Thursday, October 25, 2007

When is a business truly local?

Farm Power is located in Skagit County, Washington. Our county has few features to boast about; halfway between Seattle and Vancouver B.C., agriculture remains its largest industry. With Skagit County's rural character and limited manufacturing base, median incomes are below the national average. Real estate development provided most of the business momentum during the last decade, but now this sector is stagnating.

One thing that Skagit County does still have is dairy cows. The valley has hosted roughly 15,000 milking head for the past few decades, in spite of plummeting farm numbers and enormous change in the rest of agriculture. Today, about a dozen dairy families own the majority of these cows. While this consolidation has been painful, land limitations have effectively capped farm sizes and even the biggest Skagit farmers are out with their cows every day.

Consolidation has a silver lining--it is easier to communicate with the surviving operators. Farm Power's principals went to high school with some of the same dairy farmers with whom we now discuss manure. Since medium-sized dairy farms almost never have someone in the dark closets they call offices, the accepted way to contact farmers is by tracking them down in person. We at Farm Power have spent the last week doing just that. Having been on many of the farms as children, we know where to go to find second- and third-generation owners. We also visited several farms for the first time, and there is no substitute for shaking a dairy farmer's hand and commiserating about the business.

In short, securing the Farm Power supply chain depends almost completely on relationships. Some of these relationships date back to our parents or to the school playground, while others have started only in recent months. We have benefited enormously from positive coverage in our local newspaper, read by most of the county--and from the common dairy heritage shared by those who trace their roots to the Netherlands. With the fiber bedding product we expect to produce, we also have something to offer the dairy farmers, further deepening our interaction.

Both Farm Power's inputs and products will typically only travel a few miles, a true mark of a local business. The founders operate on their home soil, another argument for being local. But in the final analysis, it is the complicated web of relationships that make Farm Power truly local, plugged in at a far deeper level than supplier-buyer or seller-customer. Farm Power cannot be understood separately from Skagit County; come see our home, our people, and--last but not least--the cows!

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