Need sparks home food delivery

ENTERPRISE, Ore. — Last spring the world was shaken by a global pandemic that either sent people home to work or left them unemployed. The shutdown shuttered restaurants and left local producers with nowhere to distribute their food.

Here in the far northeastern corner of Oregon, a unique online marketplace was expanded to allow those producers to sell their crops and products and have them delivered to customers’ doorsteps.

About a year ago, Kristy Athens started an online gift shop called Genuine Wallowa County featuring locally made products. Her five-year plan was to add locally grown food to the online store’s offerings, but the pandemic put that plan on a fast track.

“A couple local producers asked if I would sell food on my website,” Athens said. “They were interested in not having to do their own laborious deliveries.”

Mary Hawkins of Hawkins Sisters Ranch, Theresa Stangel of Stangel Bison Ranch and Beth Gibans of Backyard Gardens started meeting with Athens in January. COVID-19 pushed the idea to the front burner in a hurry.

“It became clear that it was a really good time to offer food delivery to people’s houses so they don’t have to endanger themselves by going to a grocery store,” Athens said. “Meanwhile, restaurants were closed and local producers had nowhere to sell their food. If there is ever a time to be resilient as a county, it’s during a pandemic.”

In 2015 Athens, a writer drawn to the food justice movement, graduated with a master’s degree in food systems from Marylhurst University in Portland.

“I work in economic development and was looking for ways to put those things together,” Athens said. “What I really wanted to do and hopefully still will is create a larger scale incubator farm. Wallowa County has a very strong brand as far as tourism and I think we could use that brand as far as local food production is concerned.”

As the outreach specialist for Northeast Oregon Economic Development District, Athens came across a 2006 economic study. One of the recommendations was to create a Wallowa County brand.

The online gift shop cultivated Wallowa County brand recognition, and GWC Provisions brought food delivery into the mix.

The results from a poll on a community Facebook page were overwhelming. She realized she had a market.

Athens said she started with pre-sale memberships and fundraising for supplies. She received small grants from the Eastern Oregon Workforce Board and Slow Foods Wallowa as well as investments from community members to buy a refrigerator and freezer, design a website and cover other startup costs.

GWC Provisions meat and produce are either delivered to customers’ doors or dropped off in insulated bags at Main Street Motors in Enterprise, a central location for most people in the county.

Athens sells items like chicken, bison, goat, vegetables and fruit, Jor energy bars and Sei Mee Tea and Joseph Creek Coffee. She’s even started selling some of the bounty from her garden — items that don’t compete with her vendors.

Vendors receive 80% of the retail price, and $1 of every sale goes to one of the county’s two food banks. Eventually, Athens said she would like to be able to accept the Oregon Trail card.

Athens says her new online venture put into practice her entrepreneurship and work on food justice.

“I feel like after having talked about food justice for two straight years in grad school it feels good to do something on the ground that has results and is affecting people,” Athens said.

Small tractor sales surge during pandemic

Sales of small farm machinery are benefiting from increased home-and-yard spending during the coronavirus outbreak, but the pandemic’s impact on larger equipment is uneven.

The 102,000 new tractors under 40 horsepower sold during the first half of 2020 is about 13% higher than a year ago, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

The trend has only seemed to pick up steam recently, with AEM reporting that unit sales in the smallest tractor category surged 37% last month compared to a year ago.

“Anything that has to do with home improvement or making your home more enjoyable — all those businesses seem to be doing well,” said Curt Blades, senior vice president of agricultural services for AEM.

Dealers of building materials, garden equipment and supplies saw their sales increase about 10% during the first half of 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The solid market for small tractors is especially remarkable because this category had already seen healthy sales for several years, Blades said.

These smallest tractors are usually bought by hobby farmers and large property owners, while the 40- to 100-horsepower tractors more commonly used for farm chores, livestock and light tillage in commercial agriculture, he said.

“For the most part, that’s someone who’s deriving income from the farm or significant income from the farm,” Blades said.

Sales of new tractors in the 40-100 horsepower category rose 6.6% during the first half of 2020 and 27.5% last month, which is likely due to the need to replace machinery rather than optimism about the agricultural market outlook, he said.

Despite the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus and tensions over biofuels and trade, farmers realize they’re in business for the long haul and likely have pent-up demand for mid-sized replacement equipment, Blades said.

In the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown this spring, the “spigot shut off” for such tractor sales, so farmers have more recently been “playing catch-up,” he said.

“Often those decisions are separate from the economics,” he said. “As we recognize we’re in troubling times right now, this too shall pass.”

Sales of new tractors above 100 horsepower, which are used for heavier tillage, have decreased by 3.5% for the first half of 2020 but grew by more than 3% last month.

New four-wheel-drive tractors, the largest category, declined by 11.5% in unit sales during the first half of 2020 and by nearly 34% last month.

For bigger machinery, farmers may be deciding to defer investments until the economic outlook has improved, Blades said.

“They’re really darned expensive and it’s a big purchase,” he said.

The sales surge experienced by some tractor categories in June indicates “quite a turnaround” since coronavirus-related restrictions began being lifted, though its durability is unknown given the recent upswing in illnesses, said Joe Dykes, vice president of industrial relations for the Equipment Dealers Association.

“Whether it will continue, I certainly can’t speculate on that,” he said.

As essential businesses, farm equipment dealerships mostly remained open even when coronavirus restrictions were at their most stringent, Dykes said. The lockdown nonetheless hurt machinery sales, but revenue from parts and service helped make up for that drop.

“Farmers didn’t stop planting their crops because of the pandemic,” he said. “Instead of getting a new piece of equipment, they were getting what they had fixed.”

Since unit sales of the largest tractors involve relatively small numbers, changes in sales tend to be more volatile percentage-wise, Blades said.

For example, manufacturers have sold about 1,100 four-wheel drive tractors so far in 2020, compared to 8,300 tractors over 100 horsepower and 30,800 tractors between 40-100 horsepower.

Even so, sales of new combines — also a big-ticket item with low unit sales — are down less than 2% during the first half of 2020, which may reflect farmers being willing to take delivery on machines they’ve already ordered, Blades said.

Inconsistent weather in recent years may also be a factor, as farmers may be willing to invest in additional combines to ensure they can complete harvest operations in a narrower time window, he said.

“I don’t want to give the impression it’s rosy out there because it’s still a tough time,” he said. “I would love to say the market’s going to come back strong. I don’t have any ability to say that with any degree of certainty.”

Sales of new machinery are also affected by the availability of well-maintained used machinery with low operating hours, since many growers will opt for older equipment if they can get it, said Dykes. “The used market has been pretty attractive.”

How farmers are using native mason bees to boost crop production

BOTHELL, Wash. — Jim Watts calls himself a farmer, but he doesn’t raise livestock or crops. Watts is a bee farmer.

Across the West, growers are turning to a tiny, overlooked insect to pollinate crops: the native mason bee. In Washington state, Watts is leading the movement.

Researchers call mason bees “the new frontier” for crop pollination.

In recent years, many farmers say they have bought or rented mason bees because they are affordable, low maintenance, improve crop yields, repopulate areas with native species and even push honey bees working alongside them to be more efficient.

Researchers have known about mason bees’ pollinating potential for decades, but their use in agriculture has been overshadowed by the ubiquitous honey bee.

USDA’s most recent data show farmers in the Western U.S. spend more than $300 million annually on crop pollination by honey bees. Western farms use honey bees in dozens of crops across millions of acres. For example, 2020 reports show California farms are using honey bees to pollinate 1.2 million almond acres, and Northwest farms this year are pollinating nearly 300,000 fruit tree acres.

Until recently, large-scale propagation of mason bees has been a pipe dream.

Now, it’s taking wing.

Story of a bee farmer
Watts, owner of Watts Solitary Bees, grew up on a bee farm. His dad, Roger, started raising leafcutter bees, best known for pollinating alfalfa, in the 1960s. When Jim Watts grew up, he and his family took over the business, which his dad still helps with today.

Around 2008, Watts decided to try propagating mason bees. For eight years, he floundered, failing to replicate nature. Those eight years, he didn’t make a dollar and often ran in the red.

“I wanted to quit,” said Watts. “But my dad kept saying, ‘Keep doing it. It’s going to work.’ We finally got it right. Now we’re producing millions of bees and we plan to keep expanding.”

Watts Solitary Bees has two divisions: a commercial side that sells mason and leafcutter bees to large-scale producers, and a rental side, called Rent Mason Bees, that rents bees to small farms, backyard gardeners and urbanites.

The rental program, city dwellers say, teaches people where their food comes from and helps build bridges in a time when tensions are high between rural and urban communities.

Different kind of bee
Most people are only familiar with honey bees, but there are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide and more than 450 in Washington state alone, said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Early European settlers introduced honey bees to North America; mason bees were natives. People have domesticated honey bees for thousands of years, Buckley said, but mason beekeeping is relatively new.

Entomologists say mason bees are different from social honey bees. The mason bee prefers to be left alone. It is gentle, doesn’t have a fancy hive and dresses a bit like the common fly. It has no queen to protect, because every female is fertile. Because of its solitary nature, it is less likely to pass along illness. It braves the rain and works in colder weather. It nests in a cavity and lies dormant all winter, tucked inside a tiny, hard cocoon. It doesn’t produce honey. And in many crops, mason bees outperform other pollinators.

Belly floppers
“Mason bees are clumsy and they belly-flop onto flowers. It’s so funny to watch,” said Thyra McKenzie, a Seattle resident who rents mason bees each year for her backyard.

Entomologists say mason bees are effective pollinators partly because of how they carry pollen. Honey bees wet pollen to make it sticky and carry it in baskets on their legs, but mason bees belly-flop onto flowers, then carry dry pollen on their abdomens. As they travel flower to flower, flecks fall off, doing the work of pollination.

Mason bees are also generalists, said Olivia Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees. Shangrow said honey bees are specialists that work systemically, but mason bees pop here and there, appearing “distracted,” which makes them great cross-pollinators.

Bee alternative
“Everybody’s nervous about colony collapse disorder in honey bees,” said Brian Bly, a grower with 9,000 almond acres at Hart Farms in Orland, Calif. “My farm is so reliant on pollinators, so we got mason bees as a plan B, a sort of insurance policy.”

Bly bought his first batch of 100,000 mason bees five years ago — not to replace honey bees, but to complement them.

Studies from Stanford University and USDA have shown a hive of honey bees is healthier, less stressed and twice as efficient when working alongside other pollinators.

Before using mason bees, Bly rented honey bees at $200 per hive, two hives per acre. Each hive contained up to 30,000 honey bees.

But because mason bees are more efficient pollinators, fewer are needed per acre. Bly said when he puts 1,000 mason bees on an acre, he only needs to rent one honey bee hive instead of two, cutting costs.

Bly said he also likes working with mason bees because they are easy to care for.

Watts estimates mason bee care takes about 20 minutes of setup-teardown per acre each year, plus a few days per 100 acres each fall opening nesting blocks, cleaning cocoons and putting hibernating bees in cold storage for the winter.

Some farms, Watts said, are also excited about marketing their food as “pollinator friendly” or “pollinated with native bees” to meet growing consumer demands.

“I’m very excited about the mason bees and I hope to keep expanding,” said Bly.

Bly said he hasn’t measured the difference in production yet, but when his honey bees are still inside their hives on cold mornings, he sees the mason bees outside working.

Some farmers have measured. One California almond grower who purchased mason bees from Watts Solitary Bees said his trees yielded 800 pounds more nuts per acre.

Through entomologists’ eyes
Compared to honey bee research, mason bee studies are relatively uncharted territory, so it’s hard to quantify how efficient mason bees are, said Theresa Pitts-Singer, entomologist at USDA’s bee lab.

Researchers do know mason bees are especially good at pollinating fruit trees such as apples and plums, said Buckley, WSDA’s pollinator health coordinator. Studies have also confirmed their effectiveness in pollinating almonds, early raspberry varieties, cherries and pears.

Lisa Horth, professor of biology at Old Dominion University in Virginia, found in a series of studies that using mason bees to pollinate strawberries makes berries “substantially larger.”

Horth said she’s involved in studies happening now tracking mason bee use in other crops. Although Horth said she can’t reveal details yet, she said the results are “amazing.”

What farmers should know
Researchers say they think the “mason bee revolution” is coming, but there’s a lot farmers should know first.

Just like honey bees, mason bees have adversaries. Buckley of WSDA said special nesting blocks should be used to keep out enemies, including Houdini flies and predatory wasps. Farmers should also do an annual cocoon cleaning to remove pollen mites.

Some bees will naturally disperse into the wild, making their nests in hollow stems, rockeries or woodpecker holes, said Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees.

Experts say putting a football-sized chunk of wet clay or mud every acre makes mason bees more likely to stay because they mud-cap their holes. To encourage bees to stick around, Buckley also encourages farmers to plant native shrubs and flowers around fields.

Mason bees only fly in a 300- to 400-foot radius from their nest, so farmers need to disperse nesting materials throughout their acreage. Watts Solitary Bees offers on-site consultations.

Farmers also need to plan ahead for their anticipated bloom date. Mason bees typically pollinate March through May, Watts said, but can be managed to fly earlier or later.

Adult mason bees hibernate in cocoons over winter. Bly, the California almond grower, simulates winter by keeping his bees in a climate-insulated container starting in August so they wake up to February almond blossoms.

But nature can only be bent so far, and entomologists say waking bees up too early or too late can kill them. Researchers say farmers should consult with bee experts.

Horth of Old Dominion said she has great respect for farmers of all kinds, organic and conventional, but said bees are safer on no-spray farms.

The well-known reason is that pesticides can kill adult bees if sprayed incorrectly.

The lesser-known reason is based on a discovery University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers made in 2019. In their larval state, mason bees are omnivores, feeding on tiny microbes in pollen. Farmers who spray insecticides may inadvertently kill larvae, which need microbes in their diet.

A farmer’s success with mason bees, Watts said, depends on their attitude and how closely they follow instructions.

Bee farming
Jim Watts is not the only mason bee producer. Entomologists say a few smaller-scale mason bee farmers are scattered throughout the U.S.

One is Dave Hunter, owner of Crown Bees in Woodinville, Wash.

Hunter recalls mason bees first caught his attention 20 years ago when his wife noticed the neighbors’ apple tree was drooping with ripe apples while their own tree was almost bare. When Hunter realized the neighbors had mason bees, he drilled holes in a block of wood to lure the bees with a nest and — voila! — the apples did better the next year.

Hunter started Crown Bees 12 years ago. Unlike Watts, he’s not yet at the commercial farm scale. Instead, he sells wholesale to about 500 nurseries and hardware stores across the nation, including Wilco. He said he is continuing to grow the business and hopes to reach commercial-scale farmers “soon.”

Bridging urban-rural divide
Perhaps the most inventive part of Watts Solitary Bees is its Rent Mason Bees program, designed to work in conjunction with its commercial side.

Over the past few years, thousands of people in suburban and urban areas have rented mason bees through the company, said Shangrow, the program’s biologist. The company sells rental kits of 60, 120 or 240 bees.

Shangrow said the program teaches people where their food comes from, pollinates backyard gardens and repopulates areas with native bees because some of the bees fly away.

By following simple instructions, renters encourage bees to breed, then ship young cocooned bees back to the company. Some of these bees will be put back in the program and end up in other renters’ backyards next spring; others will end up on farms, meaning city dwellers help raise bees for farms.

“I think native bees can be part of bridging the urban-rural divide,” said Watts.

McKenzie, the Seattle resident, started renting mason bees four years ago.

“My husband had been dead-set on getting honey bees. But come on. My little boy and his friends in a tiny backyard? That’s just asking for trouble,” she said.

When McKenzie learned about nonaggressive mason bees, she bought a rental kit.

“Now I’m hooked,” said McKenzie.

With her kids home from school this spring during the COVID-19 shutdown, McKenzie said the bees were an educational project about science, food and farming.

During the shutdown, hundreds of families stuck at home turned to Rent Mason Bees as a backyard science project.

Mason bee season is wrapping up for 2020, and Watts said orders for next year open this fall.

Beekeeping taking flight
Mason beekeeping is growing, but it still has a long way to go, researchers say.

Contrasted with millions of crop acres across the U.S. pollinated by honey bees, farms only raise mason bees on about 1,500 acres, said Watts.

But barriers are crumbling.

In 2016, mason bees cost upwards of $1 per bee. Now, Watts said he charges about 30 to 40 cents per bee. In the next few decades, experts predict the price per bee will fall to 5 cents.

“French wine is to the honey bee exactly what California wine is to the mason bee,” said Hunter of Crown Bees. “The honey bee industry is enormous and gets a lot of attention, but mason bees are the up-and-coming pollinators.”

More research about mason bees is underway, but it will take time and researchers will need farms to participate in experiments.

“I strongly believe this industry is at its tipping point,” said entomologist Pitts-Singer. “I’m very hopeful that after 40 years of knowing this bee was a good pollinator, its popularity will finally take flight.”

Farmers markets get help switching to online ordering

The Oregon Farmers Market Association is helping its members establish online ordering systems to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

As more farmers markets seek to move transactions online, managers can consult the association for technical assistance and software recommendations.

“We’re here to help them understand their choices and support them in implementing the choices they make,” said the association’s executive director, Kelly Crane.

So far, the association has assisted 27 farmers markets — about a quarter of the state’s total.

“Farmers markets are really nimble, creative entities,” Crane said. “They’ll be the first to tell you, every market is different” with unique needs and challenges.

Some farmers markets can’t operate on site because of local regulations. Others don’t have space to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Several are waiting on delayed permits. Many have concerned customers opting out of on-site visits.

To limit interactions, more farmers markets are letting customers order and purchase goods such as berries, fruits and vegetables on the internet before pick-up.

“(Customers) don’t have to exchange money, pick things out and have it weighed — it’s all ready to go,” Crane said.

Some farmers markets offer it as an option, while others have opted to have all customers pre-order online.

For example, in Florence, Ore., the farmers market is online-only since many of its customers are retirees, who have a higher risk of becoming serious ill from COVID-19.

“It’s like we’ve totally reinvented our market,” said Mary Shaw, the market president. “The customers are very grateful to have access to local food.”

Tourist revenue is much lower, but Shaw’s priority is to offer high-quality food to the local community. So far, revenue resembles the market’s first season, three years ago.

Shaw is still working to reach customers who use SNAP benefits with the Oregon Trail card to purchase food. “They are the cornerstone of our market,” Shaw said. Many don’t use computers or relied on computers at the library, which is still closed.

Online platforms can’t process the Oregon Trail card, so SNAP customers pay at the information booth when they pick up their orders.

While Shaw misses community members congregating at the market, there are no plans to open as a walk-in market.

“The market is doing well,” she said. “Sales are trending upwards,” thanks to the online adjustments, which will be a permanent option beyond the pandemic.

Crane, the head of the state farmers market association, believes the online adjustments will help farmers markets in the long run.

“Industry leaders have been really interested in this topic,” she said. “We see the customer trends and we’ve wanted to get our farmers markets interested for long-term viability.”

Before the pandemic, there was little reason to move business online since the state’s farmers markets are so popular.

“One silver lining of this crisis is that it’s created an incentive to make a behavioral shift,” Crane said. “Once those habits are built, it will be normal for farmers markets to have online vendors keeping their product up-to-date.”

In 2019, Oregon’s farmers markets sold $63 million worth of products from 6,700 vendors.

“That’s 6,700 small businesses” that rely on farmers markets to operate, Crane said. “People think of farmers markets as cute, but collectively, they are also a significant cornerstone in Oregon’s agriculture industry.”

Oregon lawmakers approve state meat inspection to strengthen local meat

Insufficient livestock slaughter options in Oregon have convinced lawmakers to reinstate a state meat inspection program, but some experts say another approach would be more effective.

During the special legislative session that concluded June 26, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 4206, under which the Oregon Department of Agriculture can again regulate livestock slaughter and processing.

The idea is to expand the opportunities for small-scale processors who currently process meat that can’t be sold commercially, thereby reducing the need for livestock producers to ship animals to USDA-certified facilities.

However, even proponents of the program acknowledge it will be expensive for ODA to re-establish state meat inspection, which was ended in Oregon in the 1970s for financial reasons.

“Budget cuts came along and eliminated it,” said Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.

There are 13 USDA-inspected meat facilities in Oregon where livestock can be processed for commercial sale, which means ranchers who want to sell to restaurants and retail outlets must often travel for hours to reach one, he said.

Meanwhile, in Oregon there are also 16 non-USDA facilities, where people can take livestock for processing for their own consumption, Rosa said. Oftentimes, consumers will join together to buy an animal and split up the processed meat.

Reinstating state meat inspection will hopefully strengthen connections between local ranchers and consumers who want to buy their meat, while also raising the demand for livestock among small-scale processors — thus increasing prices to growers, he said.

“We hope it will increase processing,” Rosa said.

Cooperating small farms may make some COVID-19 changes permanent

Debi Engelhardt-Vogel recently expanded the meat subscriptions and by-the-piece selection she offers at her on-farm store near Kuna, Idaho.

Demand for Vogel Farms meats, eggs, milk and canned items substantially increased with the COVID-19 closures — which prompted some on-farm changes — and remains strong.

Engelhardt-Vogel, who also will introduce beef, pork and chicken bundles this fall, moved to increase her beef supply without expanding her mother herd.

She partnered with Arlington, Ore.-based Weatherford Ranches to bring calves to her small farm for finishing. The first four arrived Memorial Day weekend.

“I’m trying to fill a demand without going big,” Engelhardt-Vogel said. “They have the additional supply needed, so I will be able to monitor supply and go with supply and demand.”

Vogel Farms will also increase on-site pork production, she said. Grandsons Mike and Matt Lester lead the project.

“We’re going to probably triple the number of hogs we produce” to about 30 a year eventually, Engelhardt-Vogel said.

That decision, and plans to soon sell increasingly popular half and whole packaged hogs and cows, reflect strong interest in local food as well as greater awareness of the food supply chain, she said. “The meat supply was disrupted and it had a huge impact on supply. And people didn’t realize how fragile that is.”

Vogel Farms now must schedule meat processing with small-scale local providers farther in advance.

The farm’s meat and eggs are available on-site or through a separate company, Boise Milk, which offers home delivery. Engelhardt-Vogel expects food delivery and curbside pickup to stay popular.

Each August, she begins offering public U-pick harvest of tomatoes, peppers, flowers and herbs. She plans this year to seat customers and offer them breakfast before they form small, well-distanced groups for picking. She has canceled summer and fall hay rides traditionally offered on weekends.

Engelhardt-Vogel and Cathy Cabalo, of nearby Cabalo’s Orchard & Gardens, cooperate on projects through the year. They canceled the 12th annual Corn and Pickle Festival, which is typically on the second Saturday of August at Vogel Farms and draws up to 900 people.

This year, they will instead offer online video versions of the event’s popular classes on topics such as pickling. They plan to resume the festival in 2021, with a lavender garden among the new features.

“So much planning goes into these things,” Cabalo said. “You have to make the call early in the season. There are going to be some sad people, but we will survive it.”

Engelhardt-Vogel and Cabalo also may rework seasonal pumpkin picking and turkey pickup events that draw many customers at once. They are considering offering turkeys at a station reconfigured to encourage distancing, or by curbside pickup.

They may use prepaid sales to reduce wait times. Pumpkin-patch runs likely will see fewer people farther apart.

“I can foresee a great deal of the changes we’ve seen in the past few months continuing,” Cabalo said. Customer pickup of pre-packaged, prepaid orders is an example.

“It’s easier, and people are enjoying it,” Engelhardt-Vogel said of food pickup. “For people who feel at risk or continue to want to maintain a distance, it is a perfect option.”