Can food hubs boost rural farming economies?

The Department of Agriculture is funding new initiatives to streamline local food systems.

 

Dan Hobbs farms 30 acres of land east of Pueblo, Colorado. For years, he spent weekends traveling hours to farmers markets to sell his produce, always losing a day in the fields and returning home with leftover vegetables that didn’t sell.

Other farmers in the area were facing the same issues, so a local farmer-networking group called the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers decided they had to find a better way to support local food. In 2013, they leased out Excelsior Middle School in nearby Boone, which had sat vacant for two decades. Their idea was to use the building as a community food hub: Local farmers pay a fee to the organization to bring their food to the school building, where it’s sold wholesale at an affordable price for consumers. That way, the hub can compete with chain grocery stores. Instead of traveling to markets every week and advertising their own products, farmers store their surplus in freezers there, and workers at the hub are responsible for marketing, selling and distributing the food to customers, hospitals, and schools in Pueblo and across the region. 

The Excelsior Farmers Exchange now has a chile roaster, seed storage area, and a full commercial kitchen so members can process and prepare food, which allows them an opportunity to expand their product lines. And Hobbs, one of the first farmers to sell there, only has to drive five miles to drop off his produce. To yield a larger amount of crops, he now grows a smaller variety and sells for less than he did at markets, but he crunched the numbers – working with the hub is already paying off. 

Fresh produce is packed up and ready to ship from a food hub.
USDA

Nationally, the demand for local food is far outpacing the supply farmers can provide. As the general public becomes more aware of how distant we are from the farmers who grow what we eat, more organizations are emphasizing local food production as a means to support rural economies. But much of the increased access has been in urban areas; food hubs are one way for rural communities to have access to local food, too. To make it work, however, farmers have to shift growing practices and cooperate with local organizations, and governments may need to provide the physical infrastructure, if local organizations can’t afford to lease on their own like the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers did.

Currently, there are at least 16 food hubs in the works or already functioning across Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado. The Valley Roots Food Hub in the San Luis Valley, for example, has an online market for meats, eggs and produce. They deliver and offer pickup at small distribution centers in Saguache, Salida and Alamosa. The La Montanita food co-op, which has been running community supported agriculture programs for 40 years, now brings together dozens of local vendors in a hub and distributes produce across northern New Mexico.

“A lot of small farms in our region have really been innovators, pioneers and early adopters of things, but they lack volume of production and scale,” Hobbs says.

To help these rural food systems grow, the Department of Agriculture is putting more resources into food hub funding and research, building on older local food initiatives. In the 1990s, it tracked farmers market development, which increased in the 2000s with the agency’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. By 2008, Congress had provided over $10 million to fund direct farmer-to-consumer sales like agrotourism and food cooperatives; and in 2014, amendments to the Farm Bill focused more on local food promotion, aggregation, and distribution. From 2009 to 2015, the department put about $1 billion into 40,000 local food infrastructure projects across the country.

Still, even though the department increasingly spends money on these types of programs, it pales in comparison to how much money they provide for large-scale or industrial farming. “USDA needs to represent all of agriculture,” says John Fisk, director of the Wallace Center, a nonprofit that does regional food development and works with USDA on some local food initiatives. “Is [this] a large investment compared to commodity agriculture or other areas?” he says. “No. But it’s a start.”

To measure the impact of these local food systems, Colorado State University researchers helped the department develop a toolkit to assess the economic effects of local food systems, with guidelines for finance planning, marketing, and public-private partnerships.

The government also funded 10 food hubs across the country that will serve as case studies over the next three years to build out a baseline dataset about the effects food hubs have on rural economies and how they work best. In addition to the fundraising, coordination, and planning efforts they require within communities, they also need to meet certain federal or state standards to be able to scale up their operations. For instance, the Wallace Center is working with USDA to develop a program for hubs to attain food safety certification so they can access larger markets. 

After three years, the Excelsior Farmers Exchange has encouraged Pueblo residents to buy more food locally and helped farmers reach new customers in the region. But food hubs can’t solve all of a community’s food challenges – and they shouldn’t try to. To stay in business, it’s important to choose a goal, says Becca Jablonski, an agricultural economist at CSU. That could be improving profitability for small and mid-scale producers, supporting beginning farmers who want to break into regional markets, or enhancing food access for low-income populations. “Food hubs can take many forms,” she says. “And they should, depending on what the community needs.”  

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial intern at HCN. She tweets