This Little Farmer Went to the Food Hub

Susie Sutphin

Susie Sutphin › Susie Sutphin is an organic farmer and freelance marketer in North Tahoe, CA. She manages the ...

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How food hubs can build the future of sustainable agriculture.

“Farm-to-Table” has recently become a buzzy catchphrase. It has done a wonderful job of promoting the harvests of small-scale farms and helping people conceptualize a local food system. But before food can go from farm-to-table, it has to get to market. And that can be a huge step for a lot of small-scale farmers.

Many farmers have great business and marketing skills but all lack time; the time to get their food to market. It takes a lot of energy and money to cultivate and maintain retail relationships, develop and disseminate promotional materials for direct-to-consumer programs, not to mention the travel required to attend farmers’ markets. Infrastructure needs to be established to help small-scale farmers get over this hurdle. And food hubs provide this opportunity. They not only help farmers get over the farm-to-market hurdle but help the sustainable food movement get over the proverbial Big Ag hurdle.

A regional food hub takes advantage of local food production and links farmers to marketplaces. They do more than just represent farmers and connect them to buyers, but aggregate the harvest of multiple farms.

Ironically, in building a sustainable food system, CSA boxes (community supported agriculture) and farmers’ markets aren’t sustainable. They are the building blocks for a local food system, but do not provide a long-term solution. A weekly box of veggies or a one-day farmers’ market is a temporary fix. They help supply immediate demand and increase awareness for earth-friendly foods, but aren’t set up to supply increased demand. Hopefully, the ultimate goal is to replace all the conventionally grown food with ecologically grown food. But how do we make sustainable food available all the time and in more places?

The focus needs to be on building a regional food system which is ultimately a sustainable food system. A regional food system relies less on the national food system and more on the network of local producers. Under a regional food system, people start eating seasonally, food travels shorter distances, economic opportunity is increased for current and aspiring farms, more local food enters the market and money circulates locally for stronger economies.

Even in the short-term, CSA’s and farmers’ markets are limiting. They preclude new, small farms from starting because a community can only support so many CSA’s and farmers’ markets. And the CSA buying model doesn’t work for every consumer. Likewise, having more farmers’ markets isn’t the answer either. Getting more food into the marketplace is. Plus, more farmers’ markets only happen by taking farmers off their farm. With farmers off their farms, who’s on the farm growing the food? Food hubs open up new markets for farmers so they can stay on the farm and invest more into their land and craft.

A regional food hub takes advantage of local food production and links farmers to marketplaces. They do more than just represent farmers and connect them to buyers, but aggregate the harvest of multiple farms. Most food distributors want to fulfill orders from one farm but a food hub pulls the resources of many to fulfill orders. It’s not only an economic benefit for the farmer but more local, ecologically grown food for the community.

By supporting a regional food system and the aggregation efforts of a food hub, consumers are advocating for what CSA truly stands for, “community supported agriculture.” Even though the two have become synonymous, CSA does not stand for “weekly-box of veggies.” If we want to support local farms, we need to support infrastructure.

By connecting consumers with where their food comes from, food hubs educate the public about the importance of sustainable agriculture and the ripple effect of buying local. In addition to brokerage services, food hubs often serve as a “hub” for many other food-related issues including cold storage for other food businesses, commercial kitchen space for specialty food producers, partnerships with food banks, gardening and cooking workshop and retail space for locally produced foods.

It is my belief that all communities need a food hub. If every community was focused on food security and took responsibility for how their food was sourced, we will have fed the world one community at a time. Not every community can grow enough food to feed their residents, but they can establish food policy which advocates for an equitable food system from grower to consumer.

Is there a food hub in your area? Do you think it successfully supports the local agriculture?

Image Credit: Great Lakes Food Hub Network