Finding Your Food: Regional food hubs connect consumer with food

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS
Peter Martins displays a handful of strawberries at Martin farm on Needam Road in Potsdam.

By: Joleene Moody

When you sit down to eat at any given restaurant in the north country, it’s likely that the vegetables on your plate are not locally produced. In some cases, smaller restaurants buy from local farmers and serve up high-quality produce right in their establishment. Other than that, the fruits and veggies you eat come from far, far away.

    But all of that is about to change.

    Thanks to a Cornell Cooperative Extension pilot project, the farm-to-plate concept could be the next best thing to hit the north country. It would come to the area in the form of a regional food hub. A food hub is an entity that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified local food products to strengthen the farmer’s ability to satisfy wholesale and retail demand.

    “The concept of local food has been gaining momentum,” said Cathy Moore, the agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Jefferson County. “The idea of a food hub is something we’ve been studying for a while, but it grew out of an initiative after Senator Ritchie secured funding from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.”

    The funding secured is $1.64 million dollars and was appropriated to study food metrics to see not only if it makes sense for farmers to grow on a much larger scale, but also to determine what kinds of produce and meats can be produced at high quality and with regularity right here in the north country.

    In September of 2016, staff was secured and the process began.

Peppering the Pilot Project

    On Needham Road in Potsdam, produce farmer Daniel Martin buzzes in and out of the fields, tending to strawberries, lettuce, asparagus and other on-demand produce. Yet the produce one can buy at his farmstand is greater than what he actually grows. This is because he and a handful of other participating farmers work together as a single entity in order to bring to the public a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

    “Martin’s Farmstand is a network of farmers that act as an informal cooperative, but partner on the marketing side of things,” Mr. Martin said. “Between all of us we sell our product at the retail farmstand and wholesale to various local stores and restaurants.”

    They sell on a small scale. But in order to make the food hub project come to fruition, Mr. Martin and other food hub pilot partners need to grow produce on a commercial scale. That means they have to be able to harvest large quantities of high-quality fruits and veggies as needed by local restaurants and other institutions. To prove they’ve got the chops, Mr. Martin and one of his partners, Levi Zook, have planted an additional acre of peppers this season. If all goes well, the crop will yield 50 to100 bushels a week from August until the frost takes the plants in October. After that, they’ll be picked and palleted. That’s where Renzi’s Foodservice comes in.

    “All of the best peppers will go to Renzi’s and they will buy and distribute them,” Ms. Moore said. “Renzi’s will be working to see whether or not their markets benefit from paying a premium price for local produce. We will then review the metrics to look at the overall cost, if the planting and distribution was reasonable, and if the return supported the producer’s bottom line.”

    In a perfect world the pilot will be successful if local producers can produce on a large scale while meeting any specified agricultural requirements. This is why the pepper project is being spawned on Levi Zook’s farm. Mr. Zook holds the necessary GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification needed to commercially grow the peppers. He also has the appropriate space and irrigation water.

    As the peppers grow and the metrics are recorded, Steve Puccia, Renzi’s produce manager, prepares the logistics for when it’s time to ship the local produce. Mr. Puccia recognizes that area schools and restaurants are willing to pay an additional 10 or 15 percent for the locally grown food, but whether or not farmers can produce in large quantities is the real question.

    “Where there could be a struggle is finding growers willing to grow commercially,” he said. “It’s different to grow commercially. Most of the time in this area farmers are growing for farmer’s markets and farm stands. The difference here will be volume. Can they put that kind of volume out?”

    Daniel Martin believes they can.

The Growth of the Local Farmer

    A project of this magnitude won’t see results overnight. Ms. Moore said the food hub pilot project could take at least five years to start to mature. As it does, local farmers will grow in business and benefit in ways they never thought possible.

    “It may not be until the third or fourth year that we get our producers and value- added folks to really buy into this and participate,” she said. “This is a long-term, long-range process that needs to be studied and tested every step of the way.”

    During that time producers will start to change the way they do business. For some, their production habits will shift and they will start to produce product faster. For others, they’ll become more professionalized and GAP-certified to better comply with food laws. And with the help of Cornell Cooperative Extension, they can further develop their tracking and administrative systems so they can focus more on production and less on administrative duties. There is no question that for some, there is a definite learning curve.

    “Part of the reason I’m involved in the pepper project is because we need to have liability insurance to satisfy the wholesale industry. Martin’s Farmstand now provides that ground where the peppers are planted,” Mr. Martin said. “Finding the right policy was a process in and of itself. The insurance turned out to be a bigger issue than I ever imagined.”

    While some farmers learn administrative skills and become GAP-certified, others will look to become certified organic farmers. If the pilot project is successful and the north country becomes a regional food hub, there will be a wide range of markets looking to take in the foods harvested here, including organic products. Right now, there are local producers growing organic, but because becoming certified is a long, expensive process many farmers resist pursuing it. If the pilot program is successful, farmers will see a return on their investment that will allow them to invest in the costly certification.

    Aside from Daniel Martin and his informal co-op, Ms. Moore said that over 30 other producers are participating in the food hub, all of whom act as advisors to Cornell Cooperative Extension. These advisors and farmers range in producers growing pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, various greens, chicken, beef, pork and turkey. Maple products and cheeses are also part of the blueprint.

    The advisors are located on various farms throughout St. Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson and southern Oswego counties. Thanks to their input and sharing of other area producers to add to their network, the probability of a food hub in the north country is looking good. 

    Mr. Martin said, “There’s a continual stream of produce going into all of the stores and restaurants in this area, almost like an interstate highway. Right now most of the local farmers can’t access that highway. It’s rushing past us and we’re just standing behind a fence watching, all the while wanting to put our food on those trucks. But the trucks don’t stop. Yet they would if we had an entrance ramp. The proposed food hub is that entrance ramp.”

Looking Ahead

    For the most part, logistics is the reason why local produce is hard to come by in your local grocery store or restaurant. Cornell Cooperative Extension is the logistical missing link that can make it happen. With that link and a whole lot of additional planting from north country farmers, a food hub is absolutely possible. If and when it comes to fruition, any current food distribution systems will remain intact. As Ms. Moore said, the goal isn’t to make local food cheaper; the goal is to get the farmer a sustainable price for his or her product.

    “We’re not trying to replace typical distribution food systems,” she said. “We need those other systems with a range in cost in order to meet everybody’s needs. What we are trying to do is bring a very high-quality product to this area and other areas. In this way we can also reduce the carbon footprint, eliminate waste, and minimize packaging.”

    Meanwhile, a second pilot project that could move north country produce to New York City wholesale markets is also underway.

    Come 2018, Cornell Cooperative Extension will have a better handle on the direction of the food hub pilot project as the first phase comes full circle. In the meantime, Renzi’s trucks are ready to go. Cathy Moore and her staff will keep adding numbers and fielding data. And Daniel Martin, Levi Zook, and various other farmers will continue to plant. 

    “I would like to see this project work,” Mr. Martin said. “Ten years ago Martin’s Farmstand was a much smaller operation that was predominately retail. We need to have a central point where someone who wants local produce in wholesale quantities can go somewhere in the north country and get it. At this point, only time will tell.”