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Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.
Another year-round endeavor for Mary and Vince Alionis is their farm store. They currently maintain a self-serve farm store in a small building beside the highway, but a new and much larger one is being constructed inside an adjacent barn. Plus, they’ve recently launched a new fermented foods business. (Editor's note: Whistling Duck's new farm store is up and running and pictured in this post.)
“Now we make kraut,” said Mary, “so that’s another winter gig with a lot of winter cropping. It’s also an important part of our long-term plan. We took over a kraut business about two years ago from a friend named Kirsten Shockey. She wanted to get out of the business of making and retailing fermented foods and concentrate on writing and teaching about fermentation. And her new book, Fermented Vegetables, is great by the way. And this has turned out very well for us because it doesn’t get any easier to start a kraut business than to have an expert give you theirs. How can you turn that down?”
Taking on a new operation this time intensive did mean that Mary put on one more hat when she already was probably wearing too many hats. But both Mary and Vince are very upbeat about the potential this undertaking represents. And it definitely improves their conversion ratio.
“A couple months ago I had several hundred pounds of radishes that all came out at once because someone had seeded too many,” said Mary. “But I realized I could ferment them, so we made about twenty-five or thirty gallons of fermented radishes of various kinds. And they’re incredible… just so good. And that’s something we wouldn’t have had a market for and would have tilled in. Now we’re turning it into value added products that will sell.”
Vince commented that the fermentation path also fit well with their existing approach from a nutritional standpoint. Whistling Duck has been catering to the juicing and smoothie crowd for a number of years by growing nutrient dense veggies and greens like lambsquarters and purslane. So fermented foods fits right in. “It’s a great market,” he said, “very cutting edge. We’re doing something creative in the kitchen, but we’re not encouraging people to buy jams or cookies. It’s fermented. Probiotic. It’s good for you, so there’s nothing negative about it.”
Mary says they have no problem selling their krauts and fermented products. Because they had been selling the products before they took over production, they had a built in customer base, which has been steadily expanding along with the rapidly growing fermented food market nationwide. Mary also has found that creative marketing can bring significant benefits.
“We’re creating so many different ferments and coming up with our own recipes,” she explained. “One of them I put together recently was an attempt to make something seriously good for you. It had root parsley, burdock, nettles, turmeric… a lot of medicinal stuff. Unfortunately it didn’t taste very good. And I couldn’t just throw it out because there was nothing wrong with it. Instead, I cut it in with some plain kraut to dilute it, called it ‘the healer’ and charged more for it. It sold out immediately.”
In addition to it’s market potential, both Mary and Vince are excited about the fermentation business because of the role it plays in their new five year vision.
“Our end play is to get our store developed so we can scale back the super intensive farming gig,” said Mary. “We want to have a local store that sells our products and products from all sorts of other local people. Our five year plan is to not be doing all these markets and not be doing wholesale, and instead keeping it all right here. Keeping our seed garlic, and still growing veggies, but selling them here in the store. We have a tendency to just keep doing it all, but we need to scale back because we’re getting old. And if we simplify things, that also will make it easier to find people who can keep it going.”
Mary and Vince make no bones about how tough it might be to find the right people to help run their farm and farm store. But like with everything else they’ve done since they got started back in 1991, they’re trying to keep an open mind and look at all the possible alternatives.
“This property is actually two tax lots,” explained Mary. “The house sits on one tax lot and the fields are another one. And I would love to get things set up so we could build a house on the field lot and have another farmer working here with us… have someone else living here on the farm and provide housing for them. Because housing is usually the sticky wicket. And I’m not talking about just a bunk house, but a real home so another farmer or farm family could live here and work with us. Who knows what that would end up looking like. I’m not into a business partnership, but I wouldn’t have any problem saying, okay, we own this property and we will lease it to you, and you run this aspect of a farm. You do the green vegetable production or whatever. They can run their aspect of the farm, and we can run ours. It may not go that way, but I’m good with all that. The main thing would be that we’re interdependent but we remain individuals.”
In the meantime, Whistling Duck Farm will continue down the path it’s been on since it got started. And Vince and Mary Alionis will keep digging in the dirt together, just as they were when they met so many years ago.
Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.
(Top) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: Interior view of Whistling Duck Farm’s new farm store. The recently renovated barn that provides Mary and Vince with a high quality on-farm retail store..
(Bottom) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: Fermented foods are rising in popularity because of their nutritional benefits. Whistling Duck is well positioned to benefit from this trend after assuming control of a local fermentation business and creating a value-added outlet for much of their produce. The next step is adding a certified kitchen to their new farm store to handle their ferments and other value-added endeavors.
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