By Mindy Waite
When the average American thinks about farming, they see picturesque fields, relaxed farmers picking baskets of fresh food, and happy customers browsing at farmers markets. They probably don’t see the amount of time and effort that goes into selling at market, nor do they understand that a market may not produce enough sales to support a farm family.
Of course, farmers have other marketing and distribution options. They can try to sell their product directly to restaurants and institutions (at either retail or wholesale prices), or they can sell wholesale to middlemen such as grocery stores, roadside stands, or even regional distributors. However, the process of marketing and transporting can be time-consuming and frustrating, and it takes the farmer away from food production!
In recent years, this issue of efficient, effective, and consistent distribution has been addressed by regional Food Hubs, which have become popular as a unique, value-driven form of regional distribution. They are unique in that their goal isn’t just to turn a profit, but also to pay fair prices to farmers, make healthy food available to families of all income levels, and provide farm and community services beyond food sales.
In February, I attended a conference on Food Hubs, and Food Hub managers talked about their experiences building their Hubs. Many of these managers pointed out how challenging it is to create a financially viable distribution business while holding strongly to the aforementioned values. They suggested working with already successful distributors before trying to build a Food Hub from the ground up. I thought this was a very interesting idea. What if, instead of putting in the immense amount of time, effort, and money to build a Southern Maryland Food Hub, I could simply connect our farmers with a local distribution company?
So I set about to do just that. I met with a well-known regional distributor who already has local sales in northern Maryland and DC and explained that I wanted Southern Maryland farmers to be included in their system, thereby giving our farmers a new sales outlet. The distributor was very excited about the idea and asked if we would help them identify farms potentially interested in this opportunity. However, the distributor indicated that the farmers needed their own transportation, had to have a reasonable amount of product, and had to be willing to sell wholesale.
So off I went to cheerily call up farmers who had previously indicated a willingness to sell wholesale and who had products of current interest to the distributor. I ended up calling about 12 farms which met the wholesaler’s criteria. Of those farms, three responded positively to my call. The rest either said they were not interested or never called me back. If they said they weren’t interested, it was usually because they did not want to sell wholesale. Of the 3 who were interested, I put them in contact with the distributor, who immediately contacted the farms and started negotiating purchases. I sincerely hope this new marketing relationship eases the stress selling their products and contributes to their farm’s success.
I learned a lot from this experience. I now know that most farms in Southern Maryland are not at this time prepared to sell wholesale. They are not large enough to work with regional for-profit distributors, and they would need time to plan their crops for wholesale markets, assuming they have land, labor, and desire to expand.
This is not unusual. As with other regions, it has been decades since there was an effective food distribution system in place for farmers in Southern Maryland. Despite the huge regional demand for locally-sourced produce, most farmers lack the ability to do it all–grow, market, and transport huge quantities of products for wholesale markets. Other food hubs found that the first step was to work with producers to determine their level of interest and their ability to grow into wholesale markets.
It takes time and patience. To me, this suggests that we need a distribution model tailored to fit our small, medium and large farms and consumer needs. Perhaps we need a value-focused regional distribution operation (i.e., a Food Hub) to be planned in tight collaboration with farmers and consumers to ensure it perfectly meets the needs and uses the strengths of our farm community. I’m not sure what form this operation would take, but SMADC has begun the planning to find out!