The Food Hub Dilemma (or what we mean when we say we support local farmers)

The hoop houses outside The Good Acre // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

The hoop houses outside The Good Acre // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

What’s the best way to support a local farmer? Buying their product, obviously, that much is clear. But how? And where?

I’ve been providing mostly scattershot support for my farmer-neighbors. I eat at restaurants known to feature their products. I browse farmers’ markets and have a CSA share. I try to eat with the seasons, and eat less food that’s been flown in from a hemisphere away. But I wield these strategies like shots in the dark. Surely, my support is being felt somehow, I hope, not really knowing if it is. Am I doing any actual good? Will these efforts help change anything?

These questions dog me as I stare down the walk-in coolers at The Good Acre in Falcon Heights. These are the very hub of the “food hub”—where the harvest from many small farms can be amalgamated and stored, and then shipped out in large quantities together.

Food hubs like The Good Acre are one solution to the problem of scale at small farms, which don’t produce at the volume necessary to work with most wholesale distributors. A husband and wife on a small farm can’t grow enough broccoli in a year to satisfy a chain of regional grocery stores for a week. And grocery stores would rather work with a single supplier that can deliver all the broccoli (and other produce) they need, in a single shipment, every week of the year.

Chard is unloaded at The Good Acre // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Shut out of large institutions like hospitals, schools, and mega-retailers, small farmers are forced to truck their produce to the farmers’ market at 3am to hand-sell every bulb of garlic to the minuscule swath of the population that wakes up early on a Saturday to shop for local garlic.

“It’s just too difficult for farmers to go to multiple markets and compete, and pay fees, and have tents, and tables, and do their own marketing,” says Nikki Warner, marketing manager for The Good Acre. “Farmers are not necessarily the best salespeople. That’s the beauty of a food hub. We allow farmers to do what they do best—be stewards of the land.”

The work being done by The Good Acre and other food hubs around the state is noble and well intentioned. The food hub model seeks to empower farmers by providing training and market access, and bolster an alternative system of food distribution—one that prioritizes fair wages and sustainable practices, one that has the health of local communities at its very core.

It’s also a model that, as it stands, is not great at turning a profit.

Chives ready for the Good Acre’s CSA // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

A food hub is forced to shoulder a lot of costs. Food hubs want to pay farmers fairly, but they have to turn around and sell that produce at a competitive price, all while paying for huge walk-in coolers and the rest of the hub’s infrastructure. It costs money to nurture these small farms—to teach them how to grow uniformly enough for wholesale and institute the latest food safety requirements—in addition to the normal wholesale costs of sorting, packing, and delivering produce. This is why many food hubs, like The Good Acre, are incorporated as nonprofits, buoyed by public grant money and private foundation support.

Even though it’s a lot of work to corral and combine these multiple harvests, that may actually be the easy part of running a food hub. The real work is finding huge wholesale accounts to buy all this produce.

Take schools as a fine example. The lunch services staff probably aren’t trained in scratch cooking. The person buying the food probably has a budget stretched thin. And the third-graders sure don’t care if they’re eating locally grown sweet potatoes. So what’s a school’s incentive to buy local?

Or take other big institutions. You’re probably not thinking about the provenance of the cucumbers in your salad as you’re convalescing in Intensive Care. Or when was the last time you asked the staff at the airport sandwich shop where their tomatoes come from?

More to the point: when was the last time you asked where any of your food comes from?

The sorting floor at The Good Acre // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

“The wholesale people we’re pitching have to decide that farmers getting paid a fair wage for the food they grow—that’s sustainable food that’s not trucked in from half-way across the country, that’s fresher, and more nutritious—is worth it,” Warner says. “It’s a tough sell. And it shouldn’t be.”

The Good Acre has been fortunate to find some schools and hospital groups that value local produce, but those are the exceptions to the rule. It remains a hard sell because the public doesn’t demand local foods from these groups. The interest in supporting local farms might be there, but demand is something very different. Demand is when we put money where our mouth is.

The farmers certainly bear responsibility for feeling out the market—after all, there’s no sense in growing tons of sustainable produce without a clear plan to sell it. Food hubs know that the only Apple that generates its own demand is in Cupertino, California, so they make a point of matching the market’s demands to a farmer’s capability early in the season.

“We’re all growing the same things in this area and the market can only handle so much of it,” says Tom Rodmyre, warehouse manager for Co-Op Partners, who supplies local produce to co-ops and health foods stores in five states. “So we reach out to farms starting in January and February, reaching out about what they’re thinking of growing, and we talk to them about what our needs are going to be.”

Then they’ll work with the farmers to anticipate a volume and set a price—a skill that a wholesaler like Co-Op Partners is very good at. (They’re often lumped in with area “food hubs” but they’re much larger and, not exclusively working with local produce, more akin to a traditional wholesaler.) And it should tell you everything you need to know about the market for local food when a traditional wholesaler can’t make the numbers work on local produce alone.

Walk-in coolers: The hub of the food hub // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Food hubs can be a successful model, and a worthy addition to our food system as a whole, but it’s imperative for food hubs to diversify their sources of revenue to stay afloat. The Good Acre runs a CSA, rents out space in their coolers, and has a commercial kitchen space to rent out to small food companies and hold cooking classes. Co-Op Partners has a “cross-docking” program where they deliver local meats and other artisan products to co-ops for a small handling fee.

But in their quest to support local farmers, food hubs find themselves navigating through and hoping to change a multi-faceted food system—one that is highly competitive, saturated, and professional. Despite processing an incredible volume of food on terribly slim margins, our food system is broken, says the progressive party line. We overproduce, exploit farm workers, and don’t pay farmers enough. We subsidize unhealthy crops while making it harder for people to farm the right way.

That may all be true, but here’s the problem: the food system isn’t “broken” like an appliance might break. It’s quite the opposite—it’s doing exactly what we’ve asked it to do. If the public suddenly demanded nothing but local, organic produce, our food system would turn on a dime to make it happen. What it won’t do, however, is rearrange a multi billion-dollar industry to the tune of lip service. We can’t ask them to be thought leaders on their own dime.

For local food to truly grow, for those family farms to be secure in the future, they need much greater wholesale reach. For that, we need to demand that institutional buyers support the same people that we say we do. It may go against every non-confrontational-Minnesotan fiber of your being to stand up at a PTA meeting and ask for changes to your kid’s school lunches. But in truth, that could do a world more good for your farmer-neighbors than buying a $3 quart of tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Back on the sorting floor at The Good Acre, I watch a manager and a few volunteers go over the finer points of a cucumber, and pecks of jalapenos are tumbled onto the sorting tables. On the loading dock, Hoch Orchard arrives with the first of the year’s apple harvest and buckets of dahlias appear from Flower Child Farm. Over in the kitchens, Fierce Ferments is breaking down cabbage for sauerkraut and Spruce Soda is carbonating their pony kegs.

There’s a diverse and dynamic group of sustainable farmers and purveyors ready to deliver local produce to every sector of our society. The question is, will we ever ask them to?

Peppers growing in the hoop house outside The Good Acre // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Peppers growing in the hoop house outside The Good Acre // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.