Farmers may often tell you some seeds take longer to germinate than others. That's the case with Pilgrim's Market's new garden behind its midtown Coeur d'Alene store, which took more than three years to take root from an idea planted 20-plus years ago.
Just prior to opening the store in 1999 with wife Sarah, Joe Hamilton visited a Napa Valley winery and was impressed at how the winery doubled as an eatery and a picnic destination. The idea lay dormant until a few years ago when Pilgrim's relocated its office space to an empty house behind the store, offering employees a homey area for breaks and get-togethers.
A department manager asked about planting a garden both for food and to host events, which set in motion a plan to acquire the additional lots behind the store, explains Hamilton.
Initially, the natural foods market pursued a special use permit for the garden, says Hamilton, encouraged by Spokane's updated code allowing market gardens and small farm animals on residential lots. That was back in 2015.
"Our plan was to grow food year-round, so we needed some sort of structure," says Hamilton, who notes that in retrospect, they ought to have pursued a zone change from residential to commercial. (The city of Coeur d'Alene granted them a special use permit, but has not yet amended code to allow others to do so.)
After a year of back-and-forth with city entities to ensure their 36-by-60-foot hoop house was properly designed, the market was ready to break ground. That was back in 2017.
"Not wanting to compete with other local farmers who sell to us or at farmers markets, we decided to select vegetable varieties that we could process into another value-added product," says Hamilton, meaning prepared foods that could be sold in-store.
Fast-forward to spring 2018, when construction and planting was ensuing at a frenzied pace.
When he's not managing Pilgrim's facilities, Young Bennett is outside in the garden, planting and tending to five, 30-foot-wide rows of radish, kale and carrot crops, plus another six rows for basil, red and green spring greens and cabbage.
Inside the hoop house, Bennett and Jeremiah Brunelle, who's also worked on gardens for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, designed and built a six-row drip irrigation system for the tomatoes and peppers. A practiced eye, Brunelle's compost tea mixture and insecticidal soap have kept the garden going strong during this first growing season.
Although it sells a few fresh produce items in-store, the bulk of Pilgrim's garden harvest is going towards house-prepared and packaged food made from the garden's output.
"We decided that salsa would be our biggest signature item that would be truly farm-to-fork or chip, with zero carbon footprint from transportation," says Hamilton.
Staff are packaging salsa and kraut as part of Pilgrim's in-house fermented goods line, Cultured Mama. They're also using fresh produce in the store's juice and hot and cold food bars. Excess peppers are being dried for gourmet seasoning.
Ever mindful of the seasons, Pilgrim's is proceeding with additional plans for the .94-acre space. The perimeter fence is nearly complete, helping enclose the space for use as a teaching and pop-up dining facility. An upcoming free open house to show off the space to the public is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 15, from 9 am-noon.
"We plan on hosting gatherings among home gardeners and are especially excited about the potential for school field trips," says Hamilton.
For the latter, they're planning to have storyboards about bees to educate students about the importance of environmental stewardship, accompanied by artwork from local artists.
Meanwhile, back in the garden, Bennett has been eyeing the potential of some existing fruit trees, including an ornamental cherry and heirloom apple, and hopes to introduce other trees, such as a crab apple.
And, of course, he and Brunelle continue to do what farmers do — learning about their unique growing environment and adapting accordingly.
"A lot of it we're still figuring out." ♦