Extra crops are the nature of the business for farmers. Fields are planted methodically every season, yet nature is the uncontrolled variable. The result is an excess of a particular crop of vegetables maturing at one time.
Typically, crops are mowed down if there’s too much in the field to be harvested, washed and packed in a short window of time. It costs farmers about $1,000 to do that, which they usually can’t afford.
“It hurts your heart to till under a perfectly good crop of something,” Root Connection owner and Farms for Life founder Claire Thomas said.
After almost 30 years in the local farming industry, Thomas struggled with destroying perfectly good food knowing there were many families in need. “I love growing for families who can afford to pay for quality produce, but I felt the need to turn a portion of the crops into going to people who do not have the opportunity to afford to buy fresh produce,” she said.
She launched the nonprofit Farms for Life (FFL) in 2009. The premise was simple. Monetary donations would be used to purchase surplus crops at a percentage of retail cost from a handful of small farms, supporting local farmers, while also supporting designated agencies that help feed people in need.
Thomas, whose Root Connection is a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm where families buy a share of a farm’s seasonal crops, reached out to her members via newsletter to ask for help. Within a few weeks, volunteers were helping set up a nonprofit, creating and maintaining the nonprofit’s website, and raising money.
In their first season, 2010, they raised enough to purchase $11,600 in produce, weighing 4.3 tons, that was donated to local agencies and food banks. Last year, increased donations allowed them to purchase $40,000 in produce weighing 15 tons.
Root Connection became the hub for FFL, providing space for a large cooler, electricity and use of office equipment. Doing so helped minimize the amount of money FFL would require for operations. In fact, only 1 percent of funds raised go towards an operations budget, with the fuel and insurance for the delivery van being their largest expense.
FFL serves Maltby Food Bank and Hopelink along with nine nonprofit agencies that serve the greater community. “We try to find agencies that have some form of community meals or cooking on site,” Thomas explained.
Besides Root Connection, participating farms are 21 Acres, Oxbow Farm and Dancing Crow Farm.
“We at 21 Acres farm participate in FFL not only because we are able to benefit from selling our excess produce for very generous wholesale prices that FFL offers — 75 to 80 percent of regular retail price but also because FFL's mission of providing healthy food to those who are in need, educating community members [about] the importance of locally grown food, preserving farm land and supporting local farmers echoes with 21 Acres farm's mission,” 21 Acres farm manager John Eizuka wrote by email. Member farms appreciate Thomas’ philosophy to return fair value to growers and her lifelong understanding as a farmer of how much it would cost to grow food and the growers’ hard work, Eizuka added.
Thomas remembers the first week they did deliveries in 2010. She went along with the delivery driver to Youth Care in Seattle. It was the early part of the season with lettuce, kohlrabi, mustard greens and things they had never seen before.
“The staff and then the kids came trickling out of the building to see what they were delivering. Pretty soon the kids were surrounding the table filled with produce and were eating it right out of the box. They were so excited. One girl came up to me, and looked at me with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘You guys are growing this for us?’ I cry when I think back on that,” Thomas recalled.
“It only takes about 30 cents a meal to provide fresh vegetables to a child and about 50 cents per person for a family including adults and children,” Thomas said, adding, “I’ll have people apologize that they can only donate $20, and I’ll send them a letter back telling them that $20 pays for 60 meals.”
The nonprofit also offers PCC scrip cards for customers who shop at that grocery store. When customers load money onto the card and use it to make their purchases, PCC donates back five percent to FFL.
The nonprofit, besides always seeking help with fundraising, also needs someone with experience in graphic design, Thomas said.
FFL volunteers also started a new program last year called Food for Life, an educational program, with a volunteer corps, which will offer cooking classes at some of the agencies. Most of the agencies are excited about the program, but $5,000 in funding is needed for this project to run annually.
To learn more about Farms for Life or to make a donation, visit www.farms4life.org.