Sustainable Agriculture’s Missing Link

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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In theory, New York farmers are lucky. Within a few hundred miles of their farms is the Hunts Point market, the largest wholesale produce market in the world. You wouldn’t know it to look at it. Located in the South Bronx, it looks like something between an airport and a giant parking lot, lined with warehouses and 18-wheelers. But inside, food for 22 million people, or 7 percent of the U.S. population, is bought, sold and distributed.

Yet the gap between theory and reality is vast. Only 4 percent of the fruit and vegetables sold at Hunts Point are from New York farms. While some small and midsize farmers make a living hawking their produce at farmers markets or through CSAs, the total sales don’t amount to much: In the United States, 99 percent of food is sold through wholesale channels like Hunts Point. The sheer volume that moves through big industrial markets squeezes out local and regional farmers. “A permanent wholesale farmers market in Hunts Point may be the single most important step New York can take to fix our broken regional food system,” says Mark Izeman, a senior attorney for food and agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Both Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill Di Blasio are supportive of a food hub for small farmers at Hunts Point. But you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. Food hubs aren’t as sexy as news that McDonald’s will stop using chicken raised with some antibiotics or that foodservice behemoths Sodexo, Aramark and Compass will soon buy cage-free eggs. Such moves are important. But they are tweaks. (McDonald’s is only banning antibiotics used in human medicine, not all antibiotics. The foodservice companies’ policies apply only to liquid eggs.) These are tweaks that affect a lot of people, but tweaks just the same. Food hubs, which aggregate and distribute food for local and regional farmers, in contrast, have the potential to revolutionize America’s food system, helping to create one that promotes regional agriculture and values farmers and the soil. They deserve as much attention.

A national survey conducted in 2013 by the nonprofit Wallace Center counted 221 food hubs in the United States; 62 percent of them were less than five years old, and 31 percent had more than $1 million in revenue. While many hubs—La Montanita in New Mexico, Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, Mich., and the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Va.—have seen success, there also have been failures. Grasshoppers, an ambitious food hub in Louisville, Ky., closed its doors in December 2013. “The first flush of emotional excitement has evolved into asking the real questions,” says John Fisk, the Wallace Center’s executive director. “What are our margins? Where do we get access to credit? You can’t do good if you aren’t doing well.”

Strong models are emerging. The Common Market in Philadelphia works with 85 family farms in the Mid-Atlantic and sells to 250 partners, mostly schools and hospitals. Though it still receives grants from organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, revenues grew 40 percent last year to $3 million, and the hub expects to see similar growth again this year. One key to Common Market’s success, says co-founder and CEO Haile Johnston, is their understanding that a hub is about more than physical infrastructure. It’s about the social infrastructure: building relationships, offering training and support. For example, Common Market works with its farmers to plan their crops, strategizing about who should grow what and for what harvest date in order to meet the needs of the market. The planning helps farmers to more efficiently use their land and, ultimately, to be more profitable. Case in point: Common Market helped struggling dairy producer Eagle Road Farm to shift into vegetable production by buying 75 percent of his first year’s crop.

Red Tomato, founded in 1997 in Plainsville, Mass., started out as a traditional food hub, trucking sustainably grown produce during the short northeastern growing season to grocery stores. But it was hard to make ends meet. And so in 2002, they got rid of their warehouse and trucks and developed a decentralized supply chain. Now Red Tomato connects growers with established distributors. Its system is so efficient that it is able to get produce from field to grocery store shelves in 24 hours. “Unless we learn food logistics, we are going to be a marginal movement on the outside looking in,” Michael Royzne, Red Tomato’s founder said last month in a TEDx talk in New York.

Royzne is right. Food distribution is one of the world’s most cutthroat businesses, operating on net margins of less than 1 percent. If food hubs are to compete, they must find creative ways to unite their values with logistics. But the job is not only theirs. Consumers, too, must realize that voting with their forks entails more than stopping by the farmers market. We need to lobby our schools, hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores to buy from hubs and create a strong link between local farmers and the table.