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Understanding regional food hubs

Bridging the gap in the local food system

By AMY HOGUE

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From Sept/Oct 2014

The demand for local food is growing fast in Canada, providing small farmers with the perfect opportunity to secure their piece of a burgeoning market.? Unfortunately, although many farmers may have expanded beyond farm-direct marketing sources like farmer’s markets and CSAs, they remain challenged by the lack of appropriately scaled distribution and processing infrastructure (abattoirs, processing facilities, small-scale trucking) that would allow them access to larger markets.

Enter the local food hub; the interconnecting link between producers and consumers that works in conjunction with existing food infrastructure to provide small farmers with access to a market they would normally have difficulty breaching.

?So what exactly is a food hub?

Although every food hub is unique, as it responds to the producers and needs specific to its region, all food hubs strive to promote production growth, support farmers, make local food accessible to larger markets and stimulate economic growth.

The United States National Food Hub Collaboration defines a food hub 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.”

In essence, food hubs provide the physical connections between small scale production and a larger market. This enables small farmers to expand production and pool resources with other farmers to reach a greater production capacity and enter a larger, more stable market than they could otherwise be able to infiltrate.

Some food hubs provide oversight only, or coordinate services online, while others are located in a bricks and mortar structure with a governing board and multiple employees. A food hub can be non-profit, co-operative or operate under a standard for-profit business model.

There’s no right or wrong format for a food hub; it’s up to the founders to create an entity that makes sense for the communities it will end up serving.

Food hub challenges

Even a successful food hub will encounter many hurdles, the biggest of which often includes defining their business model, identifying the specific needs of their region, locating a suitable location and sourcing funding.

A food hub’s business model can cover everything from governance structure to economic model, mandate and financial forecasting.? Some examples of business models include farm to business (or institution), farm to consumer or a hybrid of both models. The chosen governance structure of a hub can have a tremendous impact on its success.

A successful hub must also accurately evaluate and identify what is missing in their specific local food infrastructure and then determine how best to fill that need. This evaluation will determine what services their hub will include, such as shipping, food processing, freezing facilities, aggregation etc., which in turn will determine what type of a facility they will require in order to offer those services.

Typical facility options include storage space, level loading docks, processing kitchens, freezers, refrigeration and sufficient interior space.? Some hubs will also look at locations with an outdoor space suitable for gardening or small-scale farming.

As always, funding remains the largest obstacle to any grass-roots initiative. Finding funding can become challenging, but funding sources should be identified immediately to ensure the background work in setting up a hub will not have been for nothing.

A food hub doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel; research into what has worked for other hubs, how they overcame their obstacles and what their final model looks like can go far in making the process go much smoother.

The U.S. and food hubs – two success stories

Although slow to make a presence in Canada, food hubs have been flourishing in one form or another in the United States for decades. With more than 200 food hubs currently operating in the U.S., they are years ahead of Canada in innovation and setting the stage for developing local food growth. Fortunately for Canadians, the U.S. food hubs have broken ground on a complex concept, giving Canadians the opportunity to benefit from their experiences.

Two Vermont food hub, Intervale Food Hub and Mad River Food Hub (MRFH), have created successful business models offering completely different views on what a food hub can look like. The Intervale Food Hub, located in Burlington, Vermont, functions as an Intervale Center enterprise and is a shining example of what a successful local food hub can look like.

Started in the 1980s, Intervale Center has had more than 20 years to overcome challenges and evolve into a successful business model. Located on 350 acres in the center of Burlington, it operates on a direct to consumer model, similar to a single-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise.

Intervale Food Hub serves as an aggregation and distribution point for more than 40 regional farmers, distributing to 50 drop-off sites. Unlike many CSAs, Intervale operates year-round, sourcing far more than just vegetables for its members, including meats, cheeses and even fish.

“Our big goal is to have people trying new vegetables, pushing their comfort zone,” Kendall Frost, Intervale Centre’s Marketing and Outreach Coordinator explained, “We’re pushing the boundaries of a CSA….we want to help farmers have a stable market.”

Intervale Food Hub is a good example of a CSA-type hub, but there are other regional food hub models operating in the U.S.? At the other end of the spectrum, the Mad River Food Hub (MRFH), located in Waitsfield, Vermont, is a food hub whose model looks completely different than Intervale’s.

Robin Morris, founder and owner of the MRFH, which opened in 2011, currently utilizes 4,000 square feet comprised of three processing rooms, as well as cold and dry storage. His facility is currently?functioning at 60 per cent capacity and is utilized by more than 50 independent businesses.

Unlike Intervale, which bases its focus on local food awareness and distribution, Robin focuses his business on value-added processing and business incubation.? This is of particular value in regions with a short growing season where food must be processed to allow for year round consumption.

Robin credits the success of MRFH to “being innovative and applying new solutions to the rules.” For example, not long after the facility became operational, Robin deduced there was also a need to access larger markets, which would require trucking.?He began looking for someone who already owned a truck that the MRFH could work with to distribute other local products.

“We looked for people who had trucks locally, but what we found were three organizations who needed a truck,” Robin explained.

He went on to add that the next logical step was for the hub to purchase a refrigerator truck and offer shipping as another service to their clients, a decision that has impacted the success of the facility.?“Now we’re not only?delivering?products, but we’re also?back-hauling?produce and meat carcasses for processing.”

Robin identified the specific challenges he faced while forming the MRFH as mostly administrative, creating a sustainable business plan and navigating state and federal meat processing regulations to allow for a shared facility, not to mention the ever-present challenge to creating a sustainable food system, finding the initial funding.

Food hubs in Canada?

Canada may be behind the curve in terms of establishing regional food hubs, but they are by no means out of the game. New federal and provincial legislations, namely the Growing Forward 2 program, a combined federal, provincial and territorial funding program, have included in their focus opportunities for the establishment of regional food hubs.

In addition to funding potential, other national players have expressed an interest in food hubs. Food Secure Canada, a pan-Canadian alliance of organizations focused on advancing food security and sovereignty, recently formed a Food Hubs Working Group, as a forum for the exchange of information and collaboration for food hubs across Canada.

Abra Brynne, Food Secure Canada Program Manager, is optimistic about the future of food hubs in Canada, and said there’s been a good response to the Food Hub Working Group.? “It’s startling to discover how many people across Canada are thinking of starting a food hub.”

There are currently regional food hubs in the exploration phase in varying regions across Canada. With these new projects cropping up in our communities, it is surely only a matter of time before Canadian farmers will be able to avail themselves of the benefits of a regional food hub in their community.

MRFH owner, Robin Morris, said it best:? “We’re stronger as a group than we are as individuals.”

 

Defining local

One of the biggest points of controversy in the local food debate is undeniably the definition of local.? What is local?? Is it regional?? Provincial?? Does it apply to a certain travel distance from your home?? And what is that distance; 100 kilometres?? 200 kilometres? The answers to these questions can have a tremendous impact on the viability of a local food economy; and the reality is, there are no easy answers.

By necessity, one of the first orders of business for a burgeoning local food hub is setting the boundaries and scope of its “local” market.? This is important, as setting their boundaries will firstly establish restrictions on where they will access local foods from and distribute to, and secondly allow for the creation of neighbouring food hubs that can work alongside their hub without infringing on their market.

Defining local is a slippery topic, and one that will continue to become a central agricultural debate in the coming years…food hubs are just helping put the spotlight on a difficult subject.

 

Food hub services

Some of the typical services provided by food hubs include:

  • Distribution
  • Aggregation
  • Incubator farming
  • Inspected facility
  • Branding and marketing
  • Packaging and repacking
  • Processing (cutting, freezing, smoking)
  • Linking producers and buyers
  • Transportation, on-farm pick up
  • Production and postharvest handling and training
  • Business management services and guidance
  • Value-added product development
  • Insurance

Incubator farms
The missing link in local food economies

The combination of an aging Canadian population and the gradual decline in the number of new farmers means that encouraging farming as a form of employment is crucial to the continued growth of agriculture in Canada.

Fortunately, incubator farming is another service offered by many food hubs, providing on-site land, infrastructure, resources, equipment and mentorship to those considering entering into farming.

Intervale Center’s Incubator Farm Program is often cited as a successful case study in incubator farming, and operates on a five year cycle; in the first three years, farmers pay only 80 per cent of the space rental rate, and in years four and five, move into a mentoring capacity, providing assistance to other new farmers.

Intervale Center’s Development Assistant, Chelsea Frisbee, explained that incubator farming offers prospective farmers the opportunity to explore farming with little to no financial risk to determine if it’s a good fit.? “There have been a lot of great success stories,” Chelsea said of the Intervale program, “and some farms who decided not to get into farming…and that’s a success, too.”

 

For more information

USDA Regional Food Hub Resource Guide

National Good Food Network – bóng đá trực tuyến www.ngfn.org

Food Secure Canada – www.foodsecurecanada.org

Mad River Food Hub – www.madriverfoodhub.com

Intervale Food Hub – http://www.intervale.org