Washington farmer fully integrates farm-to-table food offerings
Purchase of meat operation broadens business model
Brent Olsen is now a true meat and potatoes guy.
This affable farmer from Aladdin, Wash., who is known for his colorful collection of spuds, recently purchased Smokey Ridge Meats in Chewelah, a family-owned company that has been around since the mid-1990s.
That means Olsen Farms joins a very select number of fully integrated operations in the state that truly exemplify a farm-to-table effort.
On 3,000 acres near Kettle Falls, Olsen and his crew grow the alfalfa that’s fed to the livestock, which are slaughtered and butchered at Smokey Ridge Meats. Olsen sells his meat and potatoes directly to consumers and chefs at farmers markets in Spokane and Seattle.
It’s a decidedly old-fashioned business model, but one that’s become retro cool in recent years, as mammoth agribusiness companies continue to come under fire in films such as “Food Inc.” (airing tonight on PBS) and in The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series about questionable safety practices in meat processing plants.
“It’s exciting to work with small farmers like Brent, who really understand the value of getting local, sustainable food to people,” said Jennifer Hall, the general manager of the Main Market Co-op in Spokane.
The journey to sustainable hero hasn’t exactly been smooth.
Twenty years ago, Olsen didn’t have a clue what he was going to do with his life.
“I was literally driving down I-90 when I passed a sign where I could go to either Portland or Missoula,” he said.
He wound up going to University of Montana, but things just didn’t click.
“I ran out of money. I was sleeping in my car,” he said. “It wasn’t good. My mom sent my sister over to bring me back and get me on track.”
Olsen finished his studies at Eastern Washington University, getting a degree in history. At the same time, his sister, Nora Olsen Nelson, was going to grad school in horticulture at Washington State University.
Her focus? Potatoes.
Nelson is now an associate professor and Extension Potato Specialist at the University of Idaho in Boise. Her research on preventing potato diseases landed her on the cover of Spud Man, a trade publication.
The idea for starting the family farm blossomed over many discussions around the dinner table, with their mother Merna offering her support. (“Mom’s still quality control,” Nora said.)
“Sometimes, my sister and I joke ‘Can’t we ever talk about anything besides potatoes?’ But it always comes back around to that,” Olsen said.
He planted five or six varieties the first year, in 1995, which grew quickly to more than a dozen unusual varieties including Purple Majesty, Bintje, Maris Piper, All Blue, Cal White, Red Lasoda, Mountain Rose, Desiree and Russian fingerlings.
Sales really took off after Olsen Farms took second prize for a contest at Pike Place Market called Taste of Washington in 1999.
“We brought 20 varieties and people thought they were beautiful,” he said. Consumers ate them up.
“We love Brent,” said Marcia Bond, owner of Luna, one of the first restaurants in Spokane to credit Olsen Farms on its menu. “His potatoes are just incredible.”
The potatoes are not currently served at Luna, or any other high-end restaurant in Spokane. Olsen speculates his potatoes dropped off the radar for chefs because, three years ago, a terrible growing season meant supplies were limited.
As he upped production, he experienced a surge in demand from Seattle chefs including John Sundstrom at Lark and Craig Hetherington at Taste, the sustainable-driven restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum. Ray’s Boathouse is another longtime customer.
Bryan McDirmid, the chef at Main Market Co-op, who has worked in Seattle, Portland and New York, said he’s never tasted better potatoes: “They’re creamy and they have that earthy flavor you want in a potato. They’re remarkable.”
McDirmid has made several styles of Olsen Farms potato salad for the Co-op’s deli including a French-style version finished with chopped gherkins, fresh marjoram and red wine vinegar-marinated onions.
Olsen Farms potatoes are also available at Huckleberry’s Natural Market.
While enjoying the success of his popular potatoes, Olsen decided in 2004 to grow his business in a logical direction, adding meat to his lineup.
“I was growing and selling hay and thought, why don’t I use it myself?” he said.
So he began raising cattle and lamb. He’ll soon add pigs to his portfolio.
“One of the great things about going to farmers markets is that you get to talk to people. And I kept hearing people wanted a local source for meat,” Olsen said. “It made sense to be more diversified.”
Around that time, he began working with Alan and Doreen Nelson from Smokey Ridge Meats. They shared the same sensibility about the importance of establishing personal relationships with customers.
“We moved over here from Olympia in 1995 and bought this place. It was a former dairy farm,” said Doreen Nelson, who will continue to run the place for Olsen.
“We never had any intention of getting big. We wanted to stay family oriented.”
But Smokey Ridge Meats did grow, from 1,700 square feet in the beginning to 7,000 square feet when it became a USDA-inspected facility in 2004, a paperwork-intensive three-year process.
It does custom butchering for hunters and small farms, as well as producing a wide array of smoked sausages and running a retail shop. Smokey Ridge Meats are also sold at All Seasons Grocers in Loon Lake.
When Brent heard Alan Nelson wanted to retire, he made the couple an offer.
“I didn’t want it to go away,” he said. “And it was a great opportunity to become a fully integrated operation.”
The CEO of this fully integrated company starts his day on the farm before dawn and often doesn’t slow down until well past the dinner hour.
He puts thousands of miles on his rig each month, hitting a dozen farmers markets. (He gets help from uber-farmhand Angela Taber, who will start her sixth season selling spuds at the Spokane farmers market in May.)
Sometimes, Olsen grabs a nap in the cab of his truck after leaving the farm at midnight to drive to Seattle.
The job requires a whole lot of heavy lifting. But he loves every minute of it.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” he said. “I get to be a social animal, talking to people at the markets and then I get to come back home and work the farm.”
“I would love to open a place that served sausage and potatoes,” he said, laughing.
Rosemary Roasted Potatoes
From Merna Olsen, Olsen Farms
1 to 2 pounds potatoes (Olsen Farms variety mix)
Fresh ground black pepper
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
Fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Cut potatoes in half. Mix with olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, garlic and rosemary. Bake in 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until fork tender.
Chuck Roast with Root Vegetables
From Merna Olsen, Olsen Farms. Olsen says she doesn’t have many “real recipes” for meat and potatoes, but she makes this boneless chuck roast the way her mother always did.
3- to 4-pound boneless chuck roast
Vegetable or olive oil
1/3 cup strong coffee
1 to 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
Red potatoes. diced large, and carrots and parsnips, sliced
Heat a cast iron or other heavy pan to moderately hot. Lightly flour the roast and brown on all sides in the oil.
Pour coffee and Worcestershire over meat. Add water to pan so the liquid level comes up about 2 inches. Add salt, pepper, garlic and onion and cook on stovetop over moderately low heat until tender, usually 2 to 3 hours. Check liquid level occasionally so it doesn’t go dry.
Add diced potatoes, carrot slices and parsnips, if available, in the last 20 minutes.
The meat and vegetables can be removed and gravy made from liquid.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Easy, Crisp, Zingy Potato Salad
From Alan Worthington, an employee of Olsen Farms
4 pounds red-skinned potatoes (such as Olsen’s Red Lasoda)
11/2 pounds carrots (adds a little sweetness)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (or more) white wine vinegar (the zing)
1 tablespoon salt or more to taste
3 (or more) tablespoons dill, fresh if possible, dried if not
3 cloves garlic, chopped finely or pressed
Coarsely chop the potatoes and carrots. Boil or steam until barely tender.
Combine all ingredients. Chill for several hours or overnight.
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Former Spokesman-Review staffer Leslie Kelly lives in Seattle, where she is a regular contributor to SeriousEats.com and Amazon’s Al Dente food blog. She can be reached at email@example.com.