Increasing the Professional Technical Support for Local, Sustainable Food Distribution Systems in the Southern Region
Through this project, Southern SAWG is facilitating a learning network of agricultural professionals, NGO assistance providers and farmers from across the southern region who are assisting farmers and community members in strengthening local, sustainable food distribution systems by developing regional food hubs or food value chains.
In the summer of 2013 we conducted extensive outreach and recruitment, and enlisted 47 members in the learning group residing in 12 of our 13 Southern states. We made sure to include a strong cross-section of practitioners and assistance providers to make the exchange of learning as rich as possible. Nine are active in running a food hub, thirteen are involved in efforts to start a food hub, and the others are providing assistance to food hubs or regional food value chains. Sixteen identify themselves as farmers, twenty are with nonprofit organizations, ten with government agencies, and twelve are private consultants.
All members were surveyed for information about their work their food hub work and their training needs.
Our first e-newsletter was sent to the learning group in December 2013 providing them with a complete list of the learning network members along with contact information and introductions on what each are doing regarding food hubs. The newsletter also highlighted resources that addressed some of their most requested needs from the National Good Food Network (NGFN) Food Hub Center.
In January 2014 we conducted several activities for the learning group at the Southern SAWG conference in Mobile, AL, including three educational sessions specifically targeted for their learning needs, several other educational sessions that hit additional food hub issues, and an informal meeting to help them get to know each other better.
Evaluations from the conference sessions showed that all participants learned something absolutely useful. 59-77% of participants definitely expect to use what they learned in their work within the next year, while most others possibly expect to use it within the next year. Comments from the sessions also showed that attendees were highly engaged and were able to identify more specific information that they would like to obtain, helping to set up the learning group for our next year of activities.
The overall goal of this project is to equip Cooperative Extension agents, USDA field personnel, NGO technical assistance providers, and other agricultural professionals and educators in the southern region with the tools and resources to provide effective technical support to farmers and community members who are developing or strengthening local, sustainable food distribution systems.
Objective 1: At least 50 agricultural professionals will participate in a learning network with associated training on local, sustainable food distribution systems offered through this project. Lessons to be taught will include, but not be limited to: key factors that contribute to the success or failure of regional food hub and food value chain activities, how to finance stages of development and reduce risk, options for legal business structures, and methods for assessing community assets that could be components of a regional food hub.
Objective 2: Participants will gain improved understanding of the keys to effective development of local, sustainable food distribution systems, and how their work can be of assistance to this development.
Objective 3: Participants will gain access to tools and resources that can be readily used by agricultural professionals or other community members to support the development of local, sustainable food distribution systems. They will include user-friendly electronic materials available online or on CD that they will share with others or refer to when called upon to provide needed technical information.
Objective 4: Participants will gain access to professional relationships with other agricultural professionals across the region working on similar issues who they can contact for specific information needs. They will draw on these contacts when called upon to provide needed technical assistance.
Objective 5: Participants will gain improved capacity to deliver technical assistance to producers and community members seeking to develop local, sustainable food distribution systems. This capacity will be gained by utilizing the information presented in the training, through the newly accessed tools and resources, and through continued networking with other learning network members.
We organized our advisory team, and asked them for input on avenues for recruitment of learning network members and on our initial assessment of those members. As proposed, our advisors are:
1. Eric Bendfeldt, Extension Specialist, Community Viability, Virginia Cooperative Extension.
2. Julia Gaskin, Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Georgia.
3. Elizabeth Myles, Marketing Specialist, Alcorn State University, Mississippi Small Farm Development Center.
4. Devona Sherwood, Wallace Center at Winrock International.
5. Kathlyn Terry, Appalachian Sustainable Development, Appalachian Harvest food hub.
6. Andrew Williams, TUCCA and the Deep South Food Alliance.
We conducted extensive outreach and recruitment for the learning group throughout the summer of 2013, especially to those who work with limited resource and underserved populations of producers. Through an application process, we enlisted 47 members in the learning group (including our advisors) from 12 of our 13 Southern states. Nine are active in running a food hub, thirteen are involved in efforts to start a food hub, and the others are providing assistance in one form or another to food hubs or regional food value chains. Sixteen identify themselves as farmers, twenty are with nonprofit organizations, ten with government agencies, and twelve are private consultants.
We also found out a bit about the types of food hubs or food value chains they were working with. In terms of farmer demographics, 89% of the groups have Caucasian farmers participating, 63% have African American farmers, 34% have Hispanic farmers, 31% have Asian American farmers, and 18% have Native American farmers participating.
Most of the groups they are working with are fairly new. Over one third (36%) are less than one year old, and more than 60% are less than five years old. As to be expected, over half of the groups they are working with had gross annual sales of less than $500,000, although a few are working with groups that gross over one million. They are working with groups that have several types of business structures, including nonprofits, cooperatives, private corporations, and publicly held corporations. 73% of the groups they are working with plan to provide food to low-income or disadvantaged populations.
In our rapid assessment survey of the learning network members (as part of their application), we also found out what topics they most wanted to learn about. Here were the most requested topics (with the percentage of network members who cited this as a need):
Creating a network of food hubs in the Southern region – 76%
Comparison of distribution models – 74%
Farmer recruitment and farmer relations – 66%
Production planning – 61%
Financing options – 58%
Developing feasibility studies/business plans – 55%
Food safety strategies – 55%
Management – 52%
Selling to local schools and other institutions – 47%
In December 2013, we sent out the first e-newsletter to our learning group, providing them with a complete list of the learning network members along with contact information and introductions on what each are doing regarding food hubs. The newsletter highlighted resources from the National Good Food Network (NGFN) Food Hub Center http://ngfn.org/resources/food-hubs that address specific needs identified in our initial assessment of members.
On January 16-18, 2014 we conducted activities for the learning group at the Southern SAWG conference in Mobile, AL. A fairly informal in-person meeting was held to provide introductions and mixer activities to let learning group members get to know each other a bit more.
Three educational sessions specifically addressed their food hub issues on January 18:
Building Farmer Capacity and Regional Supply Chain Infrastructure to Reach Institutional and Wholesale Buyers – For the past two years, several partners in Alabama and Mississippi addressedthebarriersthat farmersface in meetinginstitutional and wholesale market demand. The IncreasingFarmerSuccessproject facilitatedlocalmarketlinkageswithavarietyofretail andinstitutionalbuyersand built farmercapacitythroughdirecttechnicalassistance,grouptraining,andbymakingdirect investmentsinto supplychaininfrastructureandactivities. Partners in this work will share successes along with lessons for others. Lee McBride, Food Bank of North Alabama (AL); Glyen Holmes, New North Florida Cooperative (FL); Andrew Williams, Deep South Food Alliance (AL); Miles Robinson, Tuskegee University (AL); Devona Sherwood, Wallace Center (VA).
Food Hub Lessons 1: Getting Started – Are you considering aggregating and distributing farm products, or have recently started a regional food hub or food value chain? Staff members from three food hubs in our region will present examples of how they made decisions on topics such as business structure, management, capital expenditures, distribution and markets, and farmer recruitment. This will be a facilitated conversation to help you learn about some of the differing approaches for reaching your goals. Alyssa Denny & Bill Pastellak, Hollygrove Market & Farm (LA); Kathlyn Terry, Appalachian Sustainable Development (VA); Bob Waldrop, Oklahoma Food Cooperative (OK); Eric Bendfeldt, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VA).
Food Hub Lessons 2: Operating For Self-Sufficiency and Growth – Whether you are just starting a regional food hub or food value chain, have been operating one for some time, or are assisting others, it helps to hear lessons from the field. Staff members from two organizations will discuss issues specific to more advanced businesses such as production planning, distribution, financial operations, income generation, and more. Anthony Flaccavento, who started a successful food hub, will facilitate the conversation and add insight. Laurie & Will Moore, Moore Farms and Friends (AL/GA); Alan Moore, Local Food Hub (VA); and Anthony Flaccavento, SCALE (VA).
Many other conference sessions were conducted with the needs of the learning network in mind, and addressed their work and the work of farmers selling through food hubs, including:
- Managing Your Farm as a Business
Adding Value-Added Products to Your Farm
Building Relationships with School Food Staff for Successful Farm to School Programs
Putting the “Farmer” in Farm-to-School and Cooperative Marketing Ventures
Capitalizing Your Organization for Sustainability and Growth
Travel scholarships to the conference were provided for all of the learning network members who asked for assistance – 20 total.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The following is a summary of the evaluations from the conference sessions.
Building Farmer Capacity and Regional Supply Chain Infrastructure to Reach Institutional and Wholesale Buyers
65 people attended.
When asked if they learned something useful, 86% replied yes absolutely and 14% replied yes, moderately. When asked if they expect to use information learned in this session within the next year, 68% replied yes absolutely and 3% replied yes, possibly. When asked if they would another session by these presenters, 78% replied yes absolutely and 22% replied yes, possibly.
Comments from the session showed that attendees were highly engaged and were able to identify more specific information that they would like to obtain, including GAP and food safety certification, building consumer demand for local food, and more on business and financial structures.
Food Hub Lessons 1: Getting Started
68 people attended.
When asked if they learned something useful, 80% replied yes absolutely and 20% replied yes, moderately. When asked if they expect to use information learned in this session within the next year, 59% replied yes absolutely and 35% replied yes, possibly. When asked if they would another session by these presenters, 69% replied yes absolutely and 27% replied yes, possibly.
Comments from this session included:
– great work
– excellent session
– very beneficial
Food Hub Lessons 2: Operating For Self-Sufficiency and Growth
45 people attended
When asked if they learned something useful, 86% replied yes absolutely and 14% replied yes, moderately. When asked if they expect to use information learned in this session within the next year, 77% replied yes absolutely and 20% replied yes, possibly. When asked if they would another session by these presenters, 84% replied yes absolutely and 16% replied yes, possibly.
Comments from this session included:
– very informative (2)
– very thorough
– great job
– great session / great facilitator (3)
Throughout the conference we continued to gather recommendations for what learning network members still needed. We will address many of these topics throughout 2014 with other learning activities and again in the 2015 conference sessions. They include:
– additional ideas on getting started / what NOT to do
– further discussion of food hub models – what works, challenges, solutions
– how to decide on business structure
– figuring out the logistics
– funding opportunities
– financial data and business plans for getting started
– more focus on very rural hubs
– more on food hubs in very poor areas
– more on planning for future viability of the business
– balancing supply and demand
– networking with other food hubs
– pros and cons of food hubs from farmers perspective
Extension Specialist, Community Viability
Virginia Cooperative Extension
2322 Blue Stone Hills Drive, Suite 140
Harrisonburg, VA 22801
Office Phone: 5404326029
Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator
University of Georgia
3111 Miller Plant Sciences Building
Athens, GA 30602-7272
Office Phone: 7065421401
Appalachian Sustainable Development
PO Box 791
Abingdon, VA 24212
Office Phone: 2766231121
5 Hoerner Circle
Boiling Springs, PA 17007
Office Phone: 7172401361
5850 AL Highway 66
Safford, AL 36773
Office Phone: 3346243276
Alcorn State University / MS Small Farm Development Center
100 ASU Drive, 1080
Alcorn State, MS 39096
Office Phone: 6018773947