Purdue Extension starts food-hub discussion in central Indiana

Old McDonald had a farm, but no time to sell the fruits of his labor. In the old days, he was forced to make time—lugging his products to far-away locations and turning on the charm for customers. Then came food hubs.

Spawned at least in part by the “eat local” and organic-food movements, the regional facilities provide one-stop shops for consumers and farmers alike.

There are about 170 food hubs in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and now the Purdue Extension is looking into the feasibility of a food hub in central Indiana.

The West Lafayette-based educational organization, which helps Indiana farmers obtain their agricultural goals, will bring farmers like Old McDonald together for meetings this week to discuss the pros and cons of establishing a food hub in the region.

“We’re not trying to sell something; we’re just trying to put a concept out there,” said Roy Ballard, an agriculture and natural resources educator in Purdue Extension’s Hancock County office.

Ballard said food hubs can take different forms. Some are clearinghouses that clean, store and package farm-fresh foods before they are sold. Some also include an online marketplace where consumers can buy food for pick-up or delivery.

The meetings will focus on demand for the various options, he said. The extension also is conducting online surveys for farmers, public officials, county health departments and consumers who can’t attend.

“If we find out that it’s not going to work, then we need to know that, too,” Ballard said.

The USDA has taken such a strong interest in food hubs that this April the federal agency promoted an 80-plus-page “Regional Food Hub Resource Guide” with detailed information for anyone starting or participating in such an operation.

The department believes food hubs will help farmers by establishing a reliable infrastructure for them.

Ultimately, the goal is for farmers to improve their marketing and for consumers—including restaurants and grocery stores—to gain access to fresh, regionally-cultivated products.

A food hub is “an aggregation center that can help with quality control,” said Jessica Smith, president of This Old Farm Inc., a Colfax-based farming business that runs a farm alliance, another term for a food hub.

Smith, who also is a member of Purdue Extension’s food hub steering committee, noted that marketing a product takes about 30 percent of a farmer’s time. Therefore, food hubs allow farmers to worry less about selling and concentrate more on creating a strong product.

Ballard said all farmers participating in a food hub would have to be properly trained in safe food practices. He estimates that this instruction and the business infrastructure will cost about $50,000.

Establishing a food hub would keep the agricultural economy steady in Indiana by supporting local farmers and decreasing the amount of energy used for food travel, Smith added.

In his 2002 book, “Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market,” Brian Halweil, a senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute, wrote that typical food travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to plate. Today, he estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of the food supply travels a shorter distance due to more people and companies purchasing local foods.

Although the food hub discussion starts Tuesday, Smith believes a central Indiana facility isn’t likely to pop up too soon. After all, it took This Old Farm two years of detailed planning before it even began building a structure.

Ballard said that Purdue Extension doesn’t necessarily intend to start a local food hub. For now, the organization just wants to gauge the community’s reaction.

“Farmers are very quick to point out what’s good and what’s not good, so we want that honest feedback,” Ballard said.

Meetings are scheduled for:

— 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Hamilton County Purdue Extension office, 2003 Pleasant St., Noblesville

— 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Hancock County Purdue Extension office, 802 N. Apple St., Greenfield

— 6 p.m. Thursday at the Henry County Purdue Extension office, 1201 Race St., New Castle.


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