News From The Field

Food Hubs Initiative Grows

11 June 2013
BY Philip Ehrensaft
PUBLISHED IN Country Wisdom

American consumers are increasingly inclined to buy food from local, identifiable sources, produced with environmentally sustainable practices, and preferably from family farms as opposed to large-scale agribusiness. There are many farmers who would be all too glad to oblige them.

But there’s a frequent disconnect that prevents those mutual desires from being realized. That disconnect is the lack of an agricultural transportation, warehousing, processing and distribution infrastructure that can cost-effectively move local, source-identified farm products to the buyers who want them. Our food system is predominantly organized by large-scale agribusinesses that run a fine-honed network for collecting, processing and distributing farm products to supermarket chains, large institutional purchasers like cafeterias in public institutions, or major private companies.

In effect, farmers can build the baseball fields, and many consumers want to sit in the stands, but the infrastructure for getting the two parties together is weak. One rapidly growing organizational tool for merging the two parties is a “food hub,” a combination farm marketing, farm family support, and often community-building tool that is being actively analyzed and encouraged by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Hudson Valley Food Hubs Initiative, a policy research project sponsored by the New World Foundation’s Local Economies Project, is one of the most ambitious and thorough investigations to date of this new way of linking farmers and consumers. The lead researcher, Sarah Brannen, from Upstream Advisers in Poughkeepsie, has produced a must-read analysis not only for Hudson Valley citizens focusing on agriculture, and economic development in general, but for a national audience as well.

That’s by virtue of Brannen’s combing the experiences of food hubs nationally, choosing 12 for looking at best practices, and seeing how these lessons might or might not apply in Hudson Valley circumstances. The Hudson Valley is a region with one of the highest potentials for food hubs to link local producers and consumers, and thus bears national attention.

Food Hub market

The Valley still has plenty of good agricultural land that hasn’t been paved over; much of the land is suitable for high value per acre, sustainably produced fruits and vegetables, or craft dairy and meat production; the Valley is one of the only regions of New York with substantial population growth, and a relatively high proportion of its consumers are inclined to buy local, source-identified food; it is next door to the country’s largest single food market, where there’s also high enthusiasm for sustainably produced local food, not to mention copious vitamin pills and herbal supplements to counter the lousy air and sheer stress of the place.

So precisely what is this “food hub” beast? And how effective can it be in building up effective transportation, storage, processing and marketing links between local farmers who want to produce source-identified food rather than anonymous commodities shipped into the agribusiness system, and regional consumers who would like to buy what farmers want to produce?

A new national USDA research report—The Role of Food Hubs in Local Food Marketing by James Matson, Martha Sullins and Chris Cook—first cites a working definition of a farm hub: “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.

Then Matson, Sullins and Cook immediately nuance the definition on two counts: 1) Community-building and environmentalism. Many hubs evolved from educational or social missions to bring consumers and producers together. Besides selling local foods, they educate buyers about the importance of retaining food dollars in the local economy, and conserving farmland; 2) Virtual organizations. In this Internet era, very functional hubs exist that do not consist of brick and mortar facilities; rather, they “live” primarily in a virtual context and are thus able to transmit information quickly among local buyers and sellers.

So food hubs assume diverse organizational forms in pursuing a core mandate of linking local producers and consumers, ranging from private for-profit companies delivering to wholesalers and large institutions, and on to community nonprofits facilitating direct contact, both economic and social between farmers and local consumers, and a strong emphasis on helping small and medium-sized family farms survive and thrive in a food system tilted towards big farms.

Among the 168 food hubs that were studied by the USDA researchers, there were 67 private companies, 54 nonprofit organizations, 36 cooperatives, 8 publicly held companies, and 3 informal arrangement. Criss-crossing these ownership forms, there was also diverse targeting of clientele: 70 focused on farm sales to businesses or institutions; 60 focused on sales to consumers; and 38 did both.

Foods hubs are an experiment in progress. Sixty percent of hubs inventoried by the USDA have existed for less than five years, another nine percent for six to ten years, and only nine percent for 29 years or more.

Brannen’s mandate was to take a systematic look at how each of these diverse approaches to organizing food hubs might or might not work well to advance farming in the Hudson Valley. The report pulls together a very large body of information on the 3,100 farms working 474,00 acres, and generating $322 million gross farm sales in the nine counties along the Hudson River from Westchester and Rockland through Columbia, Greene, and Sullivan counties—in addition to the New York City food market’s potential for Hudson Valley farming. Brannen also interviewed 117 farmers and food business people; organized seven food hub listening sessions involving 200+ people, and assembled an impressive expert advisory board to give her advice and feedback as she proceeded. One also has the distinct impression that she read every study, major and minor, of the food hub experience in the US.

One surprise in the Hudson Valley Food Hubs Initiative report, a well-founded surprise, is its conclusion that projects for creating a big, central regional food hub for the Valley would not be an optimal move. Given the diverse nature of farming here, sales and distribution networks are equally diverse. One size does not fit all, as it might, for example, if Illinois and Iowa organic corn and soybean farmers wanted to band together to reach adjacent urban markets. In the Hudson Valley, farmers and merchants in the fruit, vegetable, dairy, meat and poultry sub-sectors are already performing some typical farm hub functions appropriate for their quite different respective sectors. This ranges from direct farm sales and farmers’ markets to Community Supported Agriculture, and on to farmer co-ops and farmers using their own trucks for delivery to local retailers.

With respect to existing food-hub-equivalent arrangements for reaching individual consumers and small retailers, Brannen advocates solidifying and extending what has already started.

In contrast, a new effort is needed for building organizations that overcome predominantly weak links between the Valley’s farmers and the large-scale purchasers who are the big sluggers in our current food system. That includes big supermarkets and food wholesalers, food services in the Valley’s large private firms, and big public institutions like hospitals or schools. This will require building new capacities, like on-farm quality controlled packing of produce, and especially recruiting management and sales people who know how deal with the big purchasers. Given increasing consumer preferences for local source-identified food, and the desire of the big purchasers to make money delivering what consumers want, that can be done.

Above all, Hudson Valley citizens’ organizations must make it very clear to their governments, nonprofits, and large private firms that they want firm commitments to buy local, source-identified food.