“We’re kind of the hipsters of grass-fed beef.”
Both Joel Williamson and Beth Robinette represent the fourth generation of farming families.
Beth’s family had been on their land since 1937, and had been doing innovative, sustainable ranching practices before it was cool. “We're kind of the hipsters of grass-fed beef,” Beth says, laughing. Despite the innovation, by the time she graduated from college, her family’s Lazy R Ranch was struggling. “We were still at the whim of the commodity market,” she says.
Joel, meanwhile, had always loved food, and knew he wanted to help people, but didn’t know where to begin. “I was doing all these different things,” he remembers, “City Government, nonprofits, organizing — and I couldn’t figure out how to make the impact I wanted.”
They bonded over similar memories of growing up on a farm surrounded by family, their mutual love for Spokane, and the belief that the city was on the verge of blossoming — it just needed a little help. Looking for answers to the Lazy R’s woes, Beth was getting ready to start an MBA in sustainable business. “I thought, ‘Oh, using business for good … that’s interesting,’” Joel says. He decided to enroll, too. LINC Foods came out of those shared roots, Joel’s graduate thesis, and hundreds of conversations with small farmers, end users, economic analysts and food nerds.
Sustainable farmers needed more places to sell than just farmers markets, and area institutions wanted local, chemical-free food but didn’t know where to look. More broadly, a 2012 economic analysis noted that 51% of farms in the Spokane region operate at a loss. “We import most of the food we eat locally,” Joel says, “We export most of the food we grow, but it’s on the commodity market, so it leaves for pennies on the dollar.” He sighs. “Something like $1.4 billion dollars per year is leaving the community.” According to the economist, this bleak picture is replicated in almost every community across America.
It seemed like an impossibly huge problem to solve, “but we both have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, and we love Spokane,” Beth says, so the two started LINC Foods to try and solve it.
In sustainable farming speak, LINC (which stands for Local Inland Northwest Cooperative) is what’s called a “food hub,” but it’s probably easiest to think of it as a distributor. Like any food distributor, LINC connects farmers and ranchers with end users like grocery stores, trendsetting restaurants, hotels and the convention center. Unlike almost all distributors, LINC focuses entirely on local farmers who farm sustainably and without any pesticides or hormones, often focusing on rare or heirloom products.
LINC’s pitch for consumers is that the produce is healthier and tastier, the meat is hormone-free and humanely raised, and that it all comes from our region, so it’s less impactful on the environment and more of the money stays here.
The problem historically is that the only outlet for this kind of produce is the farmers market. “Farmers markets are great, but that can only get you so far with sales,” Joel says. “Farmers were telling us, ‘We can grow more, but we wouldn’t know where to sell it.’”
Meanwhile, organizations like Empire Health were working with rural school districts — and now Spokane Public Schools — on returning to scratch cooking, which naturally shifted the conversation to locally grown goods. In higher ed, Gonzaga University was trying to get local, chemical-free produce into its dining halls but didn’t have connections to growers. LINC makes those connections.
When LINC began, in Summer 2014, their cold storage was an old reach-in Pepsi cooler at the Comfort Inn on 3rd Ave in Spokane. Their delivery truck was Joel’s little Scion xB. Both Joel and Beth admit it was a pretty janky beginning. Growth has been quick and steady, though, and so has the drive to diversify. It’s incredibly complex work matching the inventories of over 50 small farmers with the needs of customers, a job made more difficult because the product is perishable and the growing season only lasts a few months.
Task one was finding a year-round revenue source, so less than a year after starting, LINC raised funding to buy a commercial malter, betting that our area’s abundant cereal crops and an increasing demand for malted grains among craft brewers and distillers could help support the region’s many grain farmers and bring LINC stable revenue. They made their first batch of malt in April 2016. In June of that same year, looking for a stable stream of demand for produce LINC could control itself, they started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to sell weekly boxes of produce and protein directly to consumers.
The CSA has grown rapidly and as we talk at the malting warehouse in Spokane Valley, Joel looks over plans to expand their current 8,000-pound-per-week system to 68,000 pounds per week. He says he has a hard time wrapping his head around everything they’ve done in under four years. That first growing season with the Pepsi cooler and the Scion delivery truck, he says LINC did a little over $30,000 in sales. This year, Beth thinks they’ll get close to selling $1 million.
More important than the money being made, though, is who’s making it.
The truly unique thing about LINC is that it’s a worker- and farmer-owned cooperative. There are farmer and consumer coops (like REI) across the U.S., but neither Beth nor Joel thinks there’s anything quite like LINC.
Beth gives Joel credit for the idea and jokes that they didn’t want to be the only ones responsible for making these huge decisions, but the reality is, both had seen generations of their families struggle to get a fair price for their hard work. “I think that giving employees and farmers ownership over the company is absolutely one of the biggest reasons that we’re successful,” she says. It’s a different way of thinking about business that focuses on community and shared success. LINC’s model is also beginning to create a sense of regional continuity, connecting urban and rural in a way we haven’t seen in generations.