Connecting with institutional markets for World PEAS Food Hub participants

Final report for ONE16-261

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2018
Grant Recipient: New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
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Project Information

Summary:

This project called Connecting with Institutional Markets for World PEAS Food Hub Participants is aimed at assisting small-scale beginning, immigrant, and refugee farmers to reach new wholesale market channels to increase sales. This project also focuses specifically on the sale of ethnic produce through these sales channels. Because ethnic produce is in low demand in the direct-to-consumer markets that the World PEAS Food Hub already works with, this project seeks to establish an alternative market for these crops, as well as other more traditional crops, to increase revenues for small-scale beginning farmers. The goals of this project are: to understand the wholesale market demand for ethnic produce in eastern MA; to understand the requirements and expectations of these buyers in regards to quality, quantity, food safety, etc.; to cultivate relationships with institutional buyers on behalf of farmers; to provide technical assistance to farmers to develop production schedules, crop plans, and food safety plans to meet the demand of the institutional buyer; to understand the impact of increased volume of wholesale sales on the profitability of the World PEAS Food Hub; to increase revenues for beginning, immigrant, and refugee farmers by selling produce through institutional market channels.

In the 2016 season we found that 7 of the 20 producers we worked with, or 35%, increased their wholesale readiness as a result of on-going technical assistance and support through the World PEAS Food Hub. These farmers increased their quality and improved their consistency, making them more prepared to reach wholesale markets in 2017.  For most producers, the pricing offered by wholesale buyers and quantity/quality specifications did not meet their income needs to develop buying relationships. The Food Hub would need to grow to a larger scale overall (upwards of $1M in sales) to break even at the current margins to make wholesale pricing and volume viable.

Introduction:

This project builds directly on New Entry’s SARE Specialty Crops grant received in 2015. Farmers are currently learning about organic production, including proper pest management, soil fertility practices, and other organic production strategies to assure high quality production of specialty crops. Other topics include: harvesting and post-harvest cold chain practices, estimating degree of ripeness, preparation of crops for sale, including trimming, cleaning, bunching/bagging, and packaging, and food safety. Helping producers retain existing customers and explore new market channels hinges on their ability to reliably, consistently produce high-quality crops that meet buyer expectations. This proposed SARE partnership project aims to assist producers to scale production of quality ethnic crops and to conduct a deeper analysis of market demand and differentiated pricing levels of various market outlets. Food safety will also be addressed. In 2014, WPFH staff began building alternative markets with community partners serving low-income, food insecure clients as a complement to CSA sales. Sales to these partners increased by 185% from 2013 to 2015 with $85,000+ in sales in 2015. WPFH currently has 15 “institutional” markets, though several are intermittent (e.g., one delivery/month to a senior nutrition program) and WPFH has maintained consistent retail pricing for farmers across all market channels. We are experts placing orders with farmers and tracking sales, but we need to assist producers to scale production to expand to larger wholesale markets. Part of this process is aligning produce varieties and quantities to market demands and determining logistical mechanisms to offer two pricing structures (wholesale vs retail/CSA) by market channel. Our goal also includes supporting farmers to connect directly to institutional markets, thus determining which venues are better for farmer-to-institution connections and which are best served by WPFH’s aggregation and distribution network. Finally, we need to quantify the benefit to farmers in increasing their institutional market share (higher volumes outweighing lower prices) and understand the long-term financial implications for WPFH in collecting smaller margins from wholesale accounts. WPFH pays particular attention to crop quality at the point of delivery to the WPFH Packing and Distribution site. We provide immediate feedback to farmers, particularly regarding substandard quality. The risk associated with direct connections between farmers to markets is losing the quality control filter. Continual education pays off – some farmers adopt practices resulting in better produce quality and more produce accepted for sale. This SARE project will enable us to determine which farmers are likely to be more successful with direct wholesale and which farmers are better served by working through the WPFH structure. The main potential impact is increased market share and revenue, particularly for socially and economically disadvantaged farmers by increased sales of high quality niche ethnic produce to new institutional/wholesale markets.

Project Objectives:

The core objectives stated in this project are included below. In order to accomplish these objectives, we used a combination of research/data collection, technical assistance, group meetings, and outreach strategies.

  1. Assure farmer capacity is aligned with sales goals for new wholesale/institutional markets;
    • In order to asses that the capacity of our beginning farmers was aligned with the demand of wholesale/institutional buyers we partnered with the Harvard Business School to conduct research around market demand in the greater Boston area, institutional buyer requirements around food safety, volume, quality, and price, and the impact wholesale pricing would have on the profitability of the World PEAS Food Hub.
    • Through research we discovered that our beginning farmers have the capacity to meet the demands of some institutional buyers, but not others. Because the farmers that sell to the World PEAS Food Hub are very small-scale (operating on less than 5 acres), do not currently have food safety certifications, and are still working toward producing consistently high quality products, certain types of institutional opportunities are not currently available to them. These include large retailers (supermarkets and grocery stores), public schools, hospitals, and food service providers (like Sodexo or Bon Appetit).
    • Our research revealed that there is a great deal of variation between the demands of different types of institutions, and we were able to identify four main institutional channels that align with our farmer’s capabilities, including non-profit organizations, universities, workplace dining services, and restaurants. These are the main institutional channels we targeted in 2016 and will continue to target in 2017.
    • Through analysis of pricing models, we discovered that wholesale pricing does not function well for our farmers because they are not currently able to deliver high volumes. The institutional buyers we have identified (non-profits, universities, workplace dining services, and restaurants) have more flexible pricing options, as well as volume requirements, which is another reason we have decided to work with them over large scale institutional contracts.
    • Between September and December we partnered with a graduate student at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy to conduct retail and wholesale pricing research, and as a result we have altered our pricing structure to help the Food Hub cover its operating expenses while retaining fair and stable prices for farmers, given the anticipated increase of sales through the wholesale market channel.
    • The results of this research have reinforced for our staff the importance of continuing to provide training and technical assistance to our farmers to assist them with scaling up their farm businesses. New Entry has recently hired a Beginning Farmer Education and Curriculum Coordinator who will be working on developing curriculum and training materials aimed specifically at helping farmers scale their farm businesses to reach new markets, including wholesale markets like the ones that are not currently available to them. The World PEAS Food Hub will continue to provide support to these farmers and remain prepared to connect them with those markets when they are ready.
    • The World PEAS Food Hub is exploring a partnership with New Venture Advisors, a food-business consulting firm, to utilize a wholesale readiness tool to help farmers understand the steps needed to become eligible to access larger scale wholesale markets and assess their overall readiness for the wholesale market.
    • This information, along with exact sales information for our farmers, will be compiled into a report and widely disseminated at the project’s completion.
  2. Develop and maintain strong relationships with new markets through consistent communications between farmers, WPFH, and buyers/management at wholesale/institutional markets;
    • The research process described above took four months instead of the one month we had anticipated in the grant proposal. This disabled us from identifying the type of institutional market we wanted to target in the 2016 season.
    • Despite that, we were able to re-establish partnerships with 10 institutional partners including:
      • Arlington Council on Aging in partnership with Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Arlington, MA
      • Burlington Council on Aging in partnership with Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, MA
      • Medford Housing Authority in partnership with the Medford Farmers Market in Medford, MA
      • Bridgewell’s Pathfinder Center in Lowell, MA
      • Kit Clark Senior Center in Dorchester, MA
      • Somerville/Cambridge Elder Services in Cambridge, MA
      • Community Teamwork Inc. School Age Program in Lowell, MA
      • Community Teamwork Inc. Daycare Program in Lowell, MA
      • Springwell Senior Group in Waltham, MA
      • WIC in Lowell, MA
    • We also established two new partnerships including:
      • Cameron Senior Center in Westford, MA
      • Corporate Chefs, Inc. at The MITRE Corporation in Bedford, MA
    • Staff spent time between March and May either visiting or setting up phone calls with staff at each of the partner organizations to arrange buying agreements and establish delivery plans for the 2016 season.
    • Staff developed outreach materials to present to partners and for them to distribute at their institutions. See: harvesting calendarpost card 2, and One-pager overview Final
    • Between June and November, staff remained in consistent communication with both farmers and buyers to source and deliver fresh, locally grown food to the institutional partners.
    • Staff have continued to improve systems, working toward becoming more efficient in order to handle more partnerships in 2017. Between August and November staff conducted research to identify appropriate software to assist with systems improvements, which will be purchased and installed for the 2017 season.
  3. Provide additional income to limited resource producers through new market development;
    • In the 2016 season, the World PEAS Food Hub generated over $250,000 in revenues, putting a quarter of a million dollars into the local food economy. Of our total revenues, $175,000 went back into the pockets of local farmers. Of this, $107,000 in sales was generated specifically by beginning farmers.
    • In 2016 we developed 2 new wholesale markets generating $10,000 in sales.
    • Through the research conducted during the grant period, we learned a great deal about the types of wholesale markets appropriate for our farmers, and we are prepared to target these types of markets to build new market opportunities in 2017 and continue to generate revenues for our farmers.
    • World PEAS Food Hub staff provided over 250 hours of technical assistance to 20 farmers during the grant period, assisting them to develop crop plans, establish marketing agreements, develop food safety plans, develop production schedules, and produce, harvest, and pack high quality produce.
  4. Assure sustainability of new markets for future years.
    • Through the research and data collection process, the World PEAS Food Hub has identified a specific target area that is appropriate for our farmers at this time. With the ability to focus specifically on this targeted segment of the institutional market, we will increase the number of our partnerships in 2017.
    • New Entry is committed to building the capacity of our farmers in order to scale their businesses and reach new and larger markets in future years.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Seona Ngufor Ban
  • Phalla Nol
  • Rechhat Proum
  • Sorn Un

Research

Materials and methods:

Between February and May 2016 the World PEAS Food Hub partnered with two graduate students at the Harvard Business School to conduct a market analysis of the greater Boston region to help us understand the demand for locally grown produce among institutional buyers. See the final report generated by the students here: World PEAS Market Report – Harvard Business School. We worked with the Harvard Business School graduate interns between February and May to conduct this research, as well as general research around the demand for locally grown food in our region, and the roles of our competitors.

In our market research we targeted large retailers, universities, restaurants, grocery stores, and local non-profit organizations serving low-income communities. Initial research resulted in the identification of 29 organizations that met the criteria of institutional buyers potentially interested in sourcing produce from the World PEAS Food Hub. Of the 29, we were able to conduct interviews with 6 businesses, as well as identify another 7 businesses with high potential for interest. We also conducted research on other market analyses looking specifically at the needs of institutional buyers and how small-scale producers can enter into the institutional market channel. From this research we acquired valuable information around the needs of institutional buyers. We also found that the needs varied based on the type of institutional market channel (see report and results/discussion section below for detailed analysis of findings).

During the research period between February and May, World PEAS Food Hub staff continued to work with farmers to prepare for the upcoming season. In February and March, staff assisted farmers to determine their needs for capital and distributed $16,452 in microloans to 7 beginning farmers to assist them with purchasing seeds, fertilizer, and equipment for the upcoming season. Staff also provided over 250 hours of technical assistance to 20 farmers during the grant period, to help them develop crop plans, prepare soil, plant, irrigate, and harvest crops, assess crop quality, and get their fresh produce to market.

During March and April, staff continued to develop partnerships and facilitate sales through both direct-to-consumer sales channels and institutional sales channels. Staff created promotional materials (see resource uploads) to use while conducting meetings with new potential buyers and utilized these resources to establish partnerships.

In April and May, staff worked with producers to create and update food safety plans. Because our market research was still underway and none of our new partnerships required specific food safety certifications, we did not move forward with mandating any higher level food safety requirements for our farmers in the 2016 season.

Between June and November the World PEAS Food Hub was open and in full operation. The Beginning Farmer Resource Coordinator and the World PEAS Food Hub Coordinator along with other staff worked together over this time period to assist farmers with producing high-quality fresh produce, delivering it to the World PEAS Food Hub, and getting it distributed out to our wholesale and institutional buyers. Staff worked directly with farmers to provide feedback on production techniques, post-harvest handling, crop quality, and packaging for wholesale. Throughout this period, staff placed weekly orders with farmers, who delivered produce to the Food Hub, where it was re-packed and distributed out to buyers. World PEAS Food Hub staff were in communication with institutional buyers to assess quality, systems for ordering, delivery logistics, and other needs to stream-line the process.  Farmers were paid on a bi-weekly basis for the produce delivered and sold through the Food Hub.

In December 2016, staff finalized all farmer payments for the season, assessed total revenues and expenditures, generated sales goals and budgets for 2017, pulled together data and statistics around sales, populations served, and farmer earnings, and analyzed the World PEAS Food Hub business plan for improvements. December 5-8, Food Hub staff participated in the Fair Food Fund’s Business Boot Camp to review and analyze the business plan for World PEAS to assess the financial health of World PEAS and explore the possibility for adding value-added products to the offerings to consumers.  On December 12th, staff hosted the Annual World PEAS Farmer Meeting, inviting 20 farmers to our Lowell office to discuss the season, obtain feedback for how to improve Food Hub operations, offer feedback for how farmers can improve their production, and launch the 2017 crop planning process. 13 farmers attended the meeting and 20 farmers participated in the launch of the Crop Bid process, initiating crop planning for 2017. In December and January 2017, staff offered technical assistance to farmers through the crop planning process. At the meeting, farmers were also given the Annual Farmer Survey, an important tool for us to understand our farmer’s financial situations, market access, land access, and many other critical aspects of their business’s success. Farmers were required to submit the Annual Farmer Survey by January 13th.  Staff compiled data from the 2016 season to draft the 2016 World PEAS Annual Report and sent it to all partners and posted the report online. The staff at the World PEAS Food Hub also developed projections for the 2017 season and began to identify new wholesale market opportunities.  In 2017, staff planned to focus on the identified key areas for institutional partnership including senior centers, universities, workplace dining services, and restaurants.

Research results and discussion:

In conducting the market analysis for the World PEAS Market Report, the process of collaborating with the Harvard Business School students proved challenging.  The World PEAS Food Hub Manager and Coordinator quickly realized that the research process would take much longer than the one month planned in the original project work plan. It took a great deal of time for the graduate students to identify potential market opportunities in the region, schedule phone calls with the ideal contact at each business, and conduct interviews to understand their buying needs including information around whether or not they are interested in sourcing locally grown food (particularly ethnic crops), the types of produce they source, the quantity required, the price framework, food safety requirements, and insurance compliance requirements.

Through the research, we discovered that large retailers have particularly stringent requirements, demanding high volume, low price-point and little flexibility. With centralized purchasing facilities, contracts with large-scale food suppliers, and regional or national staff, it can be extremely difficult to identify a contact and obtain a meeting with them. Large retailers also indicated that they have less interest in purchasing ethnic produce. We identified large retailers as a low-level priority match for the beginning, immigrant, and refugee farmers at the World PEAS Food Hub.

We also looked at local universities and workplace dining services companies as a potential institutional market channel.  We found that universities and workplace dining services companies are often likely to place value on sourcing locally grown food and have a higher interest in sourcing ethnic produce. Research showed that dining halls who operate independently (do not relay on a food service management company) often have a degree of independence and flexibility in regards to sourcing and purchasing, allowing them more flexibility around volume. The dining services providers we talked to and read about had less stringent food safety requirements when purchasing smaller quantities.  We placed these types of businesses at mid-level priority match for our beginning and immigrant/refugee farmers.

We explored local restaurants as another wholesale market channel, finding that there is high demand for locally grown food at local restaurants. Restaurants value high quality and are interested in ethnic produce, but require frequent deliveries of smaller volumes, which is not always cost-effective, logistically feasible (due to order turnaround and communications required between the Food Hub and producers), or an efficient delivery system for the World PEAS Food Hub. We placed restaurants at mid-level priority match for our farmers.

We also identified ethnic grocery stores as a potential market opportunity, but found that most ethnic grocery stores are less interested in sourcing locally and require extremely competitive price points that the World PEAS Food Hub cannot compete with and still provide producers with living wage or fair prices for locally grown crops. We placed ethnic grocery stores at low-level priority.

Finally, we looked at non-profit organizations, focusing specifically on elder care facilities, senior centers, and organizations serving low-income people. We found that this market channel had extremely high demand for locally grown produce, offered flexibility on pricing and delivery schedule, and had low food safety requirements. We also found that many of these organizations rely on either internal or external funding to assist people with purchasing fresh produce, which introduces an element of risk for our farmers and requires the World PEAS Food Hub to play a role in fundraising to offset the costs for these organizations. Still, we see this as a high-level priority for expansion.

 

Research conclusions:

Following up on the research and analysis of potential wholesale and institutional markets, prior to the growing season (March and April), staff re-established 10 institutional partnerships, and established two new institutional partnerships (one with a senior center and one with a workplace dining services provider). These new institutional buyers did not require specific food safety certifications, allowed for flexibility in volume, and were able to accommodate set Food Hub prices.  As a result, in 2016, the World PEAS Food Hub generated a total of $251,059 in sales through three distribution channels, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, Food Access (low-income food access partners), and the Institutional Market program.  Total Food Hub sales represented a 13% decline in revenue from 2015, mostly due to a reduction in CSA subscriptions.  Additionally, in 2016 farmers faced extreme drought in Massachusetts, which impacted their ability to harvest and deliver fresh produce.  It should be highlighted that 2016 did show an uptick in average New Entry program farmer earnings compared to the 2015 season. In 2015, the average New Entry farmer earned $4,928 while in 2016 the average New Entry program farmer earned $5,666. This can be attributed to an increase in purchasing from New Entry program farmers versus sourcing from established commercial farmers in 2016.

Throughout the production and distribution season, staff paid special attention to product quality and post-harvest handling in order to meet the preferred quality standards indicated by the buyers throughout our research queries.  Staff regularly reviewed product deliveries by farmer, identified and noted core areas for improvement, specifically around growing for the wholesale market. Some of the core areas for improvement included consistency in size and appearance of produce, method of packing produce, and consistency of quality. This feedback was provided to farmer training program staff to support producers with improved technical assistance.  Much of the crop quality concerns in 2016 stemmed from the drought conditions in the region that significantly affected crop quality on producers’ fields that had limited or no irrigation systems in place.  Post-harvest handling was also challenging for producers with limited water resources and several producers brought product to the Food Hub for washing and cooling, which compromised the shelf life of specific products.

In 2016, despite having conducted the institutional market research project to learn about new market potential for ethnic crops, the research was not encouraging and did not result in new buying relationships for the season.  This is in part due to the timing of completing the research report and the onboarding of new staff to manage on-the-ground operations.  Fitting in new institutional partners while balancing orders, volumes, and deliveries to 17 other distribution and food access partners took priority over lower-margin, less efficient institutional market partners.  Our primary institutional market partnership was with Tufts Dining Services where we delivered approximately $3,000 worth of produce in the fall. This represented an overall institutional sales decline of 100% from 2015 to 2016. This can mainly be attributed to a decline in sales to restaurants in 2016 based on lack of interest in former restaurant accounts combined with one restaurant closing between the 2015-2016 season. Our primary partner in the Institutional Market program this season was Tufts University, where the World PEAS Food Hub supplied produce to the dining hall as well as an on-campus farmers’ market.
 
The World PEAS Food Hub planned to work with a consultant in 2017 to assess the operation’s business model to better understand how institutional market channels fit in a diverse market mix and can meet the price points and delivery frequency desired by buyers. While there is great potential in the institutional market channel, World PEAS Food Hub staff and farmers are exploring whether it is best suited to beginning farmers given their limited volumes and variable quality of produce.  Additionally, the price points that provide a reasonable margin to cover food hub operations may not be conducive to producers just starting out who need to see higher returns to establish and grow their operations.  Working with restaurants or other buyers who expect frequent deliveries can be logistically challenging to manage given the many variables involved in ordering from 30+ farmers and managing multiple complicated delivery and distribution logistics.  New Entry invested in a new Food Hub software program, Local Food MarketPlace for the 2017 growing season which may help to streamline ordering and sales processing in the future.

 

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

4 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 On-farm demonstrations
20 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
17 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

30 Farmers
7 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:
  • New Entry staff worked with the Harvard Business School students to develop an educational market assessment and report (see methods and discussion section for details). New Entry also worked with staff from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation to develop a nutrition and healthy eating guide for Seniors which was distributed
  • New Entry also held several consultations and site visits with other food hubs in the region to assess and explore their practices around institutional buying (Intervale Food Hub, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Culivating Community, and Common Market). 
  • New Entry held two on-farm demonstrations and workshop/trainings with producers on a) post-harvest handling and sanitation practices for preparing produce for market and b) food safety requirements, including information on FSMA and required recordkeeping forms.
  • New Entry published 20 weekly newsletters throughout the 20-week CSA distribution season and created customized newsletters for low-income food access partners.  Each newsletter contained field updates, farmer profiles, nutritional information about share contents, and recipes and crop storage information.
  • New Entry held three tours – one of the incubator farm operations during our annual Open Farms Tour and two tours to various groups at the Food Hub (a group from the Walmart Foundation and we hosted a Boston University FYSOP – First Year Student Outreach Project event at the Food Hub).
  • New Entry also held more than 17 community outreach and marketing presentations to showcase the products offered by World PEAS through the CSA and institutional partnership markets.  These efforts are necessary to continue to engage CSA shareholders, educate new managers and program representatives at institutional partner organizations, and continue to build brand awareness and outreach.  Three prominent places attended include the Boston Local Food Tradeshow, the Boston Local Food Festival, and the Boston-Area Annual Farm Share Fair.

Learning Outcomes

20 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

World PEAS Food Hub staff provided over 250 hours of technical assistance to 20 farmers during the grant period, assisting them with microloans, support to develop crop plans, establish marketing agreements, develop food safety plans, develop production schedules, and produce, harvest, and pack high quality produce. New Entry also purchased produce from 30 producers in 2016. 20 farmers were graduates of the New Entry Farmer Training Program and 10 producers were established commercial farmers in the region. Throughout the growing season (which was a drought season in 2016), producers gained increased awareness about the critical importance of reliable water supply on the farm – for both irrigation and crop water management, but also for post-harvest handling and crop quality and storage management (reducing field heat prior to cooling/storage). Additionally, producers learned about institutional market opportunities as a result of the research report. While some of the market connections did not make logistical sense for World PEAS to pursue directly, individual producers who were interested in establishing direct market connections with these buyers were provided contact information, pricing information, and buyer preference data to make connections for potential sales. For most producers, the pricing offered by wholesale buyers and quantity/quality specifications did not meet their income needs to develop buying relationships.

Project Outcomes

20 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

As a result of the research conducted, technical assistance offered, and outreach strategies employed in the grant period, 20 small-scale beginning farmers gained access to 2 new institutional markets and 10 on-going institutional food access markets, as well as a 300-member direct-to-consumer CSA program generating a total of $107,647 in revenues for beginning farmers. Individual farmer earnings ranged between $114 and $18,457 in the 2016 season with the average farmer earning $5,666. Through our institutional sales channels small-scale beginning farmers reached over 2,300 low-income and food insecure individuals, making fresh, healthy, locally grown food more accessible in our region. In the 2016 season we found that 7 of the 20 producers we worked with, or 35%, increased their wholesale readiness as a result of on-going technical assistance and support through the World PEAS Food Hub. These farmers increased their quality and improved their consistency, making them more prepared to reach wholesale markets in 2017. Through our data collection, we also discovered that there are varying degrees of wholesale readiness that farmers must obtain, opening up different types of wholesale market opportunities. As small-scale producers working with a third-party distributor, our farmers are able to utilize our technical assistance and support around crop quality to participate in certain types of wholesale market opportunities including non-profit organizations, universities, restaurants, and workplace dining services. In order to access larger wholesale market opportunities, farmers must scale their farm businesses to provide larger volumes, focus on a few key crop varieties to build scale and quality, continue to hone their production skills to deliver consistently high-quality produce that does not require review by World PEAS Food Hub staff, and improve food safety practices or possibly obtain food safety certifications. In the upcoming season, we have identified focusing on fewer crop varieties and scaling up farmer’s operations as a primary goal in our training and technical assistance programming. We will continue to provide the appropriate support to beginning farmers as they grow their farm businesses and become eligible to access larger scale wholesale markets. In the 2017 season, we continued to expand partnerships with institutional partners that align with our farmer’s current capabilities in order to help them increase their farm business revenues and continue to grow and scale their operations.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

The project’s primary goal was to explore the potential for institutional market connections to open up new markets for ethnic produce grown by immigrant and refugee producers who struggle with market access and low pricing in their own markets.  The interest in World PEAS Food Hub building new institutional markets with various wholesalers would ideally support these producers through new market connections and increased revenues/earnings.  Through the research, we confirmed what we thought may be challenging in working with institutional buyers:  large retailers have particularly stringent requirements, demanding high volume, low price-point and little flexibility. Large retailers also indicated that they have less interest in purchasing ethnic produce.  We also looked at local universities and workplace dining services companies.  We found that universities and workplace dining services companies are often likely to place value on sourcing locally grown food and have a higher interest in sourcing ethnic produce and had less stringent food safety requirements when purchasing smaller quantities, though we were unable to develop new relationships for the 2016 growing season to pilot a new buying relationship (we did continue our Tufts Dining Service relationship).  We explored local restaurants, but they require frequent deliveries of smaller volumes, which is not always cost-effective, logistically feasible for the Food Hub and may be best suited for direct farmer-to-restaurant sales.  We also explored ethnic grocery stores as a potential market opportunity, but found that most ethnic grocery stores are less interested in sourcing locally and require extremely competitive price points. Many of our immigrant and refugee producers already sell at these venues directly and there was no competitive advantage to World PEAS serving as an intermediary in these markets.  Finally, we looked at non-profit organizations, focusing specifically on elder care facilities, senior centers, and organizations serving low-income people. We found that this market channel had extremely high demand for locally grown produce, offered flexibility on pricing and delivery schedule, and had low food safety requirements. These market partnerships are an area we continue to explore, though the challenge remains in leveraging or sourcing the funds to make the produce purchasing affordable for the partner institutions.  We find these relationships most satisfying in that the purchasing quantity is known, prices can be agreed to in advance, and volumes and delivery logistics work favorably for the Food Hub.

Overall, wholesale and institutional markets are best designed for high volume, large acreage producers who can produce consistent quality and spread costs of production and distribution over larger operations.  Due to the inherent nature of beginning farmers who start out their farms on a small scale, with limited production experience and who experiment with a variety of crops to gain experience, relying on new farmers to grow larger volumes of consistent, high-quality produce at low-margin prices is likely unrealistic and not practical.  Additionally, as a mission-oriented Food Hub focused on supporting new and beginning farmers, our goal is to provide producers with fair prices for their crops.  The Food Hub is also self-interested in being as financially self-sufficient as possible for operations, therefore serving wholesale / institutional markets with razor thin margins is not sustainable in the long run, nor does it serve our mission to grow economically viable producers.  Our key takeaways from this research project is that in order to serve wholesale/institutional markets, we need to build partnerships with established commercial producers to test the market and build market relationships with high-quality, reliable produce at affordable prices that new and beginning producers may be able to grow into over time.  The Food Hub would need to grow to a larger scale overall (upwards of $1M in sales) to break even at the current margins to make wholesale pricing and volume viable.  The current infrastructure of the Food Hub may not support operations at that scale and working with qualified producer to help build the market may minimize the staff capacity to support beginning farmer learning needs and provide the necessary feedback and training, calling into question the true mission of the Food Hub.  These questions will be the focus of our business planning efforts in 2017 and beyond. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.