Many Thurston County residents take both great pride and delight in eating local. Whether through purchasing directly at a farmers market or through a CSA share, or eating at a local restaurant that sources from local growers. But few realize the challenges that exist with storing, processing and transporting local food.
Soon the Thurston Region’s local food system will be getting an upgrade. The Thurston Economic Development Council is leading a coalition of public and private partners in the creation of the Southwest Washington Regional Agricultural Business and Innovation Park in Tenino.
EDC Director of Strategic Alliances, Aslan Meade, explains that this new project will truly benefit “local and regional food producers and will energize the agriculture sector of the economy.” Though undertakings of this scope can feel, at times, daunting and slow to progress, the Tenino Park is well underway and hopes to break ground in the spring of 2019 with doors opening in 2020.
Aslan explains that “Over the last several years, through a series of studies, agriculture economy-focused events, agriculture producer listening sessions and direct outreach, Thurston, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pierce county agricultural producers have repeatedly stated the need for facilities and infrastructure which would allow for locally grown produce, grains and meats to be turned into value-added products. Such facilities increase the value of local agricultural products and thus increase the revenue of local food producers, allowing them to expand and increase their workforce.”
Thanks to a partnership between the EDC’s Center for Business & Innovation and the City of Tenino, a site has been identified, funding raised, and several local businesses are ready to relocate once construction is complete. As envisioned, the Park could offer much-needed missing infrastructure like food storage (dry, cold, or frozen), processing and distribution. There may also be retail space, a commercial-grade kitchen, tasting rooms, demonstration gardens and tourism attractions. As well, multiple business technical service providers will exist on sight to serve rural businesses throughout the region “We’re also dead-center on the Thurston County’s Bountiful Byway agri-tourism route,” notes Meade, and this project “has really caught the imagination of people!”
Funding has come from the State’s Capital Budget, the Port of Olympia, and USDA Rural Development for both infrastructure construction and master planning. More than 40 businesses, organizations and elected officials have provided letters of support for the project, including Sandstone Distillery, Whitewood Cider, Oly Kraut, Tunawerth Creamery, Centralia College, the Lewis County Farm Bureau and the Thurston and Lewis County WSU Extension programs. It’s also backed by Chambers of Commerce in Tenino, Yelm, and Rochester as well as the Mayors of Bucoda, Yelm, Rainier, Tenino, Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater.
Legislative advocates include Senator John Braun and Representatives Richard DeBolt, JT Wilcox, Ed Orcutt, Andrew Barkis, Laurie Dolan, and Beth Doglio, and the project also has the support of the Governor’s office.
Tenino Mayor, Wayne Fournier, is one of the project’s biggest champions. “We’re excited to see this project moving forward. The great momentum behind the support of this facility is matched by the need,” he says. “Tenino is in a great position geographically, culturally and economically to serve as a regional hub for agriculture. We have a long tradition of Ag industry and know how.
“It’s all about value-added. Selling on the commodities market, a producer never knows what they will get for their crops, but usually it’s not going to be very much. When you value-add, you create a product that people will pay more for—turn your tomatoes into salsa or cabbage into sauerkraut. Located here, right along the I-5 corridor, we have markets from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, B.C. where people will pay top-dollar for local, specialty and organic foods.”
A fully developed Agricultural Park could provide an estimated 150 jobs and once established, projections show it could bring in more than $25 million for the region.
The Ag Park project addresses the 2012 Industry Cluster Study which identified food production as one of the top 5 industries within the Pacific Mountain region (which includes Thurston, Mason, Grays Harbor, Pacific and Lewis counties),” says Meade. And it is a shining example of what can be done as part of the Thurston Economic Alliance. “The Ag Park is seen a signature project, demonstrating how a great many partners can combine and coordinate efforts to build something new and innovative that bolsters a key regional industry and bring new prosperity to our community.”