This piece was published in the Wayne Independent on April 23. 2014. This column isn’t published on the Wayne Independent website, so I thought I’d replicate it here…
“Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America’s farmers… Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers. By serving as a link between the farm or ranch and regional buyers, food hubs keep more of the retail food dollar circulating in the local economy. In effect, the success of regional food hubs comes from entrepreneurship, sound business sense and a desire for social impact.“
— USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, May 2013
Good thing we had our taxes done already… Otherwise, I might not have been able to attend the “Wayne County Food Hub” presentation that SEEDS, our local sustainable-community group, and The Cooperage Project co-sponsored last Tuesday evening, April 15 – and I would have missed out on a very interesting, informative, and thought-provoking discussion.
The first thing that impressed me about the gathering in the Cooperage that evening was the size and diversity of the group. I counted about 70 participants, including elected officials, farmers (young and old), local business people, educators, and members of the general public.
What seemed to unite the group was a simple conviction: Agriculture needs to remain a viable, thriving enterprise in Wayne County.
The other thing that impressed me was the amount of coordination and cooperation involved in the food hub concept, not just between different agencies but also between different parts of Wayne County’s economy and overall society – and the eager willingness all those people showed to get the ball rolling The food system, after all, has many stakeholders, and everyone can derive some benefit from anything that makes that system work more effectively.
This broad-ranging impact makes sense when you consider what a “food hub” is. As the meeting announcement from SEEDS defined it, a food hub is ”an effort to stimulate the economy of our local farming community by purchasing food from our local farmers and producers.” A food hub, for example, can help to expand markets – making it easier for producers to connect with and sell their products not just to individual consumers, but also institutional ones (such as restaurants, camps, schools, hospitals, and prisons). There are added benefits – in the process, a food hub can create jobs, provide educational and job training opportunities, enable farmers to share their knowledge, and knit a community more closely together. (For more information about food hubs, see http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/foodhubs)
Cindy Matthews of Wayne County Human Services led the discussion, ably assisted by Bob Muller, District Manager of the Wayne County Conservation District (who also works with the Agriculture Subcommittee of Wayne Tomorrow). Other panelists included Andrea Whyte of Wayne County Area Agency on Aging, Tom Eccles of Farmer in the Dale, LLC, Michele Sands of SEEDS, and Anthill Farm’s Sky Ballentine. Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith also appeared later in the program, speaking eloquently and encouragingly about the need for the kind of increased cooperation that a food hub makes possible.
Cindy started off by describing the basic elements of the food hub concept, and reviewed some of the possible benefits. Bob Muller reminded us that back in the day, Grange halls performed many of the same functions – helping buyers meet with sellers, and enabling farmers to get together and share ideas. Nowadays, people want more than ever to know where their food comes from, and that their food supply is safe and reliable. Food hubs, like farmers’ markets and CSAs, help the public make better, more personal connections with food producers.
Michele noted that local food production and distribution, where it is possible, has many advantages for a community – not only in terms of things like energy efficiency and lower transportation costs. but also community preparedness and food security. Every food dollar spent locally circulates many times throughout a community.
Tom Eccles talked about how getting connected with a institutional buyer – in this case, the Wayne County Area Agency on Aging – helped him to expand his business, add new products, and reach out to more new customers.
There are challenges ahead, to be sure, to get a local food hub up and running. Tom pointed out that farmers need to know more about food safety procedures and regulations before they can market to many institutional buyers, and those regulations need to be made more rational, more comprehensible, and easier to implement.
Sky Ballentine of Anthill Farm talked about a recently-formed regional initiative called the Lackawaxen Farm Company (www,lfcfresh.com), that enables consumers to order produce, meat, and other foods from a number of small local producers through one website.
The food hub system focuses more on cooperation and distribution, but it is not intended to be a replacement for, or even a challenge to, the traditional capitalist food distribution systems of large warehousers and competing grocery store chains. But it can make local food and local farmers more successful and more sustainable – and we can all profit from that.