BISMARCK, N.D. _ Two organizations are partnering to build a food hub for small vegetable growers in North Dakota.
Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability and Common Enterprise Development Corp. are surveying farmers and growers across the state to learn how many might be interested in participating in a co-op style central food marketing hub.
Sue Balcom of FARRMS said the goal of the food hub is to increase the amount of fresh produce grown and eaten locally. Many young growers might not be able to afford to buy a commodity-size farm but may grow a few acres of vegetables, she said.
“They are this state’s best-kept secret,” she said. “We’ve just got to get people to think in this state, it’s good to eat our own food.”
Balcom said the value perception is much higher for locally grown food and much of the interest in it is coming from the younger population moving or returning to the state. She said availability of homegrown food is one way to keep the state’s new population here.
Tyler Demars of CEDC said it is still early in the planning process and there are a lot of unknowns. He is studying food hubs in other states to determine which models are working and which ones would work with what is being produced by growers in North Dakota.
Depending on producers’ and customers’ needs, the format could include a light processing facility that would sort, grade, wash and cut. The food hub co-op members could hire a manager and employees to run it as well as fund the startup costs for the building, equipment and trucks, Balcom said.
Farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture, which allow customers to buy directly from farmers, are the only outlets for small farmers in the state to market their products, Balcom said. A food hub would open up more opportunities, making it possible to market to restaurants, grocers or even schools.
Balcom said right now, a farmer can’t just walk up to a school and sell produce for lunches. Schools are more rigid buyers. Health Department regulations are different from one school district to the next and each school wants the food processed a certain way, which small farmers may not have the time to do, she said.
Balcom said the survey will help define opportunities and challenges in local food production and distribution, as well as determine producers’ interest in scaling up their business to meet the demand for local foods. Those interested in the project after the survey closes will receive CEDC business planning services.
“We want to help young farmers get started,” Balcom said. “We want to take them from the farmers’ market to legit vegetable growers.”
Data from the survey, which is posted online at www.farrms.org, will be available by May, Balcom said. The groups would like to get 125 respondents before closing the survey.
The survey was funded with a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant. An economic development meeting will follow in early 2015 to discuss potential projects.
Demars said the amount of processing and shipping survey takers think will be needed at the food hub will determine the volume of produce needed to cash-flow the operation.
A large vegetable operation is usually about 40 acres, Demars said. He thinks it will take five major producers or 20 to 40 minor producers to get a hub up and running. If it’s not feasible now, the study will tell the group what it will take to make it feasible in the future.
“I think it’s time,” Demars said.
He said the groups know of about 150 vegetable growing operations of varying sizes across the state. Of those who have taken the survey, 60 percent have declared interest in a food hub. Others like the community aspect of farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture outlets better.
“I think it’s a really good idea,”, especially for those growers who live in more rural areas, said Brian McGinness. He and his family own Riverbound Farm in south Mandan. They raise 10 acres of various vegetables.
McGinness said his focus remains on Community Supported Agriculture but he does do some marketing to Pirogue Grill and Landers Conoco in Bismarck. Because it is close to Bismarck-Mandan, people are more likely to come out to the farm and his family likes that community-building experience, he said.
In that experience might lie opportunity for using the food hub. The McGinness family wants to build a commercial community kitchen in the old farmhouse on their property. The kitchen would allow for cooking classes and include a big dining area for groups.
It also would produce canned soup and frozen vegetables to be given away to charities for families who can’t afford a meal.
McGinness said he might be able sell produce through the food hub to support the costs of his farm’s charitable mission.
“It’s still kind of brewing for us,” he said. “I think I would strongly consider participating.”
“I would be willing to sure try,” said Diane Schmidt of Mandan Farmers Market.
Schmidt sells her garlic, tomatoes, peppers, beans and other produce from her one- acre garden at the farmers’ market and partners on a Community Supported Agriculture project with fellow grower Roberta Thorson.
Growing vegetables has been more of a hobby for Schmidt, but she said she would plant more if she had a place to market it all.