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Regional food hubs give farmers access to bigger customers
Sarah Cooper stands in front of SPROUT MN’s newly converted 1997 Ford F350 bio-diesel truck at a farmers market held in an area hospital parking lot. Photo by Jessie Borkenhagen

Regional food hubs give farmers access to bigger customers

Think local food and you may picture picking up salad fixings at the farmers market for your family’s supper: a few tomatoes, a bag of greens, a bunch of carrots.
But what happens when your job is buying food for, say, 400 instead of four? Is buying local still possible?
It is if local farmers pool their efforts. And that’s where food hubs can make a difference.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food hub as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.” The target markets for these services are typically wholesale customers—hospitals, schools, restaurants and grocery stores —that have a harder time buying local product in the desired volumes.

Several groups are working to bring regional food hubs to the Dakotas.

Kari O’Neill, community development field specialist with SDSU Extension, said several regions in South Dakota are currently discussing how a food hub might work in their area.

“Starting small is a good beginning,” O’Neill said, “and meeting the needs of both the producers and the consumers is a priority. There are local food producers already marketing products in South Dakota, and a food hub would just be the next step for many of them in being able to put foods together such as produce, meat, eggs, milk and cheese.”

Educating people on this relatively new concept has become O’Neill’s mission. Setting up educational programs and holding video conferences around the state are just a small part of her quest to promote local agriculture and provide consumers with healthier food options.

Sue Balcom, executive director of FARRMS, based in Medina, N.D., takes the lead when it comes to spearheading the North Dakota food hub movement. A strong advocate of eating locally grown food products, Balcom believes the state’s younger growers will lead the charge toward regional food hubs. Whether they are moving into or returning to the state, North Dakota’s younger population may not be able to buy a commodity-size farm but they might be able to grow a few acres of vegetables. That fact, along with the desire to eat healthier, may be the driving force behind the launch of North Dakota food hubs.

“Currently, schools and institutions can’t buy directly from farmers because of government regulations,” Balcom said, “but a food hub would fill the infrastructure gaps and create more opportunities for everyone involved.”

The Dakotas may still be testing the water when it comes to food hubs, but a regional food hub in Brainerd, Minn., is a thriving addition to the region. SPROUT MN, LLC is a central Minnesota-based food hub that works with local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.

Arlene Jones and the SPROUT team have built a consortium of more than 40 growers and distribute locally grown commodities to three school districts, Central Lakes College, hospitals and many local restaurants.

Jones started SPROUT MN five years ago when she began supplying locally grown produce to restaurants in the Brainerd Lakes Area and Brainerd School District’s Farm to School program. As owner and operator of The Farm on St. Mathias along with her husband, Bob, Jones is no stranger to sustainable farming. When their farm could no longer keep up with the needs of the region, she knew she needed to gather the talents of other local growers.

“It takes an entire community,” Jones said. “No one can do it alone. There are champions who care about the social, economic and environmental benefits for your area and you need to find them.”

The biggest struggle in establishing a food hub is dealing with infrastructure, Jones said.

“Obtaining and maintaining buildings, vehicles, equipment, personnel and supplies can be very overwhelming. You need people beside you who care about the work you are doing and support the overall goals of the operation.”

SPROUT MN is going the extra mile when it comes to promoting sustainable agriculture. A newly converted 1997 Ford F350 with a refrigerated box is used to collect raw produce from farmers and deliver it to various processing locations. Then processed food is picked up and delivered to institutions for consumption. The truck runs on biodiesel made from locally grown canola oil—the same kind of canola oil used for cooking.

Central Lakes College’s Agricultural and Energy Center grows the canola, harvests it, extracts the oil from the seeds and then converts it to biodiesel using its own portable biodiesel plant. Through a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP), Central Lakes College in Staples and SPROUT MN, this truck provides a service to local farmers and also serves as a reminder of the importance and versatility of local agriculture.

Want to start a regional food hub?

The Northwest Area Foundation and the Bush Foundation have made grants available for the daily operating expenses of regional food hubs such as SPROUT MN. For more information on regional farm hubs in your area, visit your local Extension office or go to their website.

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