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Food hubs offer hope for small farms

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A decade ago, so many small farmers were going out of business that they were considered an endangered species. These days, the north country’s small farms could be standing on the edge of a renaissance.

The prospect of a regional food hub opening in Canton is pretty exciting for small farms and for those looking for locally produced food. I discussed the issue at length last week with state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Darrel Aubertine during his appearance in Ogdensburg to talk about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget.

He said the food hub, coupled with Mr. Cuomo’s proposals focused on promoting New York-made foods, wines and spirits, will make small farms viable again.

A food hub essentially acts as a middle man for farms and the people and organizations that want to buy their vegetables, meat, honey and the like. It can help farmers pool their resources and share the costs of distributing their goods to buyers, even if those customers are in other parts of the state or country. It can provide warehousing, do the leg work to market farmers’ products to potential customers and handle getting those products to buyers, spreading those costs out among its client farms so they don’t all have to fend for themselves. Having somebody handle the logistics for them frees farmers up to focus on producing their goods.

One of the main barriers to small producers doing well has been the high cost of getting their goods to market, even if that market is local. It’s not feasible for a lot of small farmers to truck their goods to buyers, and it costs a lot to hire someone to do it for them. It’s also not feasible for a lot of them to rely solely on farmers markets or a roadside stand as a means to sell their products.

There has been a gap between the growing number of people who want those high-quality, locally produced items and the farms that raise them. I have talked to lots of people who want locally produced foods but don’t know how to go about getting them short of attending a farmers market. Farmers markets are a good thing, but they are only open for limited times in a few communities each week in the summer and fall, and aren’t necessarily accessible or convenient for everyone who might want to attend them. I am sure there are north country institutions who feed a lot of people on a daily basis and would like to serve more locally produced foods, but likewise have a difficult time getting those goods because there isn’t a central place they can access them.

A food hub could help solve those problems by providing that central clearing house where buyers, large and small scale, can easily access local farm products.

Although North Country Regional Food Hub organizers – Sparx, a for-profit arm of United Helpers Inc., GardenShare, North Country Grown Cooperative and Cornell Cooperative Extension – have received less state funding than they hoped to get the ball rolling and will have to scale back plans accordingly, the concept has enormous potential.

The hub’s organizers don’t have a building or a concrete plan for how it will operate yet, but the idea is to provide easy, efficient access to locally produced food. The initial plan is to hook farmers up with institutions like colleges, hospitals and schools. If that plan works out, local farmers will have a guaranteed market for their products right in their own back yards. If it is carried out in a thoughful, logical way, the food hub can only mean good things for small farmers.

If the hub succeeds, our farms will succeed. Based on that success, there could be room for growth. Another already operating food hub in the Hudson Valley offers processing facilities for its farms where they are able to can and freeze goods for customers.Some of those customers include high-end and specialty grocery stores in other parts of the state. There is no reason why the same thing couldn’t eventually happen here.

However it takes shape, the possibilities are very encouraging, especially when you consider the direct farm jobs that could result, as well as those in food processing and shipping.

Are small farms going to be viable again, as Mr. Aubertine suggested last week? If I were a betting woman, I would wager that he is right.

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