Supplying Demand: Optimizing Improvements to the Local Food Value Chain in Western Massachusetts

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $14,974.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Margaret Christie
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

Annual Reports

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal abstract:

    The Pioneer Valley has a well-established local food economy, with assets including new farmers and food business entrepreneurs, an engaged public, a successful incubator kitchen, and a strong network of agencies providing technical assistance and financing. Demand for locally grown food continues to climb, and large buyers ranging from restaurants to retailers to institutions are pursuing local sourcing. These large buyers represent important opportunities to bring locally grown food to people in the places they already eat and shop, while providing valuable markets for farmers at a time when growth in direct markets is slowing. Nonetheless, significant challenges prevent larger buyers from fully acting on their interest in local sourcing. This project focuses on effective, achievable improvements to one of the most important of those challenges, distribution and related services such as aggregation and ordering.

    This project is unusual because it does not propose starting a food hub or solving distribution challenges through information technology alone. These solutions too often fail. Our goal is to identify strategic improvements to existing distribution and related services that will increase supply and improve profitability of farm sales to large buyers. Our analysis will detail current capacity and identify options for strengthening existing enterprises in order to fill gaps and to serve a robust local food system. Extensive stakeholder input will inform an inventory of current distribution activities and a prioritized list of improvements, which CISA will disseminate to growers, buyers and distributors and to agencies that can support successful implementation of needed improvements.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project addresses the following questions:

    • What are current patterns of distribution and related services that connect Pioneer Valley farmers with local and regional wholesale buyers (restaurants, retailers, and institutions)?
    • How can we strengthen this existing capacity in order to ensure that it serves a robust local and regional food system? Examples of improvements include providing technical assistance to existing distributors, adding on-line ordering capacity or tracking software, filling geographic gaps, and strengthening farmer-run aggregation and distribution efforts.

     CISA has initiated a suite of initiatives designed to understand current production and distribution patterns, identify gaps, and prioritize solutions. Our goal for these related projects is to increase supply and improve profitability of farm sales to large buyers by optimizing investments in marketing and distribution efficiency. In this SARE-funded proposal, we focus on distribution and related activities, such as aggregation, invoicing, and ordering.

    Objectives for this SARE-funded work are as follows:

    Objective 1:  Gain a detailed understanding of existing distribution patterns for local food sold to larger buyers in our region, and identify pressure points where improvement is needed.

    Objective 2: Write and disseminate an inventory and prioritized list of proposed improvements to distribution activities in the Pioneer Valley.

    This project seeks to inventory current distribution patterns in the Pioneer Valley and to identify the best leverage points for strengthening the supply chain connecting local growers and large buyers. CISA will be the lead agency on this project. We will work closely with a group of advisors including farmers, buyers, distributors, and partner agencies. This group will be engaged in the design of project activities, review of project materials, and dissemination of project materials. Using interviews, focus groups, and a survey, we will invite broad input from stakeholders and emerge with clearly prioritized opportunities for investment and improvement.

    To complete the deliverables related to each objective, CISA and collaborators will engage in the following activities.

    Objective 1:  Gain a detailed understanding of existing distribution patterns for local food sold to larger buyers in the Pioneer Valley, and identify pressure points where improvement is needed.

    Activities will include:

    • Review of information from other locations related to improving distribution (and related services) for local food systems, particularly focused on effective work with existing distributors.
    • Detailed interviews with ten growers serving primarily wholesale markets and five growers whose markets include both direct sales and larger buyers. Interviews will be designed to review markets and distribution, delivery, ordering, and invoicing methods.
    • Detailed interviews with seven buyers, including two colleges, two hospitals, and three retailers, focused on needs for delivery, ordering, communication, and payment.
    • Detailed interviews with four distributors serving the Pioneer Valley and connecting Pioneer Valley growers with other important markets, designed to reveal types of markets served, geographical coverage, volume requirements, and desired improvements. If possible, we will also interview distribution businesses that have recently failed in the region.
    • Three focus groups of growers, buyers, distributors, and agricultural service providers, designed to elicit additional input based on conversation among food system players, and to contribute to prioritization of potential improvements.
    • Survey of CISA’s 246 member farms to gain their input on improvements needed in the supply chain connecting farms and larger buyers.

    We expect to review a broad list of potential improvements to distribution and related services in our region. Our preliminary list of possible target points for improvement includes:

    • On-line ordering and invoicing;
    • Technical assistance for existing distributors, in order to support them in expanding local sourcing or serving new markets;
    • Technical assistance for new and existing farmer aggregators;
    • Identification and dissemination of information regarding unfilled demand for locally grown product from buyers;
    • New food hubs serving targeted markets; and,
    • Support for detailed individual market analysis and planning for growers, buyers, and distributors, allowing them to identify the best market channels and/or infrastructure, systems, or management investments for their business. Researchers such as Brannen (2013) note that producers, distributors, and entrepreneurs looking to invest in infrastructure and operational changes often lack the resources to complete economic assessments of these small-scale food system improvements.

    Objective 2: Write and disseminate a distribution inventory and a prioritized list of desired improvements for the Pioneer Valley.

    Activities will include:

    • Create inventory of current distribution patterns and identification of geographic, market, or service gaps using information gathered in interviews.
    • Compile a prioritized list of desired improvements.
    • Disseminate Pioneer Valley distribution inventory and list of desired improvements. Although distribution patterns can change rapidly, we feel that a comprehensive review of existing options will provide valuable information to growers, buyers, financing agencies, and organizations and individuals considering new enterprises, creating food system assessments, or planning their business activities.

    Dissemination will be focused on three groups of stakeholders:  1) producers, buyers, and distributors; 2) technical service providers, non-profits, and agencies interested in financing for local food; 3) nationwide colleagues interested in this model of infrastructure assessment and need identification. Dissemination will be audience-appropriate and will include CISA’s electronic newsletters and website, listservs, grower and buyer meetings, and in-person presentations. It will include a Meet and Greet for growers and buyers, including a presentation of research results and supported networking opportunities.

    Please note that this project represents a portion of a comprehensive effort to strengthen and enhance the production, distribution, and sale of locally grown produce to large buyers. The full effort will include five steps, as follows:

    1. Assess current supply and distribution patterns and gaps through in-depth interviews with growers and buyers.
    2. Identify opportunities to strengthen and improve the value chain connecting growers and large buyers, including communication, ordering, invoicing, aggregation, distribution, and delivery, and prioritize these opportunities through a careful process of stakeholder input.
    3. Work with partners to provide comprehensive support to new and expanding enterprises and services that address the priorities identified in step two.
    4. Identify opportunities to increase the supply provided by existing growers by diverting produce from distant markets, supporting direct market growers who want to sell some product to larger buyers, and increasing land in production.
    5. Identify and prioritize gaps in the services available to new farmers, including land and market matching, with the goal of increasing supply.

    Our current proposal addresses distribution, aggregation, and related services. In a separately-funded project, we are analyzing current production. CISA’s existing technical assistance programs address parts of steps four and five, and we are part of a network of service providers and lenders working to address step three. We are actively pursuing partnerships and funding opportunities that will allow us to more fully address steps three, four, and five.  

    The steps identified in this proposal are necessary to accelerate investment in the local food system. This work will reduce the risk of failure for new investments and programs by providing place-specific, data-driven analysis of the supply capacity and distribution patterns of the Pioneer Valley, and stakeholder-driven identification of leverage points for high-yield improvements.

    CISA will be the lead organization on this project. Farmer partners and collaborators will provide guidance and feedback and will review project plans and results. Activities and timetable are as follows:

    1. Discuss project goals and plan, including interview and focus group topics, with project advisors (CISA staff and advisors, April and May 2015).
    2. Gather and review information from other regions about infrastructure assessment and targeted improvement of distribution and related services for local food systems (CISA staff, April—August 2015).
    3. Plan, schedule, and complete interviews with growers, buyers, and distributors (CISA staff, September 2015—February 2016).
    4. Survey CISA’s business members about potential improvements to distribution and related activities (CISA staff, January—February 2016).
    5. Work with facilitator to plan and implement three focus groups with growers, buyers, and distributors (CISA staff and facilitator, December 2015—February 2016).
    6. Draft distribution inventory for review by project advisors (CISA staff, March—April 2016).
    7. Draft prioritized list of improvements to distribution and related services for review by project advisors (CISA staff, March—April 2016).
    8. Present results and receive feedback at Meet and Greet for growers and buyers (CISA staff, March 2016).
    9. Complete final inventory and list of improvements, incorporating feedback from advisors and attendees at Meet and Greet (CISA staff, May—June 2016).
    10. Disseminate results to stakeholders, partners, and colleagues (see section 6 for details) (CISA staff, June—September 2016).
    11. Work with regional technical assistance providers, funders, and lenders to identify options for supporting implementation of identified improvements (CISA staff, Massachusetts Farm to School, June—September 2016).

    CISA communicates regularly with more than 235 farmers, 100 farm-and-food related business people, over 5,000 members of the public, and with many peer organizations in our region through direct communications, active networks, and regional and national listservs.

    Dissemination of the results of this project will be focused on three groups of stakeholders: 

    1) Producers, buyers, and distributors;

    2) Technical service providers, non-profits, and agencies interested in financing for local food; and,

    3) Nationwide colleagues interested in this model of infrastructure assessment and need identification.

    Dissemination activities will include the following:

    1. Distribution inventory and list of prioritized improvements will be available on CISA’s website and in hard copy. We will notify farmers, buyers, distributors, and local and national colleagues that this information is available through our own newsletters and outreach and by sending announcements through our partner organizations, networks, and listservs.
    2. In-person communication of results with growers, buyers, and distributors, including: (a) a Meet and Greet for growers and buyers will be held in March 2016. We will present our findings and welcome feedback from attendees, which will be incorporated in the final written documents; and (b) Use and presentation of this information in our on-going technical assistance activities, which include significant support for marketing, distribution, and sourcing for both growers and buyers, and are carried out through formal and informal one-on-one meetings, telephone and email communication, and regular workshops and networking sessions.
    3. In-person communication with partners and colleagues, focused on options for supporting implementation of our recommendations regarding improvements to distribution and related activities. We will discuss our results and recommendations at regularly scheduled meetings with partners and colleagues, including the Pioneer Valley Grows Network, the Massachusetts regional ‘buy local’ groups, and county-level planning groups such as food policy councils.

    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.