Feb 24, 2012
Regional food hubs on the rise with local markets

Mark Coe, manager of the third-generation Calvin Lutz Farm in northwest Michigan, was surprised four years ago when a buyer for Chicago Public Schools went gaga for the farm’s cull peaches.

“They wanted the smaller ones that we don’t sell,” Coe said. “You don’t get anything for peaches smaller than 2.5 inches.”

The fruit’s farm-fresh taste and small size were perfect for school kids, though, and Calvin Lutz Farm discovered a perfect niche for future growth, including the potential for collaborating with neighboring farms that also have wholesale volumes of produce.

The farm now sells fruits and vegetables to five local school districts. It’s also weighing investment in a “regional food hub” to aggregate and process more of its products – and those from neighboring farms – for branded sale to local schools, hospitals, universities and the like.

Economic development

Government and economic development officials are also interested in this idea.

“Food hubs can help the state reach its health and wellness goals by increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. They can also “create new jobs in farming, food processing and other agri-business endeavors.”

Food hubs are emerging across the nation as a way for smaller farms to get in on the burgeoning local food market. Several in development in Michigan, for example, aim to make storage, processing and other facilities available to farms that have sales potential but do not have the resources to add those facilities on their own.

Kim Bayer, coordinator of the startup Washtenaw County Food Hub, said the public-private operation aims to turn the land and facilities now under its management into a destination retail location with wholesale elements, including storage and processing.

“Our goal is to help farms aggregate and scale up to supply schools and hospitals in addition to families and community members,” she said.

One important prospect is the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which has committed to sourcing 20 percent of its food from local producers.

Farm opportunity

Mark Coe, in northern Michigan, said the time is right to invest in hubs.

“We expect this to keep growing,” he said, adding that the local and regional food market is a good fit for Calvin Lutz Farm. The farm now raises 12 acres of market vegetables, in addition to larger-scale orchard production and row crop volumes of asparagus and pickling cucumbers.
“We do this hand in hand with our other commodities; we have the equipment and the labor to expand into local fresh markets.”

But it’s the broad base of farmers and farmland that could be involved that excites Coe and Manistee County’s Alliance for Economic Success, a local agency at the table with Calvin Lutz Farm talking regional food hub specifics.

“It’s about putting together the supply and doing the branding so it can help everybody make a living in this rural area,” Coe said.

More information about regional food hubs is available here. In addition, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity recently published a comprehensive guide for developing food hubs.

By Patty Cantrell, Fair Food Network

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