PORTLAND — To see the new face of grocery shopping, look around your neighborhood. Spot the dude toting a cooler to a porch or parking lot near you, and follow him. When he leaves, sneak a peek inside — chances are you won't find cold beers, but you'll be able to make a heckuva dinner.
Call it shopping off the grid, where urbanites do business directly with producers, set a time and a place to receive the goods, then fill their fridge and freezer with all kinds of edibles.
The buy-direct habit often starts with a community supported agriculture agreement, where a household gets a weekly share of a farm's vegetable harvest. What's different now is that you can get a lot more from the source than just fresh produce.
Some let you add bread and berries; others let you skip the vegetables altogether and sign up for separate shares of eggs, chicken, beef or farmstead cheeses. And a few Northwest farms, taking their cue from other parts of the country, are establishing urban buying clubs, where city folks pool their orders and arrange for delivery to a spot near their homes.
If you'd rather not cook, there's something for you, too: Community Supported Kitchens, or CSKs, that sell prepared food made from local products.
But the roots of this off-the-grid shopping spree go back to the farm, specifically small CSA farms with lists of loyal customers.
"It's sort of a big play date," says Summer Steenbargen of Dee Creek Farm in southwest Washington, describing the Thursday night drop-offs in Vancouver, where money and goods trade hands.
Dee Creek started out as an organic vegetable CSA and still sells vegetable-only shares. But now it's added meat and dairy animals into the mix on the farm and made cooperative arrangements with other growers. So for those who get on the e-mail list and place an order, there's cheese, chicken and eggs for sale, and plenty more depending on what's in season. Sometimes the huckleberry and mushroom forager shows up; other nights Steenbargen brings pickles or loaves of artisan bread baked by Nenad Indic at Julia Bakery.
Members fill bags and coolers with what they've ordered, bring cash or checks and buy extra if it's available. "Somebody called it a co-op recently. And it wasn't a plan, but it's sort of turned into one," Steenbargen says.
Whether they call them "co-ops" or not, cooperative CSAs are a new direction for small farms wanting to appeal to more customers and cut out the middle man. In recent years, Troutdale organic vegetable grower Shari Sirkin teamed with Scio ranchers Harmony J.A.C.K. to offer pastured eggs and grass-fed beef. Now, members of Dancing Roots Farm — Sirkin's CSA — also can preorder Alaskan sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay.
Carley Shaut, 31, of Parkrose jumped at the chance. "Shari sent out an e-mail a month ahead of time — it was a pretty easy decision for us to make." The offer was 20-plus pounds of sockeye — filleted, flash-frozen and vacuum packed — from a sustainable Bristol Bay fishery. The price: $8.99 a pound.
The fish, packed in coolers on dry ice, showed up in August at the farm's Northeast Portland drop-off point. Since then Shaut and her husband, Dave, have been happily working their way through it.
"It tastes really, really fresh and really flavorful, not fishy. They're very careful with their practices and that's something we care about."
Which is just what Eike and Reid Ten Kley of Iliamna Fish Co., whose families have fished Bristol Bay for generations, had in mind. Married just over a year ago, they got the idea for selling salmon through CSAs after sharing a hotel with Midwest farmers at Slow Food International's Terra Madre conference in Italy. Along with the farm partnership, they'll sell sockeye salmon to any group of 10 or more that commits to the 20-some pounds per order.
"Our goal is to get quality salmon to people at a decent price," Eike says. "The fish is so delicious and good for you, we think it's ridiculous that the average middle-income family can't afford it."
By eliminating the middle man, they get a decent return on the sockeye or "red" salmon and pay their fishing partners a sustainable wage, Eike says. And it allows the couple, who now make their home in Portland most of the year, to continue their tradition of heading north in June for the salmon season.
Bulk-buying opportunities for seafood are still relatively few, but for meat and other livestock products, buying clubs are the next wave. Tyler and Alicia Jones of Afton Field Farm in Corvallis have built a steady business in Portland bringing grass-fed beef, eggs and other livestock products north once a month to metro buying groups.
Members place orders individually on the farm's Web site, choosing one of several established drop sites at people's homes. With about 10 households, you can establish a new group, says Tyler Jones, as long as the order exceeds the farm's minimum of $1,000 and a member offers his or her home as a drop site.
Other farms leave the delivery arrangements to customers. Annie Adams found eight families in her North Portland neighborhood to form a buying group for chickens, eggs and other livestock products from Kookoolan Farms. They compile their weekly order on a Google spreadsheet, prepay a member who keeps the books and take turns driving out on Sundays to the Yamhill farm. Group members retrieve their orders from the three coolers Adams keeps on her front porch.
Adams figures she spends about $25 a week on food from the farm, a fair price for products she feels good about eating and a personal relationship with the farmer, she says.
"None of us (in the buying group) are wealthy; we're pretty middle income. It's just important enough for us to want to eat this way."
Besides meat and eggs, Adams stays off the shopping grid for most everything in her kitchen: She gets cream and butter delivered every two weeks from Noris Dairy, and buys bulk beans, grains and other natural products from Azure Standard in Dufur, a company that pools online orders and delivers to drop points around the city.
But what if you like the idea of eating food from local sustainable growers more than the act of cooking it?
If you're willing to shell out a bit of cash, you can take your appetite to a Community Supported Kitchen. Not quite a catering company, restaurant or a personal chef, a CSK lets you buy prepared food made from the greens, pork, eggs and cheese grown by local farmers.
Berkeley's Three Stone Hearth, the first CSK, is a collective kitchen that welcomes volunteers and subscribes to the culinary doctrine of the Weston A. Price Foundation. There are others in New York and Portland, Maine, and yes, now in Southeast Portland. Salt, Fire & Time sells what it calls "delicious, nutrient-dense food options," available for weekly pickup at the kitchen — everything from kombucha and sauerkraut to citrus-cured beef jerky, butternut squash soup, and chicken with preserved lemon and olives.
On a more intimate scale is Alton Garcia's CSA Canning Club, a fun side project for the former chef at Broder, Navarre and other top Portland restaurants. Garcia, who caters and consults for a living, and his Canning Club business partner Bill McCrae are simply nuts about canning and loved the idea of helping friends eat seasonally year-round.
So for $40 a month, members receive six jars of fruit, jams, tomato sauce, pickles, condiments and/or other canned treats.
"It's not a profit-making thing," Garcia says. "It's a bunch of people we know, and we're all sharing the cost of things." They hope to keep the club going year-round.
"At first I thought, 'Well there's all this fresh food that's available right now,'" says Heather Barta, who owns a graphic design and marketing business and is one of the club's 20 members. "But it's nice to have something stored away for winter. I'm someone who doesn't have time to can, so it's nice that somebody else does."
So far she's received onion marmalade — a fond memory from Garcia's days at Navarre — pickled asparagus, blueberry and strawberry jam, canned apricots and canned rhubarb — which McCrae suggested she make into pie. "I like that it's ingredients you can eat right out of the jar, but they're basically base components that could be something else if you're inspired."
In the winter there won't be as much, Garcia says, but he's eager to make sauerkraut, Moroccan preserved lemons and other salt-preserved citrus, and dried corn for when fresh corn is gone. (Creamed corn made with reconstituted dried corn is a revelation, Garcia says).
Barta, who last month scored jars of pear mustard and green tomato pickles from McCrae's North Portland front porch, won't need convincing.
"Everything that he touches is delicious."