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New markets bolster island ‘Ag’

The color purple dominates the landscape with rows of lavender in full bloom at Pelindaba Farm’s annual Lavender Festival.   - Contributed photo / Pelindaba
The color purple dominates the landscape with rows of lavender in full bloom at Pelindaba Farm’s annual Lavender Festival.
— image credit: Contributed photo / Pelindaba

Agritourism is the latest buzzword for economic development and tourism professionals in San Juan County, but processing and marketing of island grown products on a commercial scale is becoming a prevalent topic of conversation among farmers and small-business food companies on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands.

Businesses like Pelindaba and San Juan Pasta on San Juan Island, Jones Family Farms on Lopez Island and Red Rabbit Farm on Orcas Island are leading by example in producing, processing and marketing products ranging from lavender to meat to apple and pear butters and various chutneys.

In the first third of the 20th Century, agriculture was big and many of the 600 or so farms in the islands were busy and prosperous. According to Al Sundstrom, perhaps 100 of those farms were commercial operations, sending tons of raw and processed agricultural products to a variety of markets up and down the West Coast.

About 70,000 acres were farmed for “Canadian peas,” grain, vetch and vegetables, farms, including John McMillin’s Bellevue Farms, produced chickens, geese, turkeys, sheep and cattle. In the 1900 to 1940 period, according to a report of the Agriculture Resources Committee, some 25,000 boxes of apples and pears were shipped from Eastsound; in 1937 alone, Orcas Island shipped over 100 tons of strawberries.

Gradually, the depression and World War II (and, in the case of peas, disease) slowed the farming economy to a crawl, and the ‘50s and ‘60s saw sales of farmland increase and numbers of farmers decrease. By 1964, there were 228 farms on about 25,000 acres, with only about 15,000 acres actively farmed.

Ag’s fall and rise

By 2007, there were about 300 farms on about 21,500 active farming acres. The total market value of crops grown in San Juan County was about $3.6 million, of which about $1.9 million was livestock sales. From 1997 to 2007, agriculture direct marketing sales (farm-to-consumer sales) increased from about $175,000 per year to $740,000, according to Peggy Bill, agriculture resources coordinator for San Juan County.

Pelindaba (“the place of great gatherings” in Zulu) on San Juan Island is demonstrating the way for integrated and intensive growing, processing and marketing of agriculture products, in Pelindaba’s case, one commodity - lavender - with over 200 products.

A native of South Africa and a medical doctor, Stephen Robins bought the 25-acre farm in 1989 and originally used it as a weekend retreat, but after building another island home nine years later, he planted 2,500 lavender plants in 1999 and another 5,000 the following year, constructed a production center and started producing lavender products.

PalindabaDuring the following decade, Robins opened the farm to the public and expanded the production and marketing facilities, welcoming visitors with a visitors’ center, the Gatehouse Farm Store, tours and activities, weddings and an annual lavender festival. The 12th Annual Lavender Festival takes place July 20-21 at the Farm on Hawthorne Lane, off Wold Road.

Now, Pelindaba produces more than 250 products from more than 25,000 lavender plants, making Robins’s operation the largest vertically-integrated lavender farm  in the country. Pelindaba sells products from company-owned stores in Friday Harbor and La Conner and through licensees in San Francisco and Boulder, Colo. Its products are also sold in Singapore and Hong Kong, and anywhere in the world from the website. Pelindaba has 27 employees.

Marketing a must

The total investment is now well over a million dollars. “After eight years of hard work, we became profitable. Now, our gross annual sales is more than $1 million,” said Robins.

Robins succinctly describes the operations on the Pelindaba website (www.pelindabalavender.com): “We cultivate all our lavender flowers in our own organically certified fields and extract the essential oils from these flowers in our own on-site distillery. From these flowers and essential oils, we handcraft on-site a wide range of botanical, culinary, personal care, therapeutic, household & pet care products. This vertically integrated model of sustainable agriculture enables us to preserve the farmland from further development, protect it from pollution, create employment opportunities for our fellow islanders and provide a destination of natural beauty for islanders and visitors alike.”

Robins says the key to Pelindaba’s success is two-fold: first, “persistence in overcoming the many problems that happen” (including a fire that destroyed their production facilities) and, second, “full quality control at all stages of growing, distilling, manufacturing and selling our certified-organic products.”

Robins also points out the unique design of product packaging - done at Pelindaba by him and his staff.

Same hill, different path

Red Rabbit Farms on Orcas Island has taken a different production and marketing tack, especially difference in size.

Christina Orchid of Orcas Island is by herself a case study and an example for emulation in the food industry at all levels of growing, processing and marketing. She has used a food science degree and 40 years in the industry as the basis for a thriving small business that could be a model for food entrepreneurs in the islands.

In the 1970’s, Orchid took over operation of 15 acres of a larger family farm from her mother, Emily Reid, about the same time she opened Christina’s in Eastsound, one of the first restaurants in San Juan County to promote the use of home-grown products, much of it from her own garden, and perhaps the first restaurant in the islands to gain a regional reputation for excellence.

Since selling the restaurant in 2008 and “retiring” from operating Christina’s, Orchid has gradually expanded her line of jams, jellies, chutneys, and sauces into a year-around business manufacturing and selling “several hundred” cases of products annually. She’s a familiar figure at the Orcas Saturday Market, and her goods are now for sale at the fish market at the corner of Best Road and Highway 20.

“I’m working very hard in the kitchen,” she says, “but not in sales and marketing.” Because her products have a great reputation on Orcas, Orchid sells almost all of her production locally and doesn’t want to take the time to market off-island.

She’s also too busy catering events on Orcas, hosting numerous weddings and serving occasional dinners for 40 at Red Rabbit Farm. Now, with final county approval of her commercial kitchen expected “any day,” Orchid is preparing to serve weekly “farm-to-market dinners” from her large cookhouse buildings or, in good weather, from her water-view lawn.

Orchid has been a success as a food professional because she loves what she does and pays close attention to both ingredients and preparation. The dinners she’s planning now will likely continue that success.

Two other “food businesses” in the San Juan Islands, Jones Family Farms of Lopez and San Juan Pasta of Friday Harbor, are following their own paths to  success. They will be profiled in a future edition.

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