Last Friday, Mary and I journeyed South to Wilcox Family Farm, located in Pierce County, a little ways outside of Roy, WA.
For a while, I've been pestering my friends and family to "buy local." Everybody that I know is well aware that if they get me talking about local agriculture, I won't shut up until I've worn out my welcome. Sad, yes, but true. The benefit of my long-windedness is that many of my friends and family now make a conscious effort to shop locally, and, in the spirit of revenge, know that they have an open ear whenever they want to talk about their local experiences. Over the past few months, many of my "audience members" have told me about buying Wilcox milk. "Finally, a locally produced dairy product in my neighborhood supermarket." Until recently. All of a sudden, there was no more Wilcox milk! What a shocking development: one moment, their brand is gaining momentum and moving into larger markets, the next, POOF! Vanished.
Well, here's a brief version of the story, which illustrates the difficulty for smaller, local producers in our current commodity based marketplace. Wilcox dairy's business model depended on growth. Like many businesses, "grow or die" was the maxim. Grow they did. The problem with growth into major markets, though, is that you then must compete with the big boys. The large supermarkets care more about the price of the product than the values that stand behind a product. The supermarkets pitted Wilcox against other dairies to insure that prices stayed low. Considering that Wilcox Family Farm is committed to paying its workers a livable wage with health benefits and efficiently stewarding its land instead of forcing production, the dairy couldn't continue to lower its prices to match its competitors. At some point, the choice was made to sell the dairy portion of the business. It had reached a point where it was no longer profitable to continue competing in the dairy industry.
The good news coming out of this story is that the Wilcox family is still farming via their organic and natural egg operation and (this is where CHC comes in) adding row crop production on some of their incredibly fertile, certified organic, bottom land for row crop production. While there are no hard-and-fast plans for the immediate future, we met with Chris Wilcox and a few other organizations interested in helping find farmers and brainstorm how to put this awesome offer to best use. It sounds like they want to work with an farmer with a track record of success who would want to work within the established Wilcox brand. Exciting!
Keep checking in to see how this mini-project progresses. The Wilcox family may be out of the dairy business, but I have a good feeling that they can make a great name for themselves in the produce business.