotrust, and she’s talking to us about a beautiful project that she and Ecotrust have been involved in, called the Redd East and West, a delivery system which, it’s a bicycle, but it’s a motorized bicycle, right?

AO: Yes—well, it’s got an electric assist. There’s still a lot of human power required, for sure. And it’s truck tricycles, they’re called, or we call them the trikes.

TM: The trikes. That is so fun. I love that.

AO: And they have a big box on the back. They can carry about 600 pounds payload.

TM: Wow!

AO: And they can go every single day, in any weather. And they do about a two-and-a-half-mile loop down through the most traffic-congested part of Portland. They go right up to every one of those downtown restaurants and all of those little grocery retailers and do deliveries. They’re on the road about an hour at a time, and then they circle back.

And one of the things that we didn’t anticipate is they’re also back-hauling weird, hard-to-recycle items that were going into the landfill.

TM: Oh, of course!

AO: So now they back-haul the Styrofoam and all the hard-to-recycle stuff, bring it back to the Redd, where it sits and piles up like this sort of garbage zone until there’s a full load. And then they call a recycler, and they come, and so all of that stuff is getting diverted out of landfills as a result of this project.

TM: Oh, that’s so exciting. And you talked about B-Line as being one of the tenants. Give me some examples of some more of the people who are part of the hub.

AO: Yeah, it’s a pretty cool mix of companies there and organizations. In Redd West there are five core tenants. So B-Line is by far and away the biggest, because they’re managing all the warehousing space and the distribution services and the co-working space. And then there are three sort of kitchen spaces. One of them is operated by a company called SoupCycle that does organic salads and wraps and salad dressings and that kind of stuff, and has some retail spaces in Portland.

TM: Nice!

AO: Right next to them is what has turned into an incubator kitchen for all-plant-based products. So it’s called New Foods Kitchen, and there are 14 different start-up, entrepreneurial plant-based food companies that are doing production in that kitchen—nut butters, nut milks, all kinds of really interesting new products. And then right next to the vegans are the meat and seafood distributor, Wilder Land & Sea, which connects with the area ranchers and fishermen and distributes to all of the top restaurants in Portland and does direct, sort of ranch-to-table and sea-to-table distribution. So they’re awesome as well.

And then the fifth anchor tenant at Redd West is FoodCorps, the national nonprofit—

TM: Oh wow.

AO: —that does school garden education.

TM: Oh, fabulous!

AO: And they’re amazing. So all of those folks are together. And then B-Line also works with almost 200, at this point, different small farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food product entrepreneurs and food makers, doing either distribution or storage or advertising services or promotional services or offering co-working space.

So the beauty of all of those services, really, for my purposes, as someone trying to rebuild the ag of the middle, is that each of those services is offered on an a la carte basis. So a small producer or a farmer or rancher can just bite off the piece that they can afford, that’s like the next most important thing they need to grow their business. So they can get just distribution services, or just fulfillment services, or just warehousing space. And then, as their business grows and they need more support, then they can add the next service and the next service and the next service. So it turns that cliff that they have to climb when they want to go from small to mid-size, for example, into more of sort of an on-ramp that they can more easily climb up.

TM: Well, for a lot of entrepreneurs, there really isn’t a mid-size. It’s either small or having to jump up to the large. And so what you’re saying is, we’re going to provide that mid-size or that middle step so that more local people who really want to be in this business and be the entrepreneurs but not have to go all the way up here have that. And so that’s such a fantastic model.

Portland—what a wonderful city! I just love this city. There’s so many unique things to learn here that are models. But, so these kinds of models are just popping up, aren’t they?

AO: Yeah. Ecotrust ended up—so we learned from and were inspired by a lot of those models, but what we created was something a little bit different, because Ecotrust bought the buildings, the properties, and then has leased out the space. So B-Line is doing, is really carrying the heavy load—no pun intended, on truck trikes—in creating that distribution of warehousing and co-working space and all that collaboration.

TM: Amazing.

AO: They’re really facilitating a lot of that. So Ecotrust set the stage, set the vision, brought the partners together, and then has really sort of…you know, I hesitate to say “taken a back seat,” but has created space for the partners to collaborate and do, you know, develop their businesses side by side together.

TM: Well, I know Ecotrust, one of their missions is “Drive radical, practical change.” And I want to say, wow, that you’re doing it, and that it’s just such an inspiration, and also that it’s very possible for this to be models for all over the country. We maybe don’t have to have big ag dominate every single part of our life.

AO: Well, one of the things I was very frustrated by, back in that era when I was doing all that research, was I would go to meet-and-greets and hack-a-thons and all kinds of events where people would bounce ideas off of each other, but then there wasn’t much support for carrying out those ideas or really working together over time. And I came to believe in the idea of these network effects and how change really comes about by virtue of humans connecting and believing in an idea and then sharing it, and then sharing it more, and that sort of growing in a really organic, networked way. And that takes time.

So a big part of the notion and the mission behind the Redd is having all these entrepreneurs co-located in one space where the cross-pollination can happen. But then iteratively they can try things, they can fail, they can try a different thing, they can keep going. And they’re really committed over a much longer period of time. It’s not like they just come together on a weekend for an event, have a bunch of big ideas, bang at them for 48 hours, and then leave, and there’s no good way to continue those collaborations.

TM: It’s pretty wonderful to know you’re not alone, when you’re trying to struggle in your own business. You’re not exactly small, you’re not exactly big, and so finding others who are kind of like you must be—I bet there’s some wonderful stories.

AO: Yes.

TM: Community, just between those folks at the hub.

AO: Yes, there’s some amazing bonds there. Well, what you just said reminded me that one of the folks in the Ag of the Middle Accelerator literally said, “It is so nice to know that we’re not the forgotten middle child,” because this is such a difficult scale of operation in agriculture, that if you’re not big and you’re not small, what are you? And just how hard and lonely that is, just exactly like you’re saying.

(22:57)

TM: Now, this Ag of the Middle Accelerator that you’ve been referring to off and on, and we’re seeing so many ag of the middle farmers, especially in the Midwest, bellying up. In Wisconsin now we lost 600 farmers and they are mostly ag of the middle farmers. Those are the ones that are not being able to stay in business, and it’s just heartbreaking. And yet we haven’t lost a cow. Instead we’re seeing more CAFOs spring up, which is even more heartbreaking because there’s not a [unclear—23:28] there. So I’m very interested in that dedication that Ecotrust has in trying to look at this ag of the middle problem. And you call it the Ag of the Middle Accelerator. Kind of describe that program a little bit, would you, Amanda, for us?

AO: Yeah. Accelerator is such a, in some ways it’s such a terrible word, because it sounds like such a techy thing and like we’re totally focused on growing at all costs, when that’s really not the case. We’re inspired by Wendell Berry and all of the sort of wise elders in this work that have taught that it’s important to stay the right size, whatever the right size is, and that it’s not about growth at all costs. But this program is really designed to help us prove out the hypothesis that we shouldn’t be getting all of our food from a couple of giant distribution sort of pipes; that we would be better off as a community and as humans, in terms of our nutrition and connectedness, if we had a distributed network of small and mid-size producers all around the region. So all different kinds of crops and products, all different kinds of farmers and ranchers, and different scales. So biodiversity, but in agriculture essentially.

And there are a couple of ways to get to that sort of—in theory, there are a couple ways to get to that network of small and mid-size producers. And one of the ways that we think is the most promising is to help small producers grow to get to a sustainable mid-size where they can get rid of that off-farm job, hopefully, that they can stop spreading themselves so thin.

TM: So they can afford medical insurance.

AO: Exactly. And they can devote themselves to the work that they really care about. But to do that, they need a viable business. So this program is really, it teaches all the boring basics, all of the creditworthiness and cash flow and all the sales and marketing 101, and all of the basics related to business management—not the production. So they either know production or they’re getting support on production from other places, but this is really how do you create a viable, profitable business, and one that will sustain your family so that you don’t have to spread yourself really thin across a bunch of other jobs and other endeavors.

Right now, we’re working hands-on with about 35 producers, and they’re all really—they’re all in product categories that we think have viability at scale in the Pacific Northwest. So they’re in grains or they’re in pastured pork or grass-finished beef or pastured poultry, or they’re doing some kind of a vegetable that we... Like there’s a woman from Madras doing potatoes, and she supplies all the potatoes to the Deschutes Brewery for their French fries. So something where they have a viable market opportunity and some established customers and some established business. So it’s not an incubator program. They really have to have something started already, and then we’re helping them go to that next level.

TM: Trying to figure how they can go to the next level. You know, what’s interesting about it, to be a farmer is to be one of the more astute observers of life, because what do farmers know how to do? They know how to observe things, and they’re tuned in to the weather, they’re tuned in to animals, they’re tuned in to their land in a very interesting way. And they’re not usually marketers.

AO: Right.

TM: And so you’re  probably having to work with a group of farmers who also have a little bit of that marketing ability. Like I’m thinking of someone who’s small but who always amazes me, the Carman Ranch folks, who really have a phenomenal product that they have figured out how to, farming the techniques and yet at the same time they’re also marketers. That’s quite unusual, isn’t it?

AO: It is. And I think Cory would be very flattered that you referred to Carman Ranch as a great marketing company, because they’ve had to learn that along the way. Cory’s passion is for the cows and the land, the grasslands that she’s restoring, and the other ranchers who feed into their model, and that’s where her heart lies. And so she’s a great example. In fact, we’ve learned a lot from Carman Ranch as we’ve watched them grow over the last five years and really taken a lot of our cues for how to develop both infrastructure and this ag of the middle work to support similarly minded producers who have had to, of necessity, figure out how to do that marketing piece well. And that, for me, it’s fun, because my whole background before reading Omnivore’s Dilemma was in marketing. So it’s a place where I can bring those parts of my history together and do it in a way that really serves those farmers and ranchers.

TM: So www.Ecotrust.org. Amanda, it’s so great to talk with you. I’m pretty proud of the kind of work that Ecotrust and you have been doing. And just carry on!

AO: Well, Theresa, you’ve been a mentor—

TM: Aw, thank you.

AO: —and an inspiration for as long as I’ve been at Ecotrust and paying attention to these issues. So thank you.

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