Local Food On The Rise
According to the USDA, more than 7,000 farmers markets were in operation across the country in 2011, more than double the number of ten years ago. With the value of the expanding local food market likely to surpass $7 billion by the end of 2012, producers of all sizes are trying to figure out even more ways to serve consumers.
That's where local food hubs come in.
A major part of the USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, food hubs are places where local food from a variety of producers is aggregated, graded, processed, packaged and then delivered to area buyers, whether they be restaurants, wholesale markets or individuals looking to snag a couple pounds of tomatoes.
If You Grow It, They Will Buy It
According to Jodee Ellett, board member of the Local Growers Guild and farmer of Gener8 Farms in Ellettsville, Indiana, local growers are supplying "maybe 1.5 percent" of the food consumed in Bloomington, Indiana. She thinks, with a little help, they can do better. "If you have a food hub, and if you have a place where growers can sell, they'll grow it."
In addition to getting more local food on more plates in the area, a local food hub would aid area producers with the job requirements they enjoy the least: distribution and marketing.
While it's rewarding to develop relationships with other farmers and local eaters at farmers markets, Ellett says it takes a lot of time and energy to get her goods to market -- not to mention the fact that she maintains a website, communicates with buyers and promotes her farm.
"There are few professions where people have to be so versatile and so skilled in so many areas," she says.
Competing With The Big Guy
Another goal of establishing a local food hub in Monroe County is to lower transaction costs between producers and consumers. It's more than just financial costs, says Guild president Jonathan Jenner. He mentions "the incredible amount of go-between of what do you have, how much of that do you have, how much does it cost, how much can I get." Food hubs do the work of conglomerating data from a number of local farmers and making it easy for consumers to access and interpret.
This model also gives small producers access to large buyers that they might not necessarily have access to otherwise. For instance, if the food hub combines the modest summer squash harvests of all participating area farmers, restaurants can then purchase large amounts of the veggie.
However, it is unrealistic to imagine that local food hubs will compete with large distributors and their large warehouses of goods. Distribution companies provide more than just food to restaurants -- they drop off everything from paper towels to soap. "It's very easy for a restaurant to do one-stop shopping," says Ellett. "I don't blame them. They're busy, they can get it the next day."
A local food hub could at least offer consumers another option.
"It may take a little extra effort on the part of the buyer, but not as much as it's currently taking," she adds.
The local food hub serving the Monroe County, Indiana area is an initiative facilitated by the Local Growers Guild. Participants on all sides of the market can take advantage of the connections created by the food hub by visiting the website Local Dirt.