How can we feed a nation without big agriculture?


By Renee Ciulla

lyman.mr.cc.2007

Red Tomato Founder Michael Rozyne and John Lyman, of Lyman Orchards. Photo by Chris Cartter

“Some food hubs are building infrastructure to store food year-round which creates an actual response to the question: ‘How can we feed a nation without big agriculture?’” noted Kate Petcosky, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project’s Food Access Coordinator in Lowell, MA. “At this point, we are aggregating from 30 different refugee or immigrant beginning farmers, and moving about $16 0,000 worth of produce. Our farmers can’t be at farmers markets every day, so we are taking over the direct consumer relationships.”

According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, “a regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.” In many parts of the country, there are wide gaps in local distribution and processing infrastructure, making it difficult for regional growers, such as those farming with New Entry, to access markets. Food hubs fill a market niche that the current food distribution system is not adequately addressing, failing to connect small-scale producers to wholesale market channels. Additionally, food hubs can build the capacity of local producers and engage buyers and consumers to rethink their purchasing options. In this way, hubs are becoming the building blocks for viable local and regional food systems. According to the National Good Food Network, “While many regional food hubs are local food distributors, they are much more than this. Food hubs are examples of innovative, value chain-based business models that strive to achieve triple bottom line (economic, social, and environmental) impacts within their communities. They do this by offering a suite of services to producers, buyers, and the wider community.”

In 2013 a National Food Hub Survey was conducted by the Wallace Center at Winrock International and MSU Center for Regional Food Studies. The survey resulted in several notable findings from the 107 food hubs that were interviewed. Conclusions indicated that food hubs across the country are increasing to broaden the distribution infrastructure for local food. From the survey, “62% of food hubs began operations within the last five years, 31% of food hubs had $1,000,000 or more in annual revenue and the majority of food hubs were supporting their businesses with little or no grant assistance.” The participating food hubs were asked to identify their greatest operational challenges which included, “managing growth, balancing supply and demand, access to capital, finding appropriate technology to manage operations, negotiating prices with producers and/or customers and finding reliable seasonal and/or part time staff.” Additionally, 96% of food hubs indicated that demand for their hubs’ products and services was growing.

“...31% of food hubs had $1,000,000 or more in annual revenue and the majority of food hubs were supporting their businesses with little or no grant assistance."

It is unsurprising that the progressive green state of Vermont boasts several food hubs. One shining example is the Intervale Food Hub located in Burlington, VT.  They are an online local foods market offering year-round delivery operated by a team of five employees. Intervale “collaborates with ecological farmers and food processors in the region to provide the community with an array of the highest quality foods.” Owned by the Intervale Center, the hub is committed to cultivating a local economy that sustains healthy food, farms, land and people. Over 30 farmers in Vermont work with the hub and are attracted by the stable, year-round market and fair prices (slightly higher than standard wholesale). Intervale also provides ongoing technical assistance and support, which enables farmers to grow and process more food, diversify production, develop specialty products and push the limits of Vermont’s growing season. From 2008-2010 the hub purchased $400,000 from farmers with an 80% annual growth in sales. Annual farm sales range from $1,000 to $30,000 per farm and there are many multi-farm collaborations (which improves farmer camaraderie and efficiencies in marketing and distribution).

The close relationship between the producers and the hub is made apparent to members through the hub’s goal of providing 100% transparency and traceability. Members are offered a variety of options such as “The Vermont Vegetable” which is a showcase of fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit. This costs $55-$60 per week and is delivered weekly. For meat eaters, there’s “The Omnivore Package” which includes “The Vermont Vegetable” plus a combination of local meat, dairy, and specialty products. Also available are salmon, seafood, cheese, eggs, meat and bread.

Heirloom tomatoes

Colorful heirloom tomatoes ready for shipment.

Another food hub, Windham Farm and Food located in Brattleboro, VT, is an aggregation and delivery service providing access to local food. Richard Berkfield, Executive Director, explained that everything is done online. Farmers post what they have on the website, customer orders are due by Monday and deliveries occur soon after. This food hub began in 2009 and already by 2014 their annual sales were $213,000. Their largest sector is retail followed by public schools. Interestingly, senior living centers have also been a large market, accounting for 30%. “Collaborative efforts between buyers and sellers,” Berkfield believes, “are at the foundation for how [the hub] has worked so well. A lot of people came to the table to make this happen.”  This collaboration is key even for cold storage, which for example, has been done in high schools. One challenge they have to consider is that half of the Vermont schools have less than 100 students. This means that they could easily spend $100 of hub money to get $100 of produce delivered. Efficiency always has to be kept in mind. Berkfield feels that “total transparency is also a must.” Windham Farm and Food posts the cost for the farmers, the cost of distribution ($1.50/mile) and employee pay rate ($18/hr). Most of the farmers are “seasoned and well-established” so they are able to make up for the wholesale pricing through their retail markets. The hub sales only amount to 5% of the farmers’ total sales. Berkfield has found that it is a challenge for small farmers to be a part of the hub because of the required $1 million insurance liability.

Located farther north in the state of Vermonth, Green Mountain Farm Direct, is a regional food distribution system that provides Vermont farm products to schools and other institutions. Program Director Catherine Cusack, shared that they began in 2009. The order sizes have been growing and around 50% of the food goes to schools. “Since the school season and growing season don’t perfectly line up,” explained Cusack, “schools mostly order dairy, meat, flour, storage crops, frozen corn and frozen squash.” The rest of the products at Green Mountain are delivered to senior homes, grocery stores, prisons and hospitals. Cusack has found that Meet & Greet dinners have been a successful way to introduce the farmers to the consumers. An annual local food tradeshow offers a chance for relationship building. Green Mountain is currently looking for a USDA Local Food grant to help with marketing efforts – one area they want to strengthen. At this point they don’t have their own trucking but instead partner with delivery truck operations in their area. They hope that in time this food hub distribution system will assist farmers in northern VT to “scale-up” their operations.

A unique example of a food hub started by farmers on the seacoast of New Hampshire is Three River Farmers Alliance. This collaboration among three farms (Heron Pond Farm, Meadow's Mirth Farm and Stout Oak Farm) provides an online marketplace of locally grown and produced food. Their goal is for the farms to work together to meet the growing demand for local, sustainable food in the area. In past years, these three farmers had been selling to the same wholesale institutions, all driving separate vehicles to complete deliveries. Instead, they decided to unite forces and combine their wholesale produce onto one website. By Friday morning of each week, they list available items for sale where customers can then place orders using a Three River mobile app or from the website until midnight on Monday. The orders are reviewed and sent to the farmers on Tuesday so the items can be harvested, prepared and delivered by Wednesday and Thursday. Chefs on the seacoast who receive emails, texts and calls weekly from these farmers have been enjoying the ease of this system of ordering.

In the neighboring state of Massachusetts is Red Tomato, established in 1997 and located in Plainville, MA. They are “an ambitious non-profit that works its heart out to deliver fresh, great tasting produce while cultivating a more sustainable, ethical food system.” Through many years of experience, Red Tomato has developed innovative systems that rely on existing wholesale distribution in their area to deliver local food to grocery stores, produce distributors, restaurants, schools and colleges across the Northeast. They are proud to include over 48 local farmers who provide an impressive array of food items. Full descriptions of each farm with videos and pictures can be found on the Red Tomato website, educating consumers about production practices, farm histories and more.

When Red Tomato first began, they owned and operated their own warehouse and trucks. Staff would drive to farms to pick up the product, store it and put it back on a delivery truck. After several years of “trying to do it all,” they realized this system was actually limiting their growth. In 2005, the decision was made to divest the warehouse and trucks, instead relying on farmers with storage capacity to aggregate products, and have farmers, distributors or logistics companies to move the product to its final destination. Susan Futrell, Director of Marketing, shared that at Red Tomato their biggest accomplishment and biggest challenge is the same: “…bringing all of the elements that matter to us – top quality, incredibly fresh produce, fair prices to the farmer, transparency at every level, local/regional supply, environmental stewardship, farm ID & stories that reach all the way to the shopper, and efficient orders for the customer – and delivering all of that via a wholesale supply chain at a competitive, fair price. The dominant supply chains are not set up to make any of this easy for mid-size, local farms. It takes a huge amount of collaboration, coordination, creativity and just plain hard work to make it happen. We're proud that, more often than not, we do right by the farmers we work with, and make their fabulous produce available to consumers in the local grocery store.”

To get a sense of how local produce goes to market, visit Red Tomato's website for a short video:

 

Out in Ann Arbor, Michigan situated 45 minutes west of Detroit, consumers and producers are also trying to find ways to efficiently move food. The Wastenaw Food Hub’s mission is to “provide facilities and market channels to increase the economic viability of diversified farms, develop small businesses, and provide community benefits that will strengthen our food system and local economy.” By developing a food hub facility and network, they hope to create a thriving community of “triple bottom line” farm and food businesses to achieve a sustainable regional food system. The Washtenaw Food Hub is a limited liability corporation formed in 2011 by successful organic growers and professionals in food service, project management and real estate. They are ambitiously restoring a historic 16-acre farm with the mission to serve public and institutional demand for local food as well as strengthen farm and food businesses. This hub plans to be a single point of contact for local food purchasing, processing, aggregation, storage and distribution. Their shared-use Value-added Processing and Commercial Kitchen Facility for qualified businesses bring the hub closer to reaching their overall sustainability goals.

The scale of food hubs can range from a few farmers joining forces casually online, to an all-encompassing source of local food marketing, processing, aggregation and distribution. The Puget Sound Food Hub in Mount Vernon, WA, aims large and casts a huge food system net. Located on the intriguing coast of north-west Washington, speckled with islands and west of the majestic Cascade Range, their goal is to increase access to locally grown food as well as improving market access and economic sustainability for northwest Washington farms. Currently, farmers can proudly state that their products are entering restaurants, hospitals, preschools, grocery stores, commissaries, home-delivered meal programs, childcare centers and universities. At the beginning, the Puget Sound Food Hub was initiated as a weekly wholesale market in a parking lot of the Skagit Valley Food Co-op. There was no online ordering or streamlined payment system, no cold storage and no aggregated delivery. Today, the Puget Sound Food Hub is a network of farms and partners operating cooperatively in the Puget Sound region to market and distribute locally produced food.

Farmers are ensured that their product is never mixed or combined with another farmer’s product. A box of product is packed at the farm and stays in that box with traceable identification labeling back to the farm that produced it. In their words, “It’s not a warehouse store selling nameless, faceless ‘local.’” The hub ensures food safety and manages risk by requiring all hub aggregation sites and distribution partners to create and comply with GAP and HACCP plans, and requiring everyone along the supply chain to carry appropriate licenses and product liability insurance coverage. An eligibility checklist is required for all farmers interested in applying. Examples include obtaining a business license, paying $50 for an annual membership, following marketing guidelines, having at least one year of direct marketing experience and providing proof of coverage for a $1M or $2M policy. After these steps are completed, farmers receive login credentials to the Puget Sound Food Hub website.

Another inspiring organization, The North Valley Food Hub, is located in Chico, CA, approximately 1.5 hours north of Sacramento. The North Valley mission is to provide “critical services to both growers and wholesale buyers that include creating a one-stop shopping platform for buyers and a marketplace for growers to post and promote their products.” The hub also serves as a centralized facilitator for creating and expanding local food markets in California’s North Valley.

It was through many deliberate and intelligent steps that the decision was made to form the North Valley Food Hub in the summer of 2014. It started in 2009 when the Local Food Systems program was established at the Northern California Regional Land Trust. The first step was to begin the Buy Fresh Buy Local, North Valley campaign. In 2011, the program systematically measured the North Valley region’s capacity to feed itself with locally produced food by comparing crop production patterns with consumption patterns. Remarkably, the estimates showed that 70% of consumption needs could be met with local production in the region. A survey given to 200 growers and 25 wholesale buyers confirmed that, “20% of growers were not producing at capacity from a lack of consistent markets, 79% of growers said they would grow more if there was a market and 55% said they would use a food hub if one was available in the region.” Furthermore, buyers stated that the difficulty of managing the logistics of buying from multiple growers kept them from sourcing more food locally. The research made it very clear that the local food system for the North Valley region would not flourish without infrastructure like a food hub, an online purchasing system, cold-storage and eventually coordination of transportation logistics.

Interested farmers can begin by creating a profile on the website. Once verified by the North Valley Food Hub Market Manager they can begin listing their products and quantities. This can help farmers overcome the challenges and logistics related to managing multiple relationships, sorting out food safety requirements and marketing. As for interested buyers, they also create an account, agree to the terms of the service and need to be verified by the Market Manager. The buyers can purchase from multiple growers through one order and can also aggregate like-products from different growers in order to meet larger volume demand. North Valley Food Hub is an excellent example of how thoughtful research can result in a meaningful and necessary addition to a region’s food system sustainability.

In 2011, FarmAid estimated that there were over 100 food hubs in the USA and numbers were on the rise. By 2013, the National Food Hub Survey was sent to 222 food hubs revealing the growth in just two years. While this article only highlighted a handful of hubs and their impact on the food system, there are hundreds of unmentioned individuals working to answer the question posed by New Entry’s Petcosky, “How can we feed a nation without big agriculture?”

 

Resources:

New Entry Food Hub: http://nesfp.org/world-peas-food-hub

Intervale Food Hub: http://intervalefoodhub.com/

Windham Farm and Food: www.foodconnects.org/windham-farm-and-food.html

Green Mountain Farm Direct: www.greenmountainfarmdirect.org/

Three River Farmer Alliance https://www.threeriverfa.com/

Red Tomato: http://www.redtomato.org/about/

North Valley Food Hub: http://northvalleyfoodhub.com/farmers/

Wastenaw Food Hub: http://washtenawfoodhub.com/contact-us/#

Puget Sounds Food Hub:  http://www.pugetsoundfoodhub.com/farmers/

A Guide for Scaling up Food Hubs by New Entry: http://nesfp.org/resources/guide-scaling-food-hubs

 

 

 

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