Buyers help small farmers bridge urban-rural divide

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press New Seasons Market Produce Director Jeff Fairchild, left, and Meat and Seafood Director Alan Hummel seek out local, sustainable suppliers.

PORTLAND — In case there is any doubt how New Seasons Market views its vendors, a reminder is posted in the entry of the chain’s less-than-palatial headquarters in North Portland.

Among the seven points listed: “We like small” and “We like local.” And the first one, at the top of the list: “We play fair.”

A slice of Pacific Northwest farmers and ranchers, many of them small, organic and operating on slender margins, are glad they do. Since its founding in 2000, New Seasons has emerged as an innovative market lifeline for producers who might be struggling otherwise. The store’s buyers seek out local suppliers whose products and operations mesh with the New Seasons mindset.

The store’s point people include Jeff Fairchild, 59, the produce director, and Alan Hummel, 53, the meat and seafood director and recently appointed to oversee the produce and floral programs as well. Both are veterans of the alternative grocery store business and have been with New Seasons from the beginning, in addition to being friends for 30 years.

Both say they’ve been granted the independence to fill the store with products selected not by price and not just by quality, but which represent New Seasons’ values of sustainability, community, relationships and healthy food.

“What’s driving us is not price,” Fairchild says. “The food I offer my customers is food I’d want to buy.”

Choosing vendors based on the lowest price and biggest producer doesn’t appeal to Hummel. “It would be easier, but it would be boring,” he says.

In foodie Portland, it’s a formula that works. The chain has grown to 13 stores in the Portland-Vancouver, Wash., region, has nearly 2,700 employees and plans to open four more stores by summer 2015. Ten percent of after-tax profits go to nonprofits working to ease hunger, protect the environment or educate young people.

It isn’t a cheap place to shop, but attracts an informed, engaged customer base that wants to know where its food comes from, prefers that it come from a nearby family farm or ranch and is willing to pay more. It’s a customer base to whom good land stewardship and a sustainable food system are as important as flavor and quality.

Equally important, the customers rely on New Seasons to understand that and act accordingly.

“We respect and honor that trust,” Hummel says. “If I was asked to introduce a line of product I didn’t believe in, I wouldn’t do it.”

The atmosphere and expectations result in the store’s buyers becoming directly involved in their vendors’ operations. New Seasons has provided no-interest loans and even taken work parties to farms to help producers meet sustainability and animal welfare certification standards important to customers.

Hummel says the store’s ongoing challenge, as it expands, is to continue finding and working with like-minded regional growers and food manufacturers.

Fairchild, his cohort, says — only half joking — that he’d like to see producers gain the resources to give him a better crop every year.

“I would define success as New Seasons and the partners I’m working with are both able to have financially viable businesses,” Fairchild says. “For a lot of these people, we’ve given them renewed confidence and the consistent markets that allow them to continue to grow and expand.”

This article was first published on Sept. 5, 2014.

Jeff Fairchild

Age: 59

Position: Produce director

Alan Hummel

Age: 53

Position: Meat and seafood director, supervisor of produce and floral departments

Responsibilities: Seek out farmers and ranchers who are producing vegetables, grains, meat or seafood in a manner acceptable to urban consumers who desire healthy, sustainable local food and are willing to pay more to get it.

Upshot: Fairchild and Hummel have been granted the independence to find producers, make deals and help tweak operations. “Jeff and I have not been supervised in the last 30 years,” Hummel says.

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