Low Hanging Fruit-The Food Hub Foundation
by Jody Hardin
The lowest hanging fruit seems the most likely to be harvested, right?
Many new opportunities are awaiting harvest as the niche market for local, sustainably-produced foods continues to expand as one of the fastest growing sectors of our national economy. When you combine this growing opportunity with the growing demand for on-farm attractions and agri-tourism, the opportunities surrounding this growing niche market seem more and more exciting as a farmer, economist, and entrepreneur who lives and breathes this every day.
On the other hand, central Arkansas, like other parts of the country, has seen unprecedented growth in new Outdoor and Internet-based Farmers’ Markets, new Community Supported Agriculture programs, Local Food Festivals, Buying Clubs, U-pick Farms, Value-added products, etc. With this growth, there have been severe burdens placed on the small farmer in terms of new demands, governmental policies, and global environmental changes, that if not remedied, will soon crush the whole local food movement. Simply put, there is demand for local foods, but we, as farmers, do not have the necessary tools and leadership to make the potentially huge health and economic impact on our state that we think we can achieve.
In my mind’s eye, the impact of this move to be more sustainable by Americans is a paradigm shift that ultimately explains some of the currently unexplained dynamics of our ongoing economic recession. Perhaps it’s just a small group of people that are becoming to some small degree LESS consumption-based as families; however, I believe this is having some impact on the overall economy. But, are we seeing some of this food dollar going back into rural Arkansas? If so, it’s only a small trickle compared to the relative decline that our communities have experienced within their city limits and surrounding food sheds. People once grew much of their own food or relied upon local farmers, but now they rely on McDonald’s and Wal-Mart for their main sustenance. For those who think people aren’t smart enough to eventually figure this out on their own and continue to reconnect with our old ways of food production, they may be sadly mistaken. The numbers speak for themselves, but it seems only a few farmers and businesses have this understanding, and can see this grassroots movement in food dollars being redirected back into small communities and the small farms that serve them.
It would be fair to say that a growing percentage of consumers are buying with higher standards, and are shifting some of their purchases and menu selections to local food. It would also be fair to say that, as families reconnect with how and who grew their food, they become more mindful of eating a healthy diet and spending their food dollar in the local economy. Additionally, as children are exposed to more varieties of fruits and vegetables, their interest and corresponding education create more intelligent consumers that can discern good food choices from bad. Perhaps it would be fair to say that a healthy child will grow into a healthier adult, and in a larger sense, place less of a burden on the existing healthcare infrastructure.
Economically speaking, a fairly recent study commissioned by Heifer International concluded that Arkansan’s exported $8 billion in food dollars out of state each year. According to our best guess, less than five percent of what is purchased by residents in the state of Arkansas is grown in Arkansas. Some have guessed that fresh fruits and vegetables account for less than one percent of the Arkansans’ annual food budget. The opportunities for growth are mind boggling, but I’m beginning to uncover the many evil bottlenecks our farmers and consumers face trying to affect change in our local food system.
Through my relatively extensive network in the local food and agriculture world in Arkansas and, more recently, the nation, I have seen the multitude of problems that our state faces first hand. And, after taking several years to painfully boil them down, I am now supremely confident we can do something that will impact everyone in our state, and significantly alter the economic outcome of small communities and the many small acreage farmers in Arkansas.
This will be no small task. We must understand the problems and opportunities, as well as the risks. We will need to look outside our borders for working models, and we must quickly convince our state’s leadership that local food policy means big bucks for our state; all we need are a few infrastructure projects to come together with the markets and capital needed to reach new and existing customers.
Initially, our state needs to organize these markets, and it needs to give them credibility by creating a “Certified Arkansas” program, so that each farmer is source-verified by a rigorous inspection system that would allow him or her to sell at any Certified Arkansas Farmers Market that will be developed strategically around the state. Furthermore, as we crank up this economic engine and significant amounts of money and opportunity begin to flow from local food, impostors will attempt to enter with illegitimate products. Impostors with illegitimate products and those producing food unfairly within a farmers’ market serve as one of the most dangerous catalyst to the quick demise of a local farmers’ market. This must be considered before we make the first step.
The types of markets I’m proposing are not community-based farmers’ markets. These have been traditionally called “Terminal Markets” or “Regional Farmers’ Markets.” Some states refer to them as “State Farmers Markets,” as they are often run by the state’s Department of Agriculture and a member board.
Connecting these farmers’ markets to aggregators, processors, distributors, and retailers, is the key factor in this approach to building our infrastructure for Arkansas’ Local Food System. Wholesale local markets, connected with aggregators, processors, distrubutors and marketers, are commonly referred to as Food Hubs. In essence, we want to stay focused on this gluewith an overall mission statement that will drive us collectively, as developers of a statewide local food system that not only organizes food but also food policy and marketing. However, none of this will work in the typical time frame that most new enterprises experience, since new governmental food policies recently imposed on food producers severely limit their ability to access these new markets. Specifically, the Good Agriculture Practices program has put a glass ceiling on the size of the local market due to the additional capital and time investment necessary for farmers trying to comply. It’s foreign to most farmers, and it does not suit their lifestyle without adding some infrastructure and incentives for them to produce in a different way.
Farmers are an interesting group to work with, and must be brought to the table creatively, patiently, and cautiously, even though they are a large part of the reason we are making this proposal. Many don’t want or don’t know how to come into compliance with the many new changes in the Food Safety and Modernization Act and the Tester-Hagan Amendment, which gives small farmers a critical exemption in some areas.
An Arkansas Food Hub is the ultimate infrastructure goal we must aim to achieve, backed by a set of robust and high volume “Certified Arkansas” markets. It would allow a market-based focus on building a new economic engine for our state, and it will act like a floodgate to channel money back into rural economic development through wholesome occupations like family farming.
The lowest hanging fruit, based on the consensus of a few knowledgeable leaders in our community, is the opportunity of Farm-to-Work. Farmers are beginning to realize that in today’s busy world, the best way to reach the consumer during the week is through their work place. Employers are beginning to embrace workplace healthy living products, such as workplace delivery of fresh food and on-campus farmers’ markets.
In Arkansas, we have identified a growing number of large corporate campuses that would be suited for a demonstration Farm-to-Work program. This program is simple and straightforward –if farmers were able to produce the variety and volume needed to make the new program successful. I don’t believe we have this type of ability under the current environment without initially starting out with some planning funds to begin coordinating farmers and their crops to new markets and their unique demands. Nevertheless, we believe that, with a coordinated effort, the lowest hanging fruit that could be harvested first would be to develop a Farm-to-Work program in Little Rock and elsewhere around the state. It can be started with little expense, run independently, and have its own specific mission, while allowing other infrastructure components time to develop on their own, i.e. regional and state sponsored farmers’ markets, mobile farmers’ markets, auction markets, producer cooperatives, csa’s, food clubs, farm-to-school processing, etc. We could plan for the Food Hub to spring from the first Farm-to-Work program facility.
For phase two, I propose that we develop a small fleet of mobile farmers’ markets from the city’s retired CATA buses, brightly wrapped in colorful signage, to go out into underserved communities of Arkansas with the best of what is in season each day. These buses will be managed, serviced, and inventoried by the future Farm-to-Work aggregation and distribution facility based in Little Rock.