Scaling Up the Local Food Movement

Small farmers generally sell their wares at farmers markets rather than to grocery stores or institutions. But two entrepreneurs in Virginia are seeking to change that by creating a food hub to aggregate, process, grow, and promote local produce.
November 14, 2012, 8am PST | Jessica Hsu
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With 33 acres of land south of the D.C. suburbs, Jim Epstein and Mark Seale, the founders of Blue Ridge Produce are offering greenhouses, warehouses and office spaces to help start-up food companies and farmers in rural Virginia reach larger markets, and make a profit in the process. "Many food hubs serve as the marketing and distributing arms for growers wanting to break into the larger-scale markets of nearby cities," writes Whitney Pipkin, "[a]nd many are nonprofits (including Charlottesville's Local Food Hub). They are often built from the growers up, establishing their own distribution streams that run parallel to the mainstream food system and includes deliveries to individual restaurants or homes. But Epstein and Seale want to work within the existing channels, recruiting Sysco and Aramark to add local produce to their D.C.-bound truckloads, while aggregating food directly from farmers."

Epstein and Seale have also created an incentive for more farmers to grow and sell fruits and vegetables in addition to the large-scale meat and dairy production that dominate Virginia's farms, reports Pipkin. "They can really complement and add value to the traditional distribution system...and focus on [helping] producers building capacity to meet demand," says James Barham, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's marketing service, who has visited the facility twice, "Oh boy, do they have the space for it."

Blue Ridge's push for aggregation and statewide-grown produce could help reduce the quantity of food shipped from elsewhere and help build local and regional markets. A feasibility study [PDF] conducted in late 2010 confirmed Epstein's "hunch that these bigger buyers want - and need - more local produce to satisfy customers." Blue Ridge provides the infrastructure to bridge production and demand, says Pipkin, and the business "brings a bit of certainty and some higher wages to farmers who rarely have both."

"But like other efforts to scale up of the local food movement," cautions Pipkin, "Blue Ridge has seen its share of complexity. While it may be Virginia-grown, most of the produce isn't organic - at least not yet." The company is also working on fighting the off-season by encouraging farmers to use their facilities to grow produce year-round.

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Published on Monday, November 12, 2012 in Grist
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