“I’m a Pisces,” said Susan Arends. “I go with the flow.”
Arends, who founded Key Pen Produce Express three years ago with her second husband may go with the flow, but she is no passive voyager. With intelligence and determination, she has shaped her life and the lives of others through her belief in the importance of healthy eating and a commitment to the community.
Arends was born in Germany, part of a military family, and grew up in the Everett area. She left home at 17, working in the food industry. A chance for promotion brought her to the local area in 1991.
“I had never heard of the Kitsap Peninsula, but I took a ferry over with a friend,” she said. “The rhododendrons were in bloom. It was beautiful.” She moved to Port Orchard where she planted her first vegetable garden, much to the delight of her neighbors.
From Port Orchard, she began her southward journey. She and her first husband moved to the far north boundary of the Key Peninsula in 2004 — a place that was finally big enough for the horses she was accustomed to keeping.
Her daughter loved horses and Arends spent many weekends at events. The two fed themselves, but when she noticed that other kids arrived with just chips, bananas and Top Ramen to eat, she offered to cook for friends. The demand grew and she found herself serving three meals a day for 30 to 40 riders.
Nearly 10 years ago, following a divorce, she bought a place in Vaughn. She joined the Key Peninsula Facebook group soon after. “That really pulled me into the community,” she said.
Looking for something meaningful to do after an arm injury prevented her from working, Arends responded to a posting from the Red Barn Youth Center and joined as a volunteer in 2014. The next year she was hired to manage the kitchen. One of the students, working on an assignment, was cutting out pictures of food and complained she couldn’t find anything to add once she identified Oreos and hot dogs. Arends pointed to pictures of carrots and other produce.
“The girl got this look of ‘Oh, that’s food,’ and I knew I had work to do,” she said.
Facebook brought her and Ray together. When a post suggested that people meet for burgers at Jimmy D’s in Wauna, they both showed up, though it took a second dinner before they connected. The relationship started as a friendship; Ray helped install horse fencing for months before they became a couple. They moved to Ray’s 8 1/2 acres and married in 2018.
The couple pivoted in 2020. Susan had been working three jobs, they bought, refurbished and sold a house, and Ray retired from a 26-year career at Boeing and took a trucking job. “Covid sent us in another direction,” she said. A posting on Facebook described onions going to waste in a warehouse because the pandemic had wiped out the farm’s customer base. Fifty-pound bags were available for 10 cents a pound. Ray was willing to make the drive, five hours in each direction, people were interested in buying them, and Susan put her organizational skills to work. (See “Key Pen Produce Express Brings Fresh Produce to the Key Peninsula,” July 2020.)
“Susan has the ability to see the real need in a person’s life and connect them with the people who can fill that need,” said Kellie Bennett, executive director of the Red Barn. “Her mind has the capacity to file away the things people need or have to offer and just provide that wealth of information. She thrives when she is assisting the community, helping others.”
Each Monday and Tuesday Susan contacts the farms and posts what is available on their Facebook page. Members place orders (there are over 2,000 but on average about 160 are active) and on Thursday morning Ray heads out in their refrigerated truck to Wapato or Othello to pick up produce. They empty the truck on Friday morning before he leaves for Kent to pick up local produce while Susan and her volunteer crew organize and get ready for customer pick up that afternoon and following morning drive-through style at their Vaughn home.
They developed relationships largely through word of mouth with a few other farmers and since then have expanded to about 40 farms. Susan estimated they deliver 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of produce each week.
They now offer more variety and smaller volumes of produce to their customers, with a season that begins in April and ends in November.
“It has definitely changed,” she said. “Pandemic canning was a real thing. It was crazy. Everyone was stocking their pantry with everything they could get their hands on. Over the last couple of years, life has returned to somewhat normal, except that grocery prices have skyrocketed, and people are just trying to survive right now.”
The business has yet to turn a profit. There have been some expenses including the truck, driveway work, and a structure to cover the pick-up area. They may consider a roadside stand as an alternative model in the future.
At this point, though, Susan is thinking about how best to serve the community. She would like to deliver to locals who can’t leave their homes. They have already partnered with Food Backpacks 4 Kids; Ray drives to Emergency Food Network every week to pick up food for its pantry and they store and distribute produce if FB4K doesn’t have room. What they distribute is free, but they encourage donations to FB4K through its Facebook page.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS