Food hub needs farmers

???????????????????????????????There’s a potential market opportunity  developing for farmers in south central Ontario – and they’re being asked to step forward if they’re interested in being part of a new food hub pilot project.

The South Central Ontario Region (SCOR) Economic Development Corporation has received funding from the Greenbelt Fund to test a food hub concept to help get more fresh or processed Ontario produce into institutions, retail and food service markets in the province.

SCOR covers Norfolk, Oxford, Brant, Middlesex, and Elgin Counties.

“SCOR is prime and diverse agricultural land with so many different products grown and produced, so our goal is to see more of that product channelled locally,” says Bernia Wheaton, Manager of Agriculture and Food Business Development with SCOR. “So much of what is grown here is shipped outside of SCOR, Ontario or even Canada, so how do we work with producers and processors here to shift that?”

The problem is that although there has been a significant increase in the amount of locally grown food sold to consumers, small and medium sized producers are having difficulty in accessing mainstream food service, retail and institutional markets, like schools, hospitals and long-term care facilities.

They lack the volume of production to service larger customers, many of whom prefer to deal with a single supplier instead of multiple smaller ones.

Regional aggregators, often called “food hubs”, are one way to enable more producers to be able to access those markets.

Wheaton says the goal of their project is to develop and implement the food hub concept in SCOR and run it as a pilot model to determine what is successful and what may need some tweaking or improvements.

The project funding is in place till March 2015, after which it is hoped the initiative will be self-sustaining.

Five food hub sites have been identified in the region as part of the pilot project: VG Meats, Whitecrest Mushrooms, Streef Produce, Norfolk Fruit Growers and Froese Produce.

“Instead of SCOR renting or building facilities, we are making use of existing facilities that are already handling produce and have the docking, chilling, packing and grading equipment and capacity in place,” she says. “We want to harness existing resources in our region for this project and they’ve been eager to participate with us.”

The next step is to find growers interested in participating in the model and either diverting existing production or growing specifically for the food hub.

All five sites have different facilities and capacities, says Wheaton, so work will be done to find the right fit for both growers and the hub locations when it comes to matching them up.

A networking event in February brought more than 50 processors, growers, government and municipal representatives, food service distributors and food buyers from local hospitals, schools and long term care facilities together to learn about the project.

A software system is being developed that will trace products from farmer to buyer.

That system will also allow buyers to register, see what is available through the various hubs, and place their orders for pick up or delivery on demand.

“Ideally we will have some food moving through the hubs this summer and have some infrastructure in place. Our goal is to grow the program as various procurement requests are released and we can bring together growers to fill these requests,” says Wheaton. “Many establishments identify their food needs up to a year in advance so this is a great tool that will let us bring multiple growers together to meet the demands of some of these requests and the hubs are the streamlined, central point for logistics and administration.”

The program is open to any locally grown and processed food products, including meat, cheese, grain, dairy, produce, maple syrup, honey and more.

The pilot is overseen by a steering committee of regional representatives; the idea evolved from several projects led by Erie Innovation and Commercialization that looked at marketplace access and accessing the broader public sector.

“Individually it is very hard to move some of these ideas forward, but as an ag industry we need to partner and work together,” believes Wheaton. “It’s going to take time, this won’t happen overnight, but we’ll all be better and more competitive and accomplish greater goals if we work together.”

Anyone interested in participating in the food hub pilot project is asked to contact Bernia Wheaton at foodhub@scorregion.com or 226-921-5576.

This post was originally published in Ontario Farmer.

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