Food Hubs: Providing Options for Farmers

By Olivia Harlow, Fall 2015

What is it about buying local that is so special? Some would say it is the freshness of local products, the joy and anticipation of eating with the seasons, or because they can find items that might not normally be in conventional supermarkets. For others, it is having a one-on-one relationship with their farmers that makes buying local such an important part of life, and that holds true for the farmer, too.

Take, for instance, Stephanie Everett of Everett Heritage Farm. Everett grows heirloom vegetables that she sells both at the farmers market and to restaurants in the Chattanooga region. To her, it’s not just about making sales, but about making lasting connections with her customers. “We thoroughly enjoy seeing and talking with our buyers each week. It is fun, and a learning experience for both of us,” she says. “Sometimes a visit from a friendly farmer with beautiful, fresh food can uplift the whole kitchen staff, just the same as a compliment or recipe and new order from a chef can carry a farmer through to the next week.”

Though farmers crave opportunities to connect with buyers through farmers markets and by making personal deliveries to restaurant kitchens, the social aspect is not always timely or convenient. Farming generally requires physically demanding long hours, and the work can be exhausting.  What’s more, because there is no set processing and distribution infrastructure for small farmers, it is oftentimes difficult for local products to reach the public on a broad scale. Chattanooga’s Harvested Here Food Hub, which opened in fall 2014, is providing an alternative to direct sales by serving as a middleman between busy farmers and local eaters in an effort to alleviate stress on farmers when time is slim and work is heavy.

Harvested Here has already partnered with twenty-four farms, offering a variety of services to make marketing and distribution easier for farmers. These services include aggregation and storage, distribution, marketing and sales services, crop planning and product grade packaging; all of this is to help connect farmers to restaurants, retailers and institutionalized kitchens.

“One of the primary benefits [of Harvested Here] is that we are a convenient one stop shop for aggregating and providing local produce to the greater Chattanooga area,” says Whitney Marks, coordinator of sales and marketing for the Harvested Here Food Hub.

All farms that collaborate with this hub are located within a 120-mile radius of the city. The Hub purchases the farm’s products, which are then sold in various markets. For example, Sequatchie Cove Creamery’s cheeses are sold through the Earth Fare Chattanooga grocery store and are utilized in several dishes at restaurants such as the Flying Squirrel, Easy Bistro, and Hennen’s.

“It’s a simplistic way for farms to sell their product without the burden of outside stresses,” Marks says. “Many times farmers don’t want to deal with issues related to storage, marketing, sales and deliveries.”

The many hub responsibilities mesh together to form a simple process for the farmer and an organized agenda for the hub.

After an introductory conversation, hub staff members will visit the farm for an inspection. Once both parties are ready to move forward, a partnership is set in place. The farmer then has 24 hours after each harvest to transport their products to the hub. “So, for example, yesterday Sandabama harvested squash, cabbage, and broccoli and delivered it to our office within hours,” explains Marks.

After all marketing and sales facets have been taken care of, the hub will then send out product availability order forms to its customers, at which point buyers can send in order forms via email and arrange for delivery.

While all of this is very convenient and helpful for the farmer, it’s also extremely beneficial for restaurants and other outlets seeking to provide local menu options. Partners communicate what foods they want and trust the hub will meet their needs in a timely manner. Rather than trying to track down a product from multiple sources, a chef can easily reach out to the hub for the product, which has been aggregated to bulk quantities. For example, if a chef needs several pounds of kale, he or she can easily reach out to the hub rather than spending time tracking down kale from multiple farmers. In the end, this simplicity, trust and organization can benefit all parties: the farmer, the restaurant and the consumer.

In many ways, hubs operate to take on excess stresses, allowing farmers to focus primarily on the farm while meeting a seemingly unattainable demand. At the same time though, this takes away from the social interaction farmers love having with their buyers. Hence why Everett—and many others— still chooses to run things independently.

Everett believes that if a farmer’s schedule allows them to sell directly, then they should do so. For her, not only do direct sales put a face to a fresh local product, but she strongly values the genuine relationships she builds through doing so. “It’s never just about Everett Heritage Farm when we walk into a restaurant kitchen. The restaurants have welcomed us into their house and we want to know how they are doing, what items they are looking for, are they getting the right amount and quality from our farm each week, etc.,” says Everett.

Another reason some farmers choose not to use hubs is cost-related. Using food hubs can sometimes cost farmers more money long-term. Bulk prices per pound of product may be lower than what a small farm, unable to provide large quantities of a product, can afford to sell it at. “A large farm may be willing to sell an item wholesale at $2.25 per pound, but a small farm can only afford to sell that same item at $3.25 per pound,” explains Everett.

“When delivering to a food hub distributor one often has no confirmation of sale, or may be offered prices below the value of your product. A grower may be told, ‘we don’t know if we can get the price you want,’” explains Everett. “There is often no way to know what to expect from week to week. When you have 3,000 or 6,000 plants in the ground, you can’t wait. Instead, we pick up the phone and start calling restaurants,” she says. 

Marks explains that there is reasoning behind the pricing difference. In being a nonprofit organization, Harvested Here is focused on selling high volumes in order to match prices. “We can’t pay as much per item, but if they want to sell us lots more, then we can match that price,” Marks explains. “If a farmer can sell us more, then we are able to offer a more competitive price to chefs and restaurants.”

Marks clarifies that the hub’s goal is not to compete with efforts farmers make individually. Sometimes the intent of a food hub can be misinterpreted, especially in a well-established local food community. “It could easily be seen as competition to our farmers. Something we try to be transparent about is that we aren’t trying to take away from accounts they’ve already established,” Marks says.

Whether a farmer chooses to utilize a hub or not is a personal choice. It is however, exceptional that food hubs exist as an option.

“When a food hub can build and maintain distribution lines that give growers advance notice, and build a fair trade price, and a quantity expectation that they can sell on a regular basis, and guarantee the cold chain for storage, it’s a win for all,” says Everett.