An economics lesson comes in every jar

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When Meghan Mix founded Hopscotch Farm and Cannery in 2017, her heart was set on environmental sustainability while her head was turned by the kind of business structure that captains of industry dream of: vertical integration.

That’s a fancy economist’s word for the simple fact that she grows the produce she turns into jams and sauces and then cans for direct sale to consumers.

Mix controls every aspect of her small business, which generated about 1,300 cans last year, she said. “I grow heirloom produce — fruits and vegetables,” Mix said. “And then, I also do the value-added side of the operation, which is making pickles, relish and preserves.”

“When I decided I wanted to start my farm, I felt like there were already a lot of people growing really great produce in our county and I didn’t really want to step on their toes or try to enter into a market that was already saturated,” Mix said, while finishing off batches of preserves and sauces in a rented commercial kitchen.

“I was trying to take a niche I felt wasn’t currently represented in our county, which is a farm that is growing its own produce and then using that produce to make value-added products.”

Value-added is another economics term and it is a major focus of agriculture development worldwide. The idea is to transform farmers from low-paid commodity producers into better-paid marketers of finished products. A dairy, for instance, may only be paid $15 for 100 pounds of bulk milk that, packaged in jugs, fetches about $40 at the grocer. If the dairy can take the next step and make products, it can capture more of the money. And that money stays closer to home, which is why local boosters encourage dairies to develop cheese brands and ranchers to build name-brand beef products.

A sampling of Mix’s preserves are stocked at Mt. Townsend Creamery.

“Her preserves are prepared in small batches, by hand,” said Catharine Swartzbacker, Tasting Room lead. “She harvests the produce for her preserves at the peak of ripeness which gives them fantastic flavor.”

In a bonus for the local economy, they complement other local products.

“Her preserves pair beautifully with our Mt. Townsend Creamery cheeses. Meghan invests her body, mind, heart and spirit into what she does, and we are fortunate to enjoy the fruits of her labor.”

Adding value from the roots up

Mix grows on various plots of land, none owned by her.

“I have five different plots in Jefferson County and they are basically donated by landowners who want to see their land be productive, but either don’t want to or no longer have the capacity to grow their own food on their land,” Mix said.

The practice is a great way for Mix to leverage community resources such as land and water at little to no cost, she said.

“And, it is a really great way for the landowners to help out community members who are trying to get started in a business but don’t necessarily have a lot of capital or interest in going into debt.”

Out in the field, Mix’s environmental heart is in the low-till farming practices that she hopes will keep her impact on the environment to a minimum. Instead of plowing a gouge in the field to seed crops, a “planter” or “seed drill” is used to place seeds in the soil with a minimum level of disturbance, according to greenfacts.org.

“I try and use regenerative and sustainable agricultural methods,” she said. “I use all drip irrigation. I use cover crops for soil fertility rather than bringing in soil amendments from somewhere else. I try to keep it local, from the land.”

During the harvest season, the crops are hand-picked, Mix said.

“Really minimal mechanized equipment is used, both in the canning process and out in the field,” she said.

And when she needs to supplement her own produce, she buys the extra from local producers, such as horseradish for her beet relish.

The other community benefit of her value-added strategy is that she pays rent into a co-op processing center in Port Townsend, Market Kitchen, which offers a commercial kitchen facility to those who lack significant capital.

“I think because of the decisions I have made to stay really small — I am not paying to lease land or paying for my commercial kitchen — I am reducing a ton of overhead,” Mix said. “I think the model is a really great one for someone who is OK with being small. I am just looking to make enough money to live on. I don’t need to make a huge profit.”

Getting started

Mix’s recipes were all created from scratch, she said.

“That was pretty much what I spent 2017 doing, figuring out what I could grow well and how I could use that in value-added products. There was a lot of experimentation.”

Mix said she had been developing recipes for private consumption for the past decade or more while working various agriculture jobs in Arizona and California.

Mix founded her business on about $7,000, she said, and was able to break even in 2018.

“2017 was kind of a trial year. Getting everything legally licensed is a huge hurdle for a small producer, especially when you are making canned foods, just because of the food safety risks.” With training and certification, she got her products licensed with state and federal regulators.

This year she hopes to expand a bit.

“My ultimate goal right now for the business would be to expand a little bit more throughout the Olympic Peninsula over the next five years,” she said. “We may down the road consider markets in Seattle, but I really want to keep it local.”

Smallness has turned out to be a strength.

“I have always been attracted to keeping it really simple,” Mix said. “I am able to choose my markets and get the price point that I need...because I am not selling into larger wholesaler markets.”

Owning her own business has been empowering for Mix, she said.

“Sometimes it is totally terrifying because it would be so cool to have somebody to bounce ideas off of, but at the same time I also love the freedom of being able to decide to do whatever I want.”

At the spoon end of the business, that means offering a unique product to a community that has a taste for local producers and somewhat eccentric recipes.

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