Saturday, March 14, 2009

Building infrastructure and networks to support expansion of local agriculture

A successful local food system is one in which consumers have access to healthy, affordable, locally-grown food, and farmers have reliable and efficient access to markets. Institutions such as hospitals, schools, restaurants, and social service agencies are also able to count on a steady supply of local food. The benefits of such a system include a stronger local economy, improved public health, better land use, and decreased fuel consumption.

A key component of such a system is a “hub” where food can be aggregated and delivered or processed as needed. In Virginia, demand for local food exceeds supply and one of the biggest barriers to increasing the economic sustainability of local agriculture is the lack of infrastructure to distribute farm products efficiently from the farm to the table. Many farmers express a willingness to expand operations but lack an efficient way to get their product to buyers. Institutional buyers, on the other hand, indicate their readiness to buy more local food if supplies are reliably accessible for a reasonable cost. It is most evident that neither farmers nor purchasers favor the time consuming routine of having to deal individually with multiple outlets and/or clients.

The Local Food Hub is an organization that addresses the growing demand for local foods and supports expansion of local agriculture. It provides infrastructure and networking resources currently not available in order to deliver more local farm products efficiently from the farm to the table.

The Local Food Hub incorporates successful elements of established local food system models from the Intervale in Burlington, Vermont, ACENet in Athens, Ohio and ALBA in Salinas, California.

Local Food Hub services include:
· Planning Support for Growers -At the beginning of each season, representatives from the Local Food Hub will hold meetings with buyers and growers. From these meetings, a record of buyer demand is developed, which will inform grower planting and pricing requirements. This guidance will help small farmers develop a working business model.

· Food System Networking -The Local Food Hub will develop a database of organizations and citizens involved in food system issues. It will facilitate community connections in order to accomplish concrete local food system goals by organizing the wealth of citizens' knowledge and enthusiasm for local food. The Local Food Hub will work with local professionals and small farmers to develop sustainable business plans.

· Rentable Refrigeration & Freezer Storage Space -There is demand from farmers and institutions to store additional product that they do not have space for in their facilities. This will help enable volume purchasing and year-round product availability. It will also explore the feasibility of offering an outfitted meat-curing storage unit in order to support value-added cured meat production.

· Liability and Trace-ability Coverage -The Local Food Hub will comply with food safety regulations and offer insurance coverage and clear trace-ability that many larger scale purchasers consider essential.

· Delivery and Consolidation Services -The Local Food Hub will have refrigerated trucks that pick up from farmers at central locations throughout the region. Hub staff will consolidate products and food donations and deliver to buyers and charitable organizations, saving farmers the time and gas it takes to deliver to many small accounts, while at the same time addressing the volume requirements from larger buyers.

· Processing Facilities (Phase 2) -Any acceptable produce that cannot be sold fresh will have the capacity to be preserved through basic cooking or freezing. This will increase the yield potential on farms and get more locally grown food into the food system. A canning, bottling and labeling line to provide full co-packing services is planned.

The timing is right for the Local Food Hub as converging local trends (mirrored nationally), including heightened concern for food safety, growing interest in healthy eating and lifestyles, preference for better tasting and more nutritious foods, and people’s desire to “know where their food comes from” create great economic opportunity.

The financial logic of expanding local production and distribution is clear. It is well known that money spent on local food stays in the economy and has a multiplier effect. Studies show that in areas with strong local markets, the family farm and rural economies are reviving. A 2008 report by the Virginia Cooperative Extension found that more than $50 million would be reinvested in agriculture and local independent businesses in the Thomas Jefferson Planning Region if households in the region spent just $10 a week of their food budget on local food. Currently households spend less than 1% of their household budget on local food.

The Local Food Hub assists in the following Economic Development goals:
· Maintaining a strong and sustainable economy
· Increasing the economic vitality of the area’s rural communities
· Increasing support for agricultural businesses
· Supporting the regional economy
· Increasing residents’ ability to become self-sufficient

The Local Food Hub works aggressively toward these objectives in several ways.
First, the purpose of the Hub is to stimulate the healthy growth of the regional economy through expanded farm productivity and new business formation, in both agricultural and food-related enterprises, along the value chain between growers and end consumers. Second, by expanding markets for regionally produced foods the Hub will help landowners make their land financially productive and fragmentation and development less attractive. Furthermore, Hub activities directly contribute to the self-sufficiency of our community by substituting local foods for imported foods. Finally, people with access to land will be able to supplement money coming into their household by growing food and selling it to the Hub. They will be able to do this with relatively low up front investment and may choose to do it in a part-time or full-time capacity.

In summation, the Local Food Hub addresses many growing concerns of our community. Not only does it help the area’s economic growth by assisting farmers and local businesses, it will enable individual households to supplement their incomes. It will help reduce waste and fuel consumption. The Hub will help enable land conservation and preservation efforts. By de-centralizing the food system, the local food movement and the Local Food Hub will help ensure our area’s food security and our area’s future generations of farmers.

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