‘Food hub’ plan will connect farmers to consumers

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2019 10:00:29 PM

When Michael and Lisa Davis moved from New York City to rural Vermont to open a farmstead and creamery in 2012, they had the advantage of a unique product — goat milk gelato — that was creating buzz even before it hit the market. Still, they faced numerous challenges in getting their frozen treats into the hands of consumers.

“Understanding and navigating the complexities of sales and distribution is challenging,” Lisa Davis, co-owner of Sweet Doe Dairy in Chelsea, wrote in an email. “There’s so much innovation going on in food production in our region, we need as much support as we can get.”

Davis was one of about 50 people who attended a forum last week in White River Junction to learn about a new “food hub” taking shape in the Upper Valley. The main idea behind the initiative is to help connect farmers and food producers with people who want to buy their products.

“This is really great for Upper Valley farmers,” said Nancy LaRowe, Valley Food and Farm coordinator for Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization based in White River Junction. “There need to be more market channels open for farmers.”

To that end, Vital Communities has partnered with the Brattleboro-based nonprofit Food Connects to roll out a distribution network designed to match Upper Valley farmers and food producers with buyers in a simple, seamless manner. The organization, which acts as a middleman between farmers and buyers, offers online ordering and invoicing as well as delivery services to wholesalers, retailers and institutions. Its organizers plan to begin operations in the area in about a month.

Operating out of Brattleboro for the time being, the group will start by building partnerships with both producers and buyers and hopes to have a viable network built here by the end of the year, according to Food Connects founder and Executive Director Richard Berkfield. That network will link into established Food Connects’ networks, so that producers have access to a wider range of buyers, and buyers can source from outside the region when needed. For temporary storage space to aggregate products, the organization hopes to partner with Willing Hands, a nonprofit organization in Thetford.

Berkfield said last week’s forum at Piecemeal Pies in White River Junction assured him there’s a need for Food Connects’ services in the Upper Valley.

“It was a really great showing, really exciting ... a lot of very positive conversations and a lot of interest,” Berkfield said. “A lot of these farms and producers have extra capacity. They could be producing more; they could be growing more. ... They need more people buying.”

Locating buyers is an enormous challenge for farmers like Davis, who are often overwhelmed by the daily tasks required just to make their products.

“Even identifying the right people to talk to at a particular outlet or getting samples out to prospective customers can be extraordinarily time consuming, especially for new farms and producers who don’t have the luxury of hiring dedicated staff to pursue those opportunities,” Davis wrote. “Having that kind of support from a local food hub would be transformative for many.”

The transformation won’t happen overnight, however. Food producers’ needs are individualized and varied. Davis, for example, struggles to find distributors who can transport frozen foods to all of her current and prospective buyers.

Buyers have a variety of needs as well, including determining what kinds of products their customers want and keeping their costs under control while fulfilling their mission to source locally.

Berkfield said his organization will work with potential partners — both buyers and sellers — one-on-one to determine what their needs are and how Food Connects can support their current relationships while creating new ones.

“We don’t want to come to the Upper Valley and displace Upper Valley producers,” he said. “It’s really about partnership and finding a win-win-win.”

Meanwhile, other efforts are underway to help food producers navigate challenges that go beyond marketing and distribution. Over the past few years, Vital Communities has been facilitating conversations around a variety of topics related to the “food hub” concept, including a shared storage space and/or commercial kitchen, value-added processing strategies and year-round retail venues.

“This has a lot of tentacles,” LaRowe said.

While farmers and food producers need such tangible resources as distribution services, they also need guidance and support in getting their products to consumers, from ensuring their food meets safety standards to building a social media presence, said Allan Reetz, director of public relations for the Co-op Food Stores.

“Farmers are farmers. They just want to open up the back of the truck and sell their food,” Reetz said. “They say, ‘I need to be farming, and everybody’s telling me I need to have a Facebook page.’ ”

To help them cut through some of the weeds, Reetz has planned a five-week workshop series that addresses some of the key concerns he hears from farmers in his travels. Held each Friday in March from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Lebanon Co-op, the workshops will tackle topics including financing, direct selling, social media, hiring practices and food safety.

The idea, Reetz said, is to provide quick-hit guidance as well as access to the industry experts who are running the sessions. The workshops will be split into morning and afternoon sessions, and registration for each session is $5.

“If I can make the farmer’s life easier, whether it’s a Facebook page or whether it’s making sure they’re cleaning their work surfaces properly, I want to do that,” Reetz said. “I like to think of this series as taking daunting tasks and making them do-able.”

To register for the Co-op workshop series, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/local-farmer-food-producer-workshops-each-friday-in-march-tickets-55364502718.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.




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