Next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wallace Center, Winrock International knows more about food hubs than any other organization in the country. One program of the Center is the National Good Food Network which regularly holds webinars about food hubs. The USDA often supports the Wallace Center in its research and workshops on food hubs.
Understandably, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission was thrilled to co-sponsor a workshop held at The Vineyards at Dodon last week with the Wallace Center for emerging food hubs appropriately titled “Emerging and Early Stage Food Hub Development Workshop.” Joining us were representatives from Chesapeake Harvest, Miltons Local, South Central PA, Community FARE, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Chesapeake Farm to Table and Garrett Growers Cooperative, Inc.
As expected, the Wallace Center provided a plethora of information about food hubs. However, the focus of the workshop was a facilitated discussion about what works and what doesn’t and participants had the opportunity to ask the tough questions.
Attendees were excited to be able to discuss food hub formation with Haile Johnston, co-founder of Common Market, a non-profit located in Philadelphia. It operates in the black. This year, they expect to sell $3 million in food. His hope is to enable new food hubs to succeed in half the time and with half the problems that new food hubs typically face.
Food hubs are often considered as more than just aggregators and distributors of food. The good ones create a food chain that adds value to participants at every stage. Haile began the discussion with a situation that occurred at the beginning of Common’s Market’s formation. They were at an auction to purchase apples to be distributed to those who could not afford fresh, healthy food. They were thrilled that the auction price was only $4.50 for a bushel of apples and they bought a number of bushels that day. Afterward, they reflected that they may be helping those in need of healthy food, but it was at the expense of farmers who would not earn a living with those prices. They resolved that their non-profit would operate in a fashion that would help producers as well as consumers of all income levels.
From the beginning, Common Market’s market strategy was to sell primarily to the institutional sector, because they didn’t see the competition at that level with the small operations. The largest segment of their sales is to schools (90), hospitals (20), elder cares facilities and cooperatives. They buy from 85 farmers with a very diverse product line, including turkeys, eggs, yogurt, chicken, apples and vegetables. They do not process yet, though they plan to eventually.
They began with one leased truck and now own a fleet of five refrigerated box trucks. All their food is farmer identified. Seventy-five percent of the food comes from within 80 miles of their non-profit and all of it comes from within 200 miles. Meat and eggs are key components. They operate on a 30% blended mark-up. Three times a week they send out an email to farmers with changing prices. They do some speculative buying but 95% of all perishable product is pre-sold.
They see advantages to technology but they also see the advantages to human interaction. Their buyers are able to gauge producers’ and distributors’ issues and concerns as they negotiate deals. Their truck drivers get to know both the farmers and the buyers so that they can monitor and build relationships.
A point that Haile came back to numerous times is that “Relationships are paramount across the food chain!” That was a notion that resonated with attendees.