Few people in the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County area are so oblivious to insinuate that farmers are not hard-working people.
For many farmers, the amount of sunlit hours during the day, whatever that number may be, is never enough. After care, cultivation, maintenance and harvesting of whatever product is being farmed, few farmers receive the opportunity to enjoy much, if any, leisure time.
However, what few outside of the business of farming realize is that once a product is harvested and ready to consume, the farmer's job is still not complete.
The most delicious strawberries or the most tender beef cattle mean absolutely nothing to a farmer unless that farmer has an efficient and reliable method of moving products from their farm to the consumer's table.
Currently, grocery stores serve as the medium of choice for most consumers when looking for food to put on the dinner table. While grocery stores are a reliable place for consumers to find food, more often than not grocery stores do not contract with local farms, which means that food is being shipped from far away.
Some farmers find small shops located on their farms and off-site farmers markets to be a good vehicle for moving product from farm to table. However, farmers markets still have their drawbacks.
The question remains: what is the best method for farmers to move product from the farm to the marketplace? At this current time, many farmers are suggesting that cooperative-owned food hubs may be the answer.
WHAT IS A FOOD HUB?
Food hubs are innovative business models emerging across the country, specifically to provide infrastructure support to farmers.
According to Kathleen Merrigan, the U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture, "while food hubs are a nascent industry and many operational food hubs are less than five years old, they are based on a time-proven business model of strategic partnerships with farmers, distributors, aggregators, buyers and others all along the supply chain. The models rely on cooperation instead of competition and ensure that the regional small and midsize producers get access to the infrastructure they need."
FOOD HUBS: NOT FARMERS MARKETS
According to Farm Aid, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep family farmers on their land, there are limitations to farmers markets that keep them from satisfying the needs of places as wide-spread as Chautauqua and Cattaraugus county.
While farmers markets are a great way to purchase produce with straight-from-the-farm freshness, farmers markets are limited by time, size and the proximity of both farmers and consumers to that farmers market. Few people are willing to drive 50 miles to a farmers market when produce is available at a grocery store a half-mile away, regardless of the quality of produce at the farmers market.
According to Farm Aid, "farmers markets can only reach so many people. Despite the tremendous growth in the number of farmers markets nationwide - they've grown by 250 percent in the last 15 years - direct markets account for just .4 percent of total U.S. agricultural sales. We're still far away from transforming our food system so that everyone has access to the most healthful, freshest food possible while also supporting our nation's family farmers."
Where farmers markets are an aggregation of different farmers selling different products all in the same place, the difference lies in the fact that food hubs allow farmers to work in cooperation with each other, rather than in competition.
Regardless of how much cooperation with each other farmers have when setting up farmers markets, it could be reasoned that those selling at farmers markets are still in competition with each other. Food hubs give local farms the opportunity to work in concert with each other rather than against each other, promoting an entire region of agriculture rather than individual farms.
A TYPE OF FOOD HUB FOR EVERY OCCASION
In general, food hubs are broadly defined as facilities that manage the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution or marketing of locally and regionally produced food. They fulfill from one to all of the aforementioned functions and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Most food hubs serve as a drop-off point for several farms in a region and a pick-up point for distribution streams and customers who want to buy food they can be sure came from local and regional family farmers.
Food hubs often provide a management team that coordinates supply chain logistics, including finding new markets for producers and coordinating distributors, processors and buyers.
Some food hubs have permanent facilities that offer equipment for food to be stored, processed, packed and even sold under a shared label. Some also offer technical and business planning assistance for farmers.
A key element to the food hub model is that they're based on cooperation. According to Merrigan, "producers are helping producers, processors and helping processors and distributors are helping distributors."
Merrigan said she is hopeful about the future of food hubs and that food hubs, "are not a flash in the pan. They are incredibly innovative business models specifically addressing some of our producers' most overwhelming challenges."
BENEFITS OF FOOD HUBS
As of April 2011, the United States had 100 operating food hubs. Locally, Good Food Collective-Head Water Foods Inc. is a food hub which operates out of Rochester and Growing Green Mobile Market operates in Buffalo, however neither Chautauqua nor Cattaraugus County has an established food hub.
New food hubs are establishing themselves on a monthly basis. More communities are seeing the benefits of direct markets like food hubs and want to bring family farm food to more people in their areas.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food hubs create several benefits for the communities it serves. Food hubs:
Create economic opportunities and add jobs;
Provide new market opportunities for family farmers, helping them access wholesale markets they normally wouldn't be able to reach;
Help to bring fresh, local food products to rural communities and urban neighborhood where healthy, affordable food is generally difficult to obtain.
FEASIBILITY OF FOOD HUBS IN CHAUTAUQUA AND CATTARAUGUS
Proposals for a food hub in Chautauqua county date back to around the beginning of 2011. Currently, a discussion paper regarding the desire to bring a food hub to Chautauqua has been drafted by an interested team of stakeholders.
In the paper, the stakeholders list the following as the main purposes a local food hub would satisfy:
Move local foods from fields to restaurants, institutions, grocery stores, food pantries and homes;
Assist in the development of value-added businesses through an inspected shared-use kitchen and by providing business training;
Retail Chautauqua Region branded local foods from a specialty food store directly to tourists and residents.
Educate the public about cooking and preserving foods in the demonstration kitchen;
Create jobs for local people;
Train for employment in food and agricultural systems;
Market Chautauqua County as a place to visit, live and conduct business;
Act as an anchor for retail development.
Furthermore, the stakeholders claim that the food hub would have three positive impacts upon Chautauqua County and the surrounding area.
Chautauqua County's small family farms allow the community residents access to a variety of local foods. However, there is a significant population that is without ability to purchase directly from a farm through lack of transportation or lack of financial means.
There are three USDA-designated "food desert" areas in Chautauqua County, which indicates that the health of these communities is affected by an inability to access fresh foods. Schools, institutions and hospital cafeterias are unable to purchase local produce because of the scale of our individual farms and lack of staffing to process raw fruits, vegetables, and other farm-raised products. The food hub would be a catalyst for expanding awareness of local food purchasing opportunities. By moving fresh produce that is healthier and more nutrition to underserved populations and to institutional cafeterias, the food hub would improve the health of the community.
Sixty percent of Chautauqua County's land area is rated as prime farmland. One-quarter of the land area is in agricultural use.
In recent years, farmland has been sold off and gone to other uses. Increased demand for local agricultural products can help to forestall that trend and ensure that better soils will be available for farming. Retaining the value of farmland and best management practices in agriculture can help to ensure a healthy balance between land uses.
Farmers in Chautauqua County would like to market their high-quality fresh produce and products to wholesale channels such as schools, institutions and restaurants, but find that the size of their business individually cannot adequately meet these needs.
Further, state and federal regulations and cost of equipment prevent farms from processing their products on-site. Through the food hub, farms and access these markets and can successfully focus on scaling up and producing high-quality foods. Additionally, several empirical studies suggest that local foods systems have a positive impact on local economic activity through "import substitution" and localization of processing activities.
The food hub would employ local people to carry out the daily functions of the center and would incorporate workforce development and training in retail, food preparation and agriculture.
Furthermore, additional revenue to the county would be achieved through the tourism aspect of the visitor's center.
The food hub would be located near a high-volume traffic area. Once visitors purchase locally grown and processed products at the center, they would also learn about the exciting things there are to do in Chautauqua County, potentially extending their stay.
Furthermore, the food hub and visitors' center could act as an "anchor" for further retail-type development in the vicinity of the food hub and visitors' center.
KATHY HOCHUL SUPPORTS FOOD HUBS
On June 7, U.S. Representative Kathy Hochul, D--26th, sent a letter to New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine urging him to locate food hubs in the 26th district. Although Chautauqua is currently in New York's 27th district, we share many geographical similarities with Hochul's district. Much of what Hochul said could easily be applied to Chautauqua.
Hochul's letter reads:
It has come to my attention that New York State is considering the development of several food hub centers across upstate New York. I strongly encourage you to consider the placement and development of food hubs in one or more of the counties located in the 26th congressional district. Agricultural production forms the backbone of the rural economy in my district, where there are nearly 3,500 farms with an annual output of over $739 million. The establishment of food hubs will improve the flow of products to urban areas within the state.
As I am sure you are aware, according to the United States Department of Agriculture many agricultural producers, especially small and midsized growers, face significant challenges when it comes to aggregation, distribution, processing, storage and marketing of their products. By being the central coordinator of supply chain logistics, food hubs offer a variety of services that benefit small and midsize producers. For instance, food hubs can aggregate local produce from many small farmers into orders to satisfy the requirements of large buyers for source-identified locally and regionally grown food.
Fruit cultivated from orchards along the shores of Lake Ontario, vegetables grown in the fertile soils of our mucklands and nutritious dairy products yielded from our herds are examples of the high quality and diverse agricultural products that come from the breadbasket of New York. We must protect this critical sector of our economy and do everything within our power to develop New York State's agriculture industry to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
And even though Hochul's letter requests food hub placement in the 26th district, the success of nearby food hubs could expedite the process of bringing a food hub to Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. Over the next few years, the addition of a food hub in the area will be a topic which is discussed by news sources to a greater extent.