Sold-out Gorge Grown conference connects area farmers and buyers

At Monday’s sold-out Gorge Grown Food and Farm Connection event, 200 farmers, chefs and buyers from the Gorge and Portland congregated to learn from each other and even speed-date in a networking frenzy.

The conference, at River of Life Church in Hood River, brought together local producers, buyers and sellers of food to network and find inspiration, according to Michelle McGrath, outreach coordinator for Gorge Grown Food Network. Gorge Grown is gearing up for another full season of markets, classes, forums and outreach. (See box for details.)

Kathy Watson, owner and chef of Nora’s Table, started the conference with a challenge for the audience: to help create the Gorge cuisine.

“Open your next CSA box. Do not consult a cookbook. Instead, just let your eyes wander over the bounty inside, and make something with the contents that you’ve never tasted before. Challenge yourself to eat what has sprung up together. Then open a bottle of local wine, and bon appétit.”

Watson said that when she started her first restaurant, Viento, in 2005, she had to convince farmers to sell to her directly because they weren’t used to providing restaurants food. Times have changed, as shown by the 100 farmers attending the conference.

The day was well worth it for Robert Wright, owner of The Farm Stand, who found four new local products for his store, including puffed wheat berries, a pancake mix, dates, and jams and jellies. Wright prefers to stock his shelves with local goods, but says he has to make 20 calls to obtain products and urges Gorge farmers to work together to make it easier for the buyers.

Chef of Celilo, Ben Stenn, echoed the suggestion for farmers to get organized and work together. He praised Nick Walrod from Dancing Moon Farm, who Stenn says is “hyper-organized with a spreadsheet detailing what produce the restaurant bought.” This information makes it easy for Stenn to know what to order next year.

Director of Gorge Grown, Rebecca Thistlethwaite, raved about the lunch made almost entirely from local ingredients. Thistlethwaite worked with Revelyn Rawdin of Pampered Palette to obtain local products, including lamb from Goldendale, chicken from Snowden, vegetables from Mosier and Hood River and even specially made wheat and pastry flour.

“It wasn’t easy for Revelyn to create a meal that’s 90 percent local,” said Thistlethwaite, but said the lunch tasted delicious and showcased the good food in the Gorge.

In the afternoon, Sue Davis from the Washington State Department of Agriculture held a seminar on agri-tourism, hoping to inspire Gorge farms to continue to be creative and come up with ways to open their farms to tourists. Across the way, Megan Foucht from Food Hub showed the group how to connect online with their innovative and fast-growing website linking farmers and buyers.

Thistlethwaite said the day was so successful that Gorge Grown is already setting the wheels in motion for next year’s event.

Gorge Grown in 2012:

Gorge Grown Food Network’s Farmers Market is preparing for the 2012 season opener on May 3, two weeks earlier than usual.

GGFN is about more than the farmers markets, and helping producers start growing earlier in the year and extending their harvest later will be among the educational outreach efforts to look for this season. Others will include growing grains and beans, and operating small-scale poultry operations.

“A longer market season encourages longer growing seasons,” said Todd Dierker, market manager. “This means more access to locally grown, fresh foods for the residents of the Hood River region. Plus, farm viability is improved as farmers extend their sales for longer seasons.”

The May 3 opening will not only celebrate the return of the market at Hood River Middle School, for the seventh year, but will also coincide with the school’s celebration of its new Community Kitchen, where culinary classes for the public will create synergy with the market and seasonal produce.

Markets run 4-7 p.m. Thursdays from May 3 to Nov. 15 on the east end of the HRMS campus. In addition to the sale of fruit, produce, eggs, flowers, meat and many other local items, there will be music, kids activities and community and vendor presentations each week.

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