Farms' food hubs mean business
NEW PALTZ — For years, farmer Paul Alward considered a quandary: New York was flush with farms and citizens increasingly interested in eating local, but there seemed to be a disconnect in matching product with consumer.
"There was demand and supply," he said, "But no connection between the two."
So in 2011, Alward helped found Hudson Valley Harvest, a company that sources meat and produce from local farmers, freezes the items and then sells them to stores and restaurants throughout the Northeast. The products sell in stores from Whole Foods in New York City to the Honest Weight Food Co-Op in Albany.
Places like Hudson Valley Harvest — dubbed food hubs — are catching on.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would distribute $3.6 million in funding to five food distribution hubs across the state, citing their ability to grow state agriculture and connect New Yorkers with fresher, healthier food.
Three of those food hubs will be new additions to the increasing numbers of hubs that continue to pop up around the state.
"One of the biggest barriers for people trying to buy and sell food is that the system can be inefficient," said Laura Ten Eyck, New York project and outreach manager for the American Farmland Trust. "As our food system expanded to become global, our local distribution networks phased away. There's no local distribution system. What we need is to rebuild it."
The basic concept of the food hub is simple: Establish a place where local food producers can aggregate resources and share in costs, making food distribution cheaper, more efficient, and, often, more competitive in the commercial market.
Not all farms have the resources or product for a farmers market, or to truck food around the state to markets, stores and restaurants where their product is in demand.
Food hubs come in many forms. The hubs the state will fund, in central New York, the North Country, the Finger Lakes, Long Island and the Hudson Valley, focus largely on processing raw foods into frozen food or canned goods — processes that can net farms significant income but require costly equipment smaller operations cannot afford.
A food hub can also be as simple as a place where farms bring fresh produce for storage or transport to other markets.
"Food hubs often fill a gap in getting New York local products into what has become a very centralized national system. They create new entry points," said Todd Erling, executive director of the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corp. "These food hubs are looking at where are the gaps in creating opts for New York farms."
"A food hub's success depends on what are the needs of the region's farms," he added.
The Hudson Valley Food Hub in Kingston comprises Hudson Valley Harvest and Farm to Table Co-Packers, which processes food such as jams and sauces both for the farms and for small food producers, often connecting food producers with local farmers. Between both companies, the hub works with more than 60 farmers ranging from small, three-acre family farms to 1,300-acre commercial operations. It handles everything from vegetables to eggs, meat, honey and grains.
The prices farmers are paid for their raw materials are often above standard wholesale market prices, though less than retail.
With the more than $826,000 it will receive in funding from the state, the Hudson Valley hub will add more processing equipment, cold/freezer storage, trucks and distribution depots that will allow the hub to meet increasing demand and working with more farmers.
Vegetable farmer Chuck Colaruolo sells produce from his 180-acre Valatie farm to Farm to Table Co-Packers. Through Farm to Table, his tomatoes have wound up in pizza sauce at State University of New York campuses and his cucumbers in jars of pickles on shelves of supermarkets, markets he would not have traditionally had access to himself.
"It's much more difficult for local growers to access the food system now," he said.
His business with the Hudson Valley Food Hub only accounts for a small portion of his annual income, but he believes such food hubs will become an increasingly common way local food producers do business.
"It's putting local food in the hands of local people," he said, "And it's giving farmers an opportunity."