From Farm to Table

From Farm to Table

Building local infrastructure to support local food

BY ROWAN JACOBSEN

Published in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion magazine


 

PETE IS ONE of countless small food producers in America who have found the cost of doing business—mainly the cost of infrastructure—to be prohibitive, one of the reasons why the local food movement has hit a wall. Whether it is the stringent requirements for slaughtering and processing meats, the cost of building a production or storage facility, the learning curve regarding food-safety regulations, or the dearth of distribution options, many small-scale food artisans find it discouragingly difficult to grow beyond the booth at the farmers’ market. And they are finding those farmers’ markets less useful. Although the number of markets in the United States has exploded from 1,744 in 1994 to 4,000 in 2005 and 7,864 in 2012, sales have not kept pace; more and more farmers are trying to slice the same pie.
 
“Farmers’ markets aren’t sexy anymore,” is how Jean Hamilton, the longtime market development coordinator for the Vermont chapter of the National Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), puts it. “The problem is that we were really good at launching farmers’ markets, and we launched a whole bunch of them, and we gave them just enough rope to hang themselves. So now there’s all these farmers’ markets that have really low capacity.”
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Farmers’ markets account for less than 1 percent of food sales in the United States. They are the window dressing. If the sustainable food movement is to become a true movement with any measurable impact on the way America feeds itself, it must find a way to reach beyond the early adopters. It must make it much easier for local producers and consumers to find each other. It must restore the regional infrastructure that withered with the rise of the national distributors, who have little interest in working with local operations. What we need is a system of local “food hubs” that can process and bundle local foods and deliver them to the places where America eats.
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Today the USDA recognizes 188 food hubs, a term defined as “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.” Although most states contain at least one food hub, the majority are clustered in progressive farming regions like the Northeast, the upper Midwest (especially Wisconsin), and the mid-Atlantic states of Virginia and North Carolina. These food hubs are increasingly bringing local foods and small-scale delights like Vermont Salumi to outlets and neighborhoods that for years have eaten straight off the Sysco truck. Some simply bundle the produce of multiple small farms to reach the consistent volumes and product diversity required to supply local markets. Some are purely virtual marketplaces that allow chefs to find available produce from regional farms and buy it directly. Some have a social mission to not only bring foods to underprivileged neighborhoods but to increase food literacy as well, or to guarantee fair prices to farms and farmworkers. And some specialize in incubating new producers like Pete. Perhaps the only thing all these food hubs share is a conviction that there is value in preserving regional identity, artisanal character, and sustainable practices—in saving some products from the great meat grinder of industrial food distribution.
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