5 January 2015 10:46AM
Mark Scherzer

Another year has passed, and as often happens on the occasion of the New Year, one takes stock of where one has been, where one is, and where one is going. Where the farm is concerned, it’s often about our business model: are we spending too much money for too little return? Peter says, yes, of course we are. How does a farmer deal with that seemingly intractable problem, to realize the advantages of economies of scale, without sacrificing the quality that is a distinguishing feature of family farming?

One obvious place to look is distribution costs. If you produce five pounds of fava beans, is it worth driving a car into the City to distribute it? Of course not. How about driving to Hudson? Only if you have another errand to run there. Even a trip to Otto’s Market in Germantown requires an assessment of whether the 15 minute round trip and the cost of gas is worth it, maybe to deliver only six dozen eggs or a dozen heads of lettuce.

Our customers have to make the same calculation. If they are interested only in a dozen eggs, they are unlikely to travel more than a couple of miles, no matter how much they like the eggs. On the other hand, there are dozens who will make a 45 minute or more drive to the farm, or an across town trip in the City for a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving, because the can’t find one of similar quality closer to home.

One potential solution for small producers like us was described on New Year’s Eve in the the New York Times: so-called “food hubs” -organizations that gather and distribute the products of small farms for the farmers. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2014/12/27/us/ap-us-food-and-farm-food-hubs.html.

Food hubs may be for profit or not for profit. They may follow a CSA model (where consumers buy subscriptions), or link local farmers to certain buyers (restaurants, food retailers) in nearby metropolitan areas. They may simply act as middlemen in the sales process, or may take on additional functions in processing or storing the produce. Their existence comes as a major relief to some farmers, who can dispose of their products painlessly, without the effort and time involved in doing their own marketing.

In theory, farmers on our small scale could stand particularly to benefit, as our cooling facilities consist of two spare refrigerators in our mud room and two freezers in the basement, and most of the time our farm to City transportation is what I can carry with me in a cooler chest and some canvas bags on my Monday morning return to the City on Amtrak, now such a regular feature of my travel that the conductors check with me – “What are you carrying today?”

We have seen many alternate distribution schemes come and go over the years. When we first started raising grass-fed beef cattle, we joined a distribution cooperative called Valley Farmers, now defunct, which cooperatively arranged for promotion, slaughter and some distribution of a range of grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork and poultry, for farmers who had agreed to certain standards (some hotly debated within the cooperative) of humane and healthy animal husbandry practices.

In ensuing years, a neighbor of ours, Chuck Abraham of Old Saw Mill Farm, took on the role of a food hub in distributing for many local producers, particularly fruits and vegetables. A couple of years ago, I wrote about what seemed to be a promising but struggling milk cooperative in Maine, MOO, which the Times article says has now gone out of business.

According to the Times, the “food hub” concept for small farms has now become established enough to merit establishing a formal Food Hub Management Certificate Program at the University of Vermont. There are certainly now options around here. This year, when we found ourselves producing way more of some crops than we could possibly market, one of our summer helpers, Christian, put us in touch with Upstate Farms of Highland in Red Hook. We were grateful and relieved to have them purchase part of our production of crops like the hundreds of pounds of tromboncino squash that just kept coming this summer. Otherwise, the majority of that squash would have become pig food.

Does this mean that food hubs might be the panacea that resolves the problem of high distribution costs for small farmers? Will they replace the farmer’s market, as the Times suggests would be possible? Call me a food hub skeptic. I think the answer to both questions is no, for three principle reasons.

First, there is an economic cost to the food hub. No matter what you call it, or how much it relies on voluntary effort, it is still in essence, a distributor, a business that will have costs that either get added to the price of the food or, more likely in the context of our national food distribution system, be covered by reducing the amount the farmer gets for the produce. As food hub management becomes more professional, it will be even more likely to resemble a standard wholesale purchasing operation. One primary reason small farmers got into direct marketing to consumers to begin with, was to eliminate the huge gap between what the consumer paid and what the farmer received. As we have found, the only way to get anywhere near to making a small profit is to get the full retail price for our product, that is, to do away with the middleman. A food hub, even one operated with the best of intentions and tailored to the needs of small specialty producers and the customers who want their products, is still a middleman, with all the disadvantages that entails.

The second reason is the social cost of the food hub. It eliminates the personal connection between farmer and consumer which is in some ways the most important element of an alternative to today’s mass food distribution system. Many of us have argued that government certification of “organic” status is far less important than the consumer’s ability to visit a farm, see how its livestock lives and crops are tended, in ensuring quality of the food supply. This is a key tenet of what has become known as the locavore movement. Even when such personal visits are not feasible, the sorts of personal bonds built when one is selling food to neighbors, or interacting on a weekly basis with the same customers at a farmer’s market stall, brings a sense of responsibility to the farmer that I would argue is an essential component in keeping farmers operating responsibly to their consuming public. There is a distinct recreational pleasure people derive from attending a farmer’s market or visiting the farm.

The third reason is an intangible, but I believe undeniable cost in flavor and freshness. In our sales model we pick for individual orders to the extent possible and do so as close as possible to the customer’s pick-up time, so the produce is fresher than can be matched by any other model. Farmer’s market producers can pick one day and have it on the stand the next day. Add a food hub, and you have at least another day, often several, between field and table. Isn’t flavor and freshness what it’s supposed to be all about?

The personal connection between producer and buyer works to the consumers’ benefit in so many potential ways. We know our customers’ tastes, and can alert them when foods they particularly like are coming in. We can even give them recipes with which to try out new foods. But more importantly, providing food to someone you know is a social interaction, not all that different from having someone to dinner, where you take extra care to make sure they are getting something of quality that they are going to enjoy. I pick each bean with a view to whether it is at the right stage of tenderness and crispness. I don’t think I would be likely to take the same degree of care if I were selling to a wholesaler who is paying a rock bottom price for quantity, with a reduced concern for quality.

Food hubs may have a valuable role to play, if used judiciously by farmers and if they do not come to resemble standard middlemen. But if they wholly replace direct small farm to consumer transactions, I fear the very qualities that have made the small farm movement, such a wonderful alternative to mass distribution systems will be undermined.

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