Minto Island Growers employees harvest beets on Aug. 18, 2020. The beets were purchased by Marion Polk Food Share as part of its Farm Fresh Produce Program. (Courtesy/Marion Polk Food Share)

On Friday, Elizabeth Miller will sit down and begin planning what she’ll grow next season on the small farm she owns and manages in south Salem.

It’s a complicated equation for Minto Island Growers, an organic farm that raises cabbage, tomatoes, blueberries and more on about 15 acres. The farm gets much of its revenue from a community supported agriculture box program, where customers sign up for weekly deliveries of a variety of produce. 

In previous years, growing the right amount of produce has been a delicate balancing act, Miller said. The farm strives to have enough crop diversity that they can deliver to their customers even if some vegetables underproduce. 

But that inevitably means having extra produce when crops do better than expected, and there’s no guarantee it will sell at their farmstand or the Salem Saturday Market.

Now, Minto Island Growers has a customer they can count on to take their extra produce: Marion Polk Food Share.

In 2020, the region’s largest food bank began buying produce directly from Minto Island Growers and a few other small local farms, expanding the program this year.

Kendra Alexander, the Food Share’s operations director, said they wanted to offer a greater variety of produce to food pantry customers and deliver more fresh, healthy items.

The food share gets some produce as donations from the Oregon Food Bank and donations from groups like Salem Harvest and backyard gardeners in the region. 

“We’re supplied fairly well through our other sources,” she said, but “one of the things we hear from our clients and our pantries is that variety is highly important. A lot of the times the produce we’re getting is the same produce over and over again - potatoes, onions, apples.”

The partnership means a greater variety of food for local pantries, and makes it easier for farmers to plan for growth without worrying about overextending their operations.

Elizabeth Miller, left, co-owner of Minto Island Growers, leads a farm tour for Marion Polk Food Share staff and board members on Oct. 28, 2021, including Food Share President Rick Gaupo, left, and Kendra Alexander, operations director, right. (Courtesy/Marion Polk Food Share)

This year, Miller said Minto Island Growers is looking to expand its community supported agriculture box program, which means growing more vegetables.

But many crops, like broccoli and cabbage, are farmed at a scale which makes adding just a few dozen new customers challenging.

“We grow those crops in flats of 128,” Miller said. Seeding half a flat doesn’t make sense because of the labor required to transplant seedlings and maintain rows. But the expansion will be possible because the Food Share is willing to take extra produce, she said.

Alexander said initially approached small farms about donating produce, but quickly realized thin profit margins made that challenging at a larger scale. Minto Island Growers already donated plant starts and has supported the Food Share’s garden program.

“We felt like local produce was important to us but supporting local small farmers was also important to us, so we decided we were going to designate a portion of our food purchase dollars to purchasing produce from small farms,” Alexander said.

The Food Share spends about $250,000 per year buying food that they can’t secure through donations or other avenues. In 2020, Alexander said they allocated $5,000 to purchase local produce from small farms, beginning with Minto Island.

This year, they increased it to $20,000 and added three other local farms: Old Moon Farm, Sublime Organics and Lucky Crow. Alexander said they’ll likely increase the amount again for 2022.

The Food Share supplies a network of food pantries in the greater Salem area, which all have the option of picking up fresh produce. Alexander said the fresh chard, salad greens, broccoli and other items from the farms got rave reviews from the pantries they work with, and produce was generally out the door within a day of arriving at their Salem warehouse.

“It’s getting into the hands of someone that needs it pretty much within a 24 to 36-hour period,” she said.

Miller said it’s hard to overstate the economic impact the Food Share’s buying has had on Minto Island Growers. She described it as the most significant business development the farm has seen in its 15 years.

The Food Share is willing to buy just about any crop from the farm, she said, “as long as it’s not crazy quantities of fennel.”

That’s meant much less worry about planting too much of a given crop, and made it easier for the farm to plan for growth.

“Diversified farming, there are such small margins on your crop and so overproducing can be really expensive and lots of times you have to continue to harvest that crop to keep the health up,” she said. “It’s just allowing us to think about other possibilities of growth in our business.”

She recalled a time over the summer when the farm had about 100 to 200 pounds of excess cabbage that wouldn’t be used in their customer boxes. Normally, they’d mow it under or see if Salem Harvest could come collect it.

But this summer, Miller said their harvest manager “could take the time with the crew to go out and harvest the extra couple hundred pounds, and we would actually get money for it and there was actually an economic gain.”

“That was hugely positive for the crew,” she said. “It feels really positive for all of us.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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