Consumer demand for local food may be growing, but it can be harder than one thinks to connect local farmers with their customers.
Food hubs are one way that communities are helping connect farm businesses to customers and communities to agriculture.
At their most basic, food hubs provide a central point where local farmers can bring their products to market. Depending on the model, they vary from virtual farmers markets to sellers groups.
For the past two years, the Cowichan Green Community (CGC) has run Cow-op.ca, an online market that connects growers in the Cowichan Valley to customers. Farmers list their offerings and prices online every week, and customers submit orders between Friday and Tuesday. Produce is delivered to a central collection point, and customers pick up on Thursday.
“We feel that Cow-op is a great program because you don’t have to stand at the market all day,” says CGC executive director Judy Stafford.
“You’re just going to pick whatever your order is at the end of the week, and that food has already been sold.”
Cow-op is a social enterprise run by a co-operative. The board of directors is comprised entirely of the farmers who use the platform. With 30 registered vendors and more than 400 registered buyers, the virtual food hub is approaching a critical breakthrough point, said project manager Heather Kaye.
“I feel like we’re almost at that critical mass. All of the grocery stores are offering online ordering now, and people are thinking about buying food differently,” she said.
“This addresses the needs of people who want to support local farms but can’t make it to the farmers market.”
A similar project was started in Lillooet a couple of years ago but shut down when the co-ordinator moved on. In its place, producers have been organizing themselves in commodity-based sellers groups to share marketing, storage and transportation resources.
A group of garlic growers has developed a brand and hub for their produce, a local ranch and several smaller farms have been collaborating on meat production, and a local winery is organizing the purchase of local grapes and encouraging local growers to collaborate.
“We’re ripe to create something that will bring those together,” said Jacquie Rasmussen, co-ordinator of the Lillooet Agriculture and Food Society (LAFS).
“An online food hub will be the key organizational feature that will allow local farmers to reach out to customers — to access to chefs and buyers quickly and efficiently.”
The society is mandated to implement the Lillooet Area Agriculture Plan. Most recently, it launched the Lillooet Grown brand to start unifying local producers and raising awareness of what’s available in the area. It’s all part of building the capacity of local growers to develop and access new markets.
Ordering food online is increasingly common. Most major retailers now offer online ordering, and many offer delivery. For consumers looking to support local growers, regional food hubs connect them with the kind of products that Amazon cannot.
Underlying both CGC and LAFS is a deeper vision than online grocery delivery. Regional food hubs also have an on-the-ground presence in communities and often run food security initiatives and programs for people who don’t have reliable access to healthy food.
“Food security is agriculture, and agriculture is food security, but sometimes those conversations don’t happen together,” said Stafford, whose organization also runs cooking, nutrition and employment skills programs.
“I think this idea of being a hub is where a lot of the conversations need to happen.”