Food hubs link producers to new markets

Food hubs help small-scale growers with business support, expanded customer base, logistics coordination and marketing efforts.

Small-scale producers often find themselves with too many farm tasks and too few hours in a day to sell at farmers markets. Connecting to new buyers through food hubs provides producers another option for marketing their fresh, locally grown food products.

Farmers markets are usually considered the only way that a small-scale producer can connect with buyers who seek local, fresh produce, eggs, dairy and meat products. Depending on the scale of the farm, he or she may have limited time to staff a market given the pressures of growing a particular crop such as weeding, irrigating, scouting for pests, harvesting, washing and all of the other tasks of getting a crop to market. Trucking to multiple wholesale buyers or restaurants can also be both time and resource consuming.

The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) recognize these challenges to small-scale producers. The USDA is actively promoting the creation of food hubs through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative to provide producers and buyers with new options.

A food hub, according to the USDA, is “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.” The food hub model consists of a physical place where multiple farmers can drop off their goods as well as a pick-up point for wholesale and/or retail buyers. The hub provides business support, logistics coordination and marketing for the aggregated supply of food products. Food might even be minimally processed, packed or stored at the hub. Some hubs serve as a community space for the delivery of health and social programs as well as community kitchen space, and offices for supportive agencies and organizations such as food pantries.

Food hub development in Michigan is being promoted by MDARD and the soon-to-be announced Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University will assist.

In preliminary findings of a survey of 72 food hubs nationwide, the USDA discovered that entrepreneurs took the organizing lead in establishing 40% of food hubs. Sixty percent of the food hubs received government funding to begin operations. The most frequently cited services of the food hubs surveyed were distribution, aggregation, wholesale sales to consumers, product storage and retail sales to customers.

Food hubs do not replace farmers markets. Many buyers continue seek out a personal connection with the person who grows their food and farmers markets facilitate these relationships. For the producers who find themselves with too little time left to spend at farmers markets, the opportunity to connect to new markets through food hubs deserves thoughtful consideration.

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