Bellingham Food Bank shut down its farm at the end of November, about five years after the nonprofit and its volunteers began growing fresh local produce for the hungry.
Farming on the plot at Guide Meridian and King Tut Road, north of Bellingham, started in July 2007. The food bank leased the land from Cascade Christian Services.
The decision to shut down the farm was "thoughtful and strategic," said Mike Cohen, the food bank's executive director.
And it was made after the farm's most prolific season, when more than 43,000 pounds of produce - including squash, kale and tomatoes - were grown.
"This is not a decision that was made out of crisis," Cohen said. "We didn't shut the program down because it wasn't working. We didn't shut it down because we didn't have enough money to keep it going."
What drove the decision was the desire to do more with the food bank's resources and to invest in the local farm economy.
So the food bank is shifting its focus to a new venture this year called Food Bank Fresh. Through that program, the food bank uses corporate donations to pay local farmers to grow crops under contract - essentially providing fresh produce at 10 percent below wholesale prices and more cost-effectively than the food bank could even with its primarily volunteer labor and the affordable lease on the land, Cohen explained.
"It's beneficial for the food bank, the families it serves and for that local farm," Cohen said of Food Bank Fresh.
In 2012, Food Bank Fresh is expected to provide more than 20,000 pounds of produce to the food bank.
When the food bank started the farm, officials said they did so because their clients consistently ask for produce that's as fresh as possible. Cohen has said that while local grocery stores generously donate produce, those are fruits and vegetables that can't be sold to the public because they're bruised, blemished or are edible but on their last legs.
Food bank officials, including the board of directors who decided in October to shutter the farm, say more food will be raised through the new program than on the farm.
"That's my expectation," Cohen said. "More in the near-term and a lot more in the long-term."
While the new program raises produce for Bellingham Food Bank, officials did help food banks in Blaine and Ferndale establish relationships with farmers to launch their own version of the effort, and also allowed them to use Bellingham's warehouse and cold storage for deliveries.
Reach KIE RELYEA at email@example.com or call 715-2234.