Like Southern Maryland, the money crop of the farm belt in Southwestern Virginia was tobacco. This region is located far from major consumer markets, but that didn’t matter. Tobacco is a commodity that has a long shelf life and travels easily. Like Southern Maryland, the loss of tobacco had a crippling effect on farmers there in the 1990’s. Farmers wondered what new crop would replace their money crop.

Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) was created to develop new economic opportunities for local farmers. From ASD, a new organic produce distribution company was formed in 2000, Appalachian Harvest. In a March 2012 USDA report, Moving food along the value chain, Adam Diamond and James Barham reported that former tobacco growers currently represent about three-quarters of the 60 farmers involved in the Appalachian Harvest network. The non-profit helps farmers in several ways. First, it educates and mentors farmers on food production and food handling. Second, its employees grade, clean and pack the produce in containers bearing a regional brand that customers seek. Finally, it distributes farm produce into the regional food network.

Quoting USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in her blog post on 4.19.11, “As I talk to farmers across the country, regardless of what they produce or where, they all share one common challenge: how to best move product from the farm to the marketplace. This is especially crucial for small and midsize farmers who may not have enough capital to own their own trucks, their own refrigeration units, or their own warehouse space. They might not have the resources to develop sophisticated distribution routes, build effective marketing campaigns or network with regional buyers and customers.“

According to a May 2010 USDA publication, Local Food Systems, Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, Stephen Martinez et al report that small direct-to-consumer farm operations often can not expand unless they have access to intermediated sales, where local food products pass through one or more intermediate steps in the local food supply chain before reaching the consumer, such as through grocery stores, restaurants, and regional distributors. Appalachian Harvest is fulfilling that need for Southwestern Virginia farmers. Income has grown to $600,000, giving farmers an important outlet for produce that they do not market directly to consumers.

Margaret Lund of Co-opera Consulting and Jim Barham, USDA, presented a webinar in July 2012 entitled Figuring out Food Hubs: Food hubs and their role in healthy food systems. In the webinar, they identified 162 food hubs throughout the country and reported that 17 were formed in 2011 alone. Local Food Hub is another Virginia hub which started in Charlottesville in 2009. Already, it has grown to an estimated $675,000 in annual sales in 2011. According to the webinar, the Charlotte’s Local Food Hub has:

  • reinvested over $850,000 in the local farming community
  • created 15 paid jobs at their distribution and farming operations.
  • helped to retain and support over 200 agriculture-related jobs
  • offered apprenticeships and high-school internships to budding farmers
  • donated more than 100,000 pounds of produce to hunger relief organizations, with 25% of the produce from their own educational farm

Last year, Supermarket News’ summary of the 2011 National Grocers Association Consumer Survey reported that 83 percent of consumers said the presence of local food is “very important” or “somewhat important” in their choice of a food store.  In addition, the number 1 improvement respondents said that they would like to see in their grocery stores is offering more locally sourced food.

Local food hubs are uniquely positioned to fill that need.