An Interview with Howard Block, Owner of Bay Hay & Feed

Howard Block and Ce-Ann Parker established Bay Hay & Feed in Bainbridge Island’s Rolling Bay Neighborhood in the late 1970’s. From its beginnings as a feed store, it has expanded to encompass a very successful nursery, gift store, and outlet for local foods. The store has been recognized as a “Washington Green 50” company on the list of most sustainably operated businesses in the state.

Each year, Bay Hay donates hundreds of seed packets to EduCulture for use in local school gardens and instructional plots. EduCulture’s Jon Garfunkel sat down for a conversation with Howard about his business philosophy and plans for the future.

Bay Hay & Feed owner Howard Block stocks some spring selections in the store's nursery.

Bay Hay & Feed owner Howard Block stocks some spring selections in the store’s nursery.

JG: When and why did you start Bay Hay & Feed as a business on Bainbridge Island?

HB: November ‘79 we opened. I didn’t do it with the intention of having a feed store; I did it with the intention of just buying the building, and at first putting in a natural food’s business. I said, “I’ll try the feed store first for a little bit” – and liked it right away. Because it was a feed store prior to our purchasing it, it worked out great.

JG: What was your experience in feed stores prior to starting the business?

HB: None – I had no feed store experience prior – I had a lot of retail experience. My roommate from University of New Hampshire was here the day I bought it, and he had grown up on a farm. The previous owner who said he would be here to help and train me never really came back to the store after he sold it, so I was out there on my own. With the help of customers and my roommate from college, I was able to get through the first week, and the only thing I had raised prior to that was chickens, so I was pretty green.

JG: Whose needs were you meeting in the community at that time?

HB: The whole animal kingdom on Bainbridge Island has changed over the years. There were a lot more horses in peoples’ backyards; a lot of people had chickens, raised rabbits, and sheep. There were a few cows on the island, you could count them on one hand. About 20-30 people raising pigs back then, and there were a lot of roosters being raised – that’s who we were catering to back then. And then we just started building from that, going by word of mouth. We didn’t really advertise; we basically provided people with the food they needed, and then started asking, “what would you like to see?” We started growing from there. We got more products relating to animals in. We were the first people to sell Science Diet, a premium dog food; people thought we were crazy selling a bag of dog food for $25, it was unheard of. We realized better food is better for the dog and Science Diet was virtually the only one back then. We started building the dog and cat business, and that pulled more customers in. And as our customer count increased, we were able to increase our product count. As you have more regular people coming in you can find more products for them to purchase. A few years into it, my wife Ce-Ann decided she was not that interested in the feed business; she has a horticulture degree and decided to open up a nursery. So that we did – we opened up Bay Hay & Feed. Actually, a few moments ago I was up there looking at old pictures of just about the first day of the nursery, to put on our Facebook page.

JG: So what today would we recognize of the Bay Hay & Feed of 1980?

HB: I still have a few products I bought in the 1970’s and never sold – a couple left (laughs). What’s still there? It’s changed so much. All the feed used to be in the main store, piled close to the ceiling; since we bought it in the wintertime, Ce-Ann and I used to sit on the top of the feed because that’s where all the heat was; we used to sit about six feet from the ceiling on big piles of feed, it was nice and warm up there. Other than that, if you were down at ground level, you were freezing.

JG: Where does education play a role in Bay Hay & Feed’s mission and purpose?

HB: One of the things we do is educate all of the employees. It’s very hard to find qualified nursery people. We tried to find the right nursery people from the get go and it was impossible, so now we switched gears and try to find people who have an interest in it and then train them up from there. It’s a long process, it’s a few years per employee. But a lot of our employees stick around – we have a lot of them over 25 years, and it works better that way – they know what we’re looking for while they’re working here. Education – it’s all encouraged. When some of the younger employees work here in the summer, through high school – we encourage them on to college – get a good education. This is a great starter job, in some cases – in some cases it’s a life-fulfilling job. Some will probably be here until they retire. We’ve actually had two employees go over 65 and retire, that were here for years – I guess I’m the next one. But I’m not going to retire at 65!

JG: What about in terms of the role this business has in the community? You’re the feed store on the island – do you find yourself educating customers about topics related to what you’re selling?

HB: We’re not a self-serve store. We’re a store where the customer expects the employee to educate them in the product. It’s everything from a garden sprinkler, to seeding a lawn, to planting the proper vegetables that grow in the area – it’s very labor intensive that way. Probably in all my businesses the most labor intensive business that I’ve ever owned, and the amount of time that you spend with a customer is substantial – which makes it a difficult thing for a retail business – because you’re expecting your employees to not only wait on the customer but also do their daily jobs, and sometimes the customer is always first and daily jobs just don’t get done. There are about 32 employees working here now, and part of that is so we can give the customer service that’s necessary plus we’re educating the customer, so we’re hiring people in to do the other things so that the most experienced employees that need to educate the customer are out on the floor. We don’t expect customers to just grab and go. That’s not how this store works.

JG: I’ve also noticed you started offering classes recently for the community.

HB: We offer classes occasionally; when it’s busy, it’s really difficult. It would be great to have them all the time, it’s almost impossible, and this year it’s so busy because the weather is so warm.

JG: Didn’t you offer a kids’ camp also?

HB: We had a camp in 2014 – probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. I loved it! It was “how to work in a feed store.” Everything from teaching young kids how to wait on a customer – what a purchase order is – what a checkbook is – how to put things away, why you put them on a shelf straight, what inventory is – all the different aspects of how to run a feed store. It’s something that I never got to do except with my uncle when I was really young. I’d love to do it again – we expected to do it again this year but the season came on so fast that I couldn’t stress the employees out that way, because the employees chipped in and helped out. But now we’re at our limits of what we can do. Until we get more employees or until the weather changes back to normal, it’s not possible. Hopefully next year – I was really disappointed when we had to cancel. Probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. When the kids came into camp, they didn’t know what to expect, and to see a kid answer the phone and say, “Good morning, Bay Hay & Feed,” – you know, the kids are pretty shy and this just opened them right up. When they had to walk up to a customer and ask them if they could help them – and then they got to ring them up – their faces were just lit up.

JG: Were you the camp director?

HB: No, my wife was camp director. I was – I don’t know – camp supervisor…(laughing)

JG: You started a sustainability campaign a few years back. What does sustainability look like in practice at Bay Hay, and what do you feel have been the successes and challenges along the way?

HB: Well, part of it is that I couldn’t do it myself – I didn’t know enough about it. And it’s a difficult decision, you have to make decisions continuously about whether to be sustainable and how to be sustainable and then still make a profit, still move forward. So I hired somebody from Bainbridge Graduate Institute. She started out at one day a week and is now pretty much up to full time. She works as a sustainability director and also as an HR person, that’s where they can control things the best. The person had retail experience, which was great – owned a business for a long time, knew the ins and outs of retail. And then she also knew that business is needed to make a profit and how you can get those things – sustainability and profitability – to work together. With sustainability, it’s huge – it’s everything from the solar panels that are on the roof at Bay Hay – to how much we pay our employees. We’ve been at minimum wage of $12 – that’s starting wage, anybody that comes in always gets $12, and we’re working towards $15 and we’ll see if we get there in a short time. But you have to make profit – and that’s what we’re doing, we’re tightening things up, we’re actually getting closer and closer to giving raises to get it up to a living wage. There are employees here 25 years earning a lot more than that. So, there are many aspects to it. The store’s always been organic – so that wasn’t necessary – but mainly on the employee side – being more sensitive to the employees – changing schedules so employees can deal with their family life at home – and not being so cut and dried as I probably was by myself making those decisions. So I found somebody to bridge that gap. And it’s worked out really, really well for the store. I think we’ve grown a lot more than I probably would have just doing it on my own.

JG: So what would you say has been your greatest challenge in trying to practice sustainability as a business and what would you say has been your greatest success?

HB: The greatest success is through the hardest times that we just had, keeping all our employees fully employed. Just creating a strong business that really didn’t falter through those last hard years. We did really well during them. And part of that had to do with employee involvement, feeling like part of the business.

Challenge? Tough times. The success – getting over them, and growing a lot. It was sort of fun to beat it. You hear doom and gloom on the news all the time and we’re doing better than we used to do. It was sort of fun – we had a good time during that time. We employed a lot during that time – we built our new building using all local suppliers, all local builders. And creating employment for a lot of local people, getting that building up. We had good help from the city – they were very encouraging, they didn’t have much going on, they really helped us out, getting it through really quickly. They were very cooperative during that time.

JG: How much do you feel keeping local dollars in the local economy is a measure of sustainability?

HB: Oh, it’s really huge. It helps create jobs for people who want to work 10 or 15 miles from where they work. We employ 32 people and they all live around here – a lot of them live within walking distance of Bay Hay. It’s fun to watch them just walking to work in the morning. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is in a lot of places. I spent a lot of time in Europe and that’s the way it is there. A lot of people just live and work in their hometown. We’re pretty fortunate – we have a lot of people here who like to work this type of business.

JG: What role does Bay Hay & Feed want to play in our local food economy?

HB: Oh, we’re trying. We’re an infant right now, as a place for local farmers to have a consistent, steady place to sell their food products. It’s growing – we have a person that’s in charge of that from Sustainable Bainbridge – Carolyn Goodwin. She’s basically doing all the coordinating for it. It would be impossible for me to do it – you have to have a specialist – and she’s become a specialist in that field. It’s really important. As you can see, it doesn’t take much to make this economy do weird things, and if you have a local food source, that helps steady it out a bit. Plus it employs a lot of people; there are a lot of farmers out there with farmer assistance, all kinds of people doing it now, that want to live at home, and have property and can do it, and to have a steady place to sell it is fantastic.

JG: What is your sense of the culture of farming and gardening on Bainbridge Island and what kind of change have you seen in that culture if any over the years?

HB: It’s hard on Bainbridge. Square foot ground is expensive. We don’t seem to have a way of getting large tracts of land protected for farming. I wish we were a little bit more like Whidbey Island where that does exist. I don’t know whether that will ever exist on Bainbridge. I think our local community needs to be expanded a little bit toward Suquamish and into parts of Poulsbo, where there is a little bit more open land. So local is, I’m going to say, within 25 miles, not within our 12 mile area. It’s difficult for the farmers. They just don’t have the infrastructure for farming and you need it. You can probably get an outlet to sell it – between myself, between Thriftway – the restaurants, and the farmers’ market – they can probably consume everything that everybody can grow. But, could they grow enough to make a living, or a good living? That’s questionable. Farming’s difficult. And its really good until the year it’s bad. And you’ve got to have enough reserves for a good buffer. I think most of the farmers are probably not at that level right now, where they can take the ups and downs of farming. We had a really late frost – that’s going to put a lot of people in a world of hurt. But it’s doable. It would be nice if either the Land Trust or the city provided more land or if there were tax incentives to put your land into permanent farming properties like they’ve done in other counties.

JG: Do you see the potential for us being a more locally dependent food economy, or do you see barriers in the way of that manifesting itself, for example you talk about a Whidbey Island?

HB: I think the biggest barrier on Bainbridge Island is the land is just too valuable. Somebody’s going to have to decide they don’t want to pull that value out of their property, and designate it to something else. That’s not happening a lot, not enough. There needs to be a balance between the population size and the amount of farms on the island and I don’t think that’s been established or probably ever will be. People want the value out of their land when they go to sell it and it forces it down to basically building a house and living there, as opposed to farming it. It’s a shame, but that’s what happens in communities like this.

JG: On the other side of the food chain, what has starting a local food market taught you about our local food culture on Bainbridge Island? The consumer side as opposed to the farming side?

HB: I think it’s a lot like every place else. There are people who are really, really concerned about what they put into their bodies, and other people that would like to be, and other people that can’t afford to be. Coming from the natural foods business, it was sort of the same – I was in Durham, New Hampshire at the time – similar population to here, and I think it would be nice to be able to get the prices of Bainbridge food a little bit more in line so that more of the population was able to comfortably come in and not think of it as a special thing. Thriftway is doing it – it’s getting the prices down a little bit, but it’s buying from sources further away. So it’s taking away from the locals producing the food. The locals are still having a difficult time getting to the level where it’s considered competitive to the rest of the Seattle area. They’ll get there – it just takes time. Sometimes it takes a long time. They’ve got great support people purchasing pretty much everything they’re producing, so as they become more business like, more experienced, they might be able to get down to the more competitive, which in turn would lower the cost, which in turn would lower the volume.

JG: Do you have a sense of how people perceive the locally grown goods that you sell? Do they see them as more of a luxury, or more of a norm? What trends have you seen?

HB: I don’t want to speculate. I don’t have enough information to say that. What you’re saying is a common feeling. You have to work at it. Volume is way up. Part of it is that we have no more to sell. We’re more established. Farmers like consistency – they like to hand over their products and at the end of the month, get a check and they know it’s coming. That’s really important to them. Customers like consistency – they want to see stuff all the time. It doesn’t take much of a customer coming in once or twice, not having it, that you lose a customer. So that’s our end, keeping consistency up. Keeping the shelves stocked. It’s a lot of work. It’s profitable, barely. We don’t do it for a profit center at Bay Hay. It’s basically trying to support the local economy as best as we possibly can and in turn long term we will probably make a profit from it. Right now, margins are really low – the lowest in the store – and that’s part of being food perishable. But we’re finding some value added products that really help boost it up a little bit, and to find locally produced, value added products, is difficult too, such as local crumpets – they’re fantastic. Not that you make a lot of money on it, but you get return customers – that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for commodities. When customers come in continually for commodities, they’ll purchase other things. And that’s an important thing in a retail store is to have commodities so that you’re creating a relationship with your customers, and they’re in the habit of coming back to your store. We hopefully do that throughout the store, and food is a great way to do that.

JG: Maybe the only place they can get that item, right?

HB: There are other places that sell similar products to us, and the one thing we have to offer is that there are a lot of places that may sell similar products, and don’t sell anything else. But customers shopping for something may want to come here, because they like the other things that they see. So it works hand in hand.

JG: What do you make of the popularity of backyard chickens on Bainbridge Island and what role do you feel Bay Hay has played in that popularity?

HB: Chickens are great. If you don’t go nuts and “overchicken,” then you’re going to enjoy your chickens a lot. Producing enough chickens for yourself and possibly your neighbor is a great experience. Chickens are soothing, great learning experience for kids, responsibility, you don’t even have to go as far as 4H, you can just enjoy them in your backyard. Teaching someone to take care of chickens – it’s just a wonderful thing. What do we do? We teach basic classes in “chickening.” Trying to keep people to a reasonable amount. We do a have a few large flocks on Bainbridge. Pretty much its reasonable. There are a lot of benefits from chickens. They’re friendly, they keep you company, they produce great food, they’re great composters, they’re just a really great thing to have in your backyard. They make a backyard a real backyard. People just love them. I love them.

JG: Do you keep your own chickens?

HB: Yeah, I do.

JG: Do you keep other animals?

HB: No, no more. Dog’s gone…

JG: You’re too busy feeding everyone else’s.

HB: It’s a commitment. All animals are a commitment. Whether or not it’s a dog, a cat, a chicken or cow, anything. It ties you down. That’s one of the things about chickening that we talk about. Do you ever go on vacation? How are you going to deal with this? Tell people about the good parts and the bad parts. I’ve raised sheep before, I’ve raised cows before, pigs, chickens. I love it.

JG: EduCulture has been deeply appreciative of the hundreds of seed packets we receive each year from you and which we redistribute to our school partners for use in classrooms, school gardens, and instructional garden projects. What prompted you to begin making these donations and what are you hoping will come from their use?

HB: We’ve had seeds in the store for probably 25 years. When you have leftover seeds you’ve got to figure out what to do with them. You can throw them in the dumpster, that’s a waste. We spent a lot of time sending them overseas. It’s a lot of work, and who is it benefitting? Then we found EduCulture, and it doesn’t kill my market, doesn’t kill Town and Country’s market, doesn’t kill Junko’s market – it’s sort of a balance there. We have a great product to give them. It’s more sustainable that way. Plus, instead of locking yourself into growing a certain kind of corn, a certain kind of beans, most of the time the varieties we’re giving are great varieties, which get people turned on to different things, so they’re not eating the same thing time and time again. It works really well that way. It’s another educational thing. You know, a squash doesn’t always look like a zucchini.

JG: We would have never considered raising watermelon down at our educational plot had we not had those seeds to experiment with.

HB: And it is experimenting, on all sides.

JG: In the bigger picture, where would you like to see our local food and farm economy in 5-10 years?

HB: If Bay Hay has its way and I look into the future, I’d like to have a full market here for local economy food. To expand from where we are to where we could be. We could be a small grocery store. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to involve a couple of decisions. When we expand, how far are we going to consider local? That’s the first thing. Are we going to consider all the way to Pt. Townsend or Sequim local? And that’s something we discuss every year. We’d love to produce within 25 miles. I don’t know if it’s possible. But we continually work at it. Since it’s not the profit center of Bay Hay, it can only demand so much growth and influx, of other dollars. It will never be a profit center. It does really well being supported by something else at Bay Hay. It’s a really good way to do it and it’s fine, as long as you have a willing owner that’s willing to go that route and that’s something that with our sustainability director, we’re doing, and going to continue to do. Whether or not we’ll grow, we hope so, and we think so. We think we’ll be ready for expansion pretty soon. The word has gotten to me that we need another freezer. So I don’t think its because we’re not selling stuff, its because we are selling stuff, which is great. It’s the allocation of money to get the stuff. And since it comes out of the store’s pocket, it has to be doled out amongst the whole store, and best as we possibly can. I want to grow the business. I want farmers to grow more and me to be able to sell more, sort of parallel.

JG: What do you feel are some of the most important lessons young people need to learn about food and farming in the 21st Century?

HB: There’s got to be somebody that’s out there doing it in competition with corporate agriculture – it’s really important. We can’t depend on corporate agriculture to support us 100%. I don’t think we’ll ever get to 20-80; it’ll never get to 90-10. But you’d better keep it in the minds of all people that food – local food – is really important. You don’t want to be controlled by big corporate conglomerates deciding what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat it, down to the GMO kernel. You don’t want that as your only choice, and we have to keep working at that. You actually change corporate sometimes – they see the demand, and they respond to the demand. There’s a lot more organic food on the market now than there ever was in 1976 when I had my natural food store. It was extremely hard to find then. It’s out there now, and more people are using natural foods, and the prices have gotten a lot better. And that’s by popular demand. More popular demand, more people will get into it.

JG: Given what you just said, looking into the future, do you see that we are going to be part of one large food economy that has a corporate and local dimension to it, and do you see what you’re doing with others as establishing a separate food economy in competition with a global food economy?

HB: We’ll never be in competition with them; they beat us hands down.

JG: Or, in parallel to…this is about creating separate food economies or under the umbrella of one food economy?

HB: We’re going to be completely separate. I don’t think we’ll ever be parallel to anything they do. They’re way too big and way too far ahead of us. We can make inroads but to get to any sort of parallel anything, might be really difficult. Unless there’s a huge change in the world. Unless some grasshopper decides it loves GMO corn and that’s all it’s going to eat. Then we might make faster inroads.

JG: You mentioned that you could see yourself in 10-15 years having a full local market. So, that’s in essence helping to create a dominant local food economy as either an alternative version of the global economy or one that can stand on its own.

HB: I don’t know that it can ever stand on its own without support. There are some great close-to-local economies – the Pt. Townsend Co-op, the Mt. Vernon Co-op – these are great businesses run really well. Look at their product lines – it’s not all local. They’ve got nonlocal products supporting their local, and it’s a pretty good balance. If you can consider stuff like Newman’s as totally nonlocal and more corporate, they’re involved there. But they also have toilet paper, toothpaste, all the things that actually support the food market. And that’s what Bay Hay does – it supports the food market. For it to stand alone on it’s own, it’s going to be tough.

JG: So your model is having a support network that surrounds the food market with this idea that it couldn’t necessarily stand on its own but this is what retail needs to do to support having that local economy?

HB: Absolutely – it’s having an owner, like myself, or at Thriftway, that believes in it – it’s really important to have people like that out there. But they have to have successful businesses to be able to believe in it and support it. And they do a great job. They’re always one step ahead. Which is great competition and great for the community. We’re continually looking at other places saying, “wow, how can I get to that level?” Now you come into Bay Hay and you buy a pair of Merrill shoes or you buy a pair of Levis, you’re not just buying a pair of Levis, you’re also supporting a local farmer through the back door.

 

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