How To Build A Local Food System, To Make Local Food Actually Work

Early in January, 2014, I ran into this article:

While most of the article deals with the trail & tribulations of a singular producer, many of the insights make absolutely perfect sense for the obstacles facing the “Local Food” movement. Below are quoted segments that I found relevant…

“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 di;cult 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.”

Joe Buley agrees. A burned-out chef turned farmer, Joe holds down the booth across from Pete Colman at the Montpelier farmers’ market, selling eggs, tomatoes, and the sweetest spinach I’ve ever tasted. “The traditional markets are not working anymore,” he told me. “They’re oversaturated. It used to be that the Montpelier market was all there was. Now there’s a Barre market, there’s a Northfield market, there’s a Middlesex market. Even New York City used to just have the one main Greenmarket. Now markets have popped up all over the city. It’s diluting the dollars. It takes two full-time employees all day on Friday to prep and pack out everything for the market, and then there’s two of us there all day on Saturday. To leave with three hundred dollars? That’s going backwards.”

Farmers’ markets account for less than 1% 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.

This is not exactly a revelation. The same conclusion has been reached by the USDA, by sustainable food advocates, and by the foundations that fund their efforts. Together, they have transformed the local-food scene in the United States. Working for NOFA, Jean Hamilton had a front-row seat. “Our movement shifted all at once. Five years ago, all the funders said, ‘We’re funding infrastructure.'”

“One reason the middle infrastructure of the sustainable food movement has lagged behind the rest of the movement is that romance doesn’t scale. A farm is lovely; a warehouse is not. A single artisanal salami is sexy, but the only person who gets really excited about a thousand artisanal salamis hanging in a stainless-steel walk-in is the health inspector who doesn’t have to visit the client in his moldering barn anymore.”

“Almost all food hubs that meet the dictionary definition are not profitable,” says Amanda Oborne, who directs the conservation organization Ecotrust’s FoodHub, an online dating service for wholesale food buyers and sellers. How could they be? They are competing in one of the world’s most cutthroat businesses, which often operates on net margins of less than 1%, and they are trying to return more money to the farmers, operate on smaller scales, and provide additional social and environmental services. Cutting out the middleman to get more of the customer’s money into the hands of the farmer may sound great in a TED talk, but the reality is that there is no way to challenge the economies of scale of industrial food production, which is propped up by subsidies, kickbacks, and money-saving environmental shortcuts.

“In fact, Robin purposely founded the Mad River Food Hub as a for-profit enterprise. “One of our core values was that we would not take any public funds for operations. If you have grants coming in, then your organization is sustainable only as long as the grants are coming in. We live and die on our own. There’s no one here to save us. The only way we can bring money into the organization is by adding to the success of companies using the food hub.”

“Perhaps most importantly, it helps local food reach beyond what you might call the low-hanging fruitcakes–those of us who will drive miles out of our way just for the privilege of living on local turnips all winter. “I’m accessing this whole new demographic. Ninety percent of my CSA customers have never belonged to a CSA before. These are people who are just not gonna buy a share and come out to the farm every Thursday night. They want to support farmers, they want to eat locally, but they don’t have the time. But if I can drop it off on their doorstep, they sign right up.”

Article was written by Rowan Jacobsen…

Many of the founding principles & tenets of  Whidbey Green Goods follow the same lines of deduction quoted above. 1) Farmers Markets capture only a small percentage of a given population. 2) Aggregation & distribution ain’t sexy, but for Local Food to move forward, they are integral. 3) They have to be fiscally sustainable. 4) People are busy…The convenience of home delivery is a major selling point.



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