by Ashley Lodato
staff writer, Bluebird Grain Farms
photos courtesy of Sage Mountain Natural Foods
As if farming, running a fermented vegetables business, teaching in Wenatchee Valley College’s sustainable agriculture program, and raising three kids under the age of 12 weren’t enough, Danielle Gibbs had to go and buy herself a natural food store.
Buying Sage Mountain Natural Foods wasn’t, however, a hobbyist move for Gibbs; it was a strategic decision that positions her as a change agent in food systems. “I wanted to be a part of getting more healthy food to people,” says Gibbs. As a farmer for her husband’s family farm (Gibbs Organic Farm in Leavenworth, WA) Gibbs grew healthy, organic food on a small scale. As an instructor for the Wenatchee Valley College (WVC) system, she reached a receptive but small segment of the population. But it is in retail food sales that Gibbs believes she can reach the biggest and broadest audience, reinforcing the importance of making choices at all levels–proverbially, from farm to table–that change our food culture.
Gibbs grew up in suburban North Carolina and later earned a degree in philosophy (“useful for everything and nothing,” she notes). Although her family was not particularly outdoorsy, they were interested in healthy eating. “We shopped at health food stores ever since I was little,” Gibbs says. “All these shops with crystals everywhere in the 1980s, my parents giving us tons of herbs.” After college, Gibbs worked on a farm in Massachusetts before making her way out to Washington to “see the west and learn what it was like to farm in this region.” Gibbs interned on the Gibbs farm in 2001 and soon became the garden manager at Leavenworth’s Tierra Learning Center in 2003 before returning to the Gibbs farm in 2006.
Interspersed with farming, marrying, and bearing three children, Gibbs started fermenting vegetables and producing three flavors of live sauerkraut as a value-added product for the farm, as well as teaching for WVC and managing the campus greenhouse. It was during her tenure at WVC that Gibbs first encountered Bluebird Grain Farms, when she took a class on a farm tour with Brooke and Sam Lucy. “I’d tasted Bluebird’s products before and loved them,” says Gibbs, “but seeing the farm and hearing how passionate the Lucys are about organic, sustainable farming–it really registered for me what quality products they offer.” When Gibbs purchased Leavenworth’s 21-year-old natural food store, Sage Mountain Natural Foods, Bluebird was one of the many local suppliers to whom she turned in her quest to offer her customers the best ingredients at the best prices.
Gibbs was aware that the store was for sale for a number of years before she purchased it, inspired in the end by the thought of creating a place full of healthy food options, grown by local and regional producers, in an environment welcoming to and nurturing of the local community. “As Leavenworth gets more touristy,” Gibbs says, “those of us who live here full-time feel the need for places that are for us, places that have our needs and values in mind. I want Sage Mountain to be one of those places.” Visitor business is seasonal and ephemeral, says Gibbs, “but it’s the locals who sustain us.”
Sage Mountain Natural Foods is a feast for the senses for anyone who visits, from local to tourist, and even those just passing through and unlikely to buy the ingredients to make a meal from scratch can find many delights to take home, from soaps to wildflower mixes to gifts to deli and bakery treats. Local shoppers can stock up on everything from bulk cleaning and beauty products to grains to dairy to produce. And shop for produce they have indeed. Gibbs says “Our produce sales are six times what they were when I first bought the store.”
Produce, it seems, is not just Gibbs’ passion, it’s also her secret superpower. “I was in that world, and I know many of the produce growers,” Gibbs says. “I sold at markets with them. I know who grows what well.” Gibbs calls herself “picky” when it comes to produce selection, and despite the fussy negative connotation of that description, being picky–or discerning–translates into gorgeous produce available to her customers. “I select exactly what I want to buy from each farmer,” she says. “I encourage them to grow the things they grow best and enjoy growing.”
To support the store’s increased emphasis on produce, Gibbs also installed a new cooler and assigned produce to a larger area. She keeps prices low by participating in a natural food cooperative that gives her access to steeper discounts on fruits and vegetables. And, Gibbs says somewhat apologetically, “I do the produce myself. I like to control the display and how it looks.” She is, however, training another store employee to pinch-hit for her on occasion. “We have the best produce in town and people come in for that,” Gibbs says, adding that “Dan’s Food Market [another local grocer] also has a great selection.”
Getting nutritious and delicious foods into the hands and bellies of locals was important to Gibbs, but so too is supporting small-scale farmers in the region. To this end, Sage Mountain Natural Foods supports Regenerative Agriculture, which Gibbs describes as a movement that focuses on farming according to environmental principles of enriching soils, protecting water sources, and regenerating ecosystems (which pretty closely matches the Regenerative Agriculture’s definition of the “system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services”). It’s a holistic approach, Gibbs explains, where farmers put a lot of energy into “nourishing their land, rotating crops, and maintaining buffers.” Instead of focusing on food production first, Gibbs says, you focus on regenerating the land. “When you harvest you remove crops and take away from the land, which takes away nutrients. You need to give back to the earth.”
“We believe that farmers are an essential part of a healthy community,” Gibbs continues, “and we want to keep our farmers viable. We also want to keep the money in our local economy. So we buy from local farmers as our first option, and Charlie’s [an independent regional produce company] next, then other Pacific Northwest growers, then California growers.”
In addition to a robust and appealing produce display, Gibbs worked more fresh fruits and vegetables into Sage Mountain by opening a deli in the store, offering wraps, baked goods, salads, and soups. “It’s all about cooking seasonally and creatively,” she says, “And we have some consistent options and some options that are constantly changing.” The deli has been a big draw to the store, Gibbs is pleased to report. A long-time fan of Seattle’s PCC Community Markets, Gibbs found herself saying “We need something like PCC’s deli.” Once she realized that she had the venue to turn that idle wish into reality, she immediately contacted a deli manager she had in mind, who had managed the deli at The Food Co-op in Port Townsend; that employee now fully manages Sage Mountain’s deli.
Through her work at Sage Mountain, Gibbs has learned how many people really do cook from scratch, despite popular impressions that Americans are all about quick and easy these days. “We’ve offered quick meal packages,” Gibbs says, “but we don’t sell a lot of them. People are buying really basic ingredients from us.” Some of those basic ingredients are somewhat surprising, like Bluebird’s wheat berries or rye berries, for example. As delicious and nutrition-packed as they are, organic Methow Hard Red Wheat Berries are not exactly an impulse buy. Less surprising are the Bluebird Grain Farms Organic Einkorn Flour and Organic Emmer Farro Flour, which Sage Mountain customers scoop up with gusto, indicating widespread baking projects at home.
Cooking from scratch may seem a small gesture, but it’s an important one, giving people like Gibbs hope for a growing population of citizens who value fresh, natural foods grown in a sustainable, regenerative manner. An indication, perhaps, that bigger changes in food systems are afoot. Sage Mountain Natural Foods may be small, but this treasured and vital piece of Leavenworth’s healthy economy and healthy community is making its mark.
Visit Sage Mountain Natural Foods on Facebook, or stop by the store at 11734 Hwy 2 in Leavenworth.