Challenges Facing Local Foods in North Carolina

In the second half of my class on Tuesday, Rebecca Dunning, one of the lead researchers on the NC Growing Together grant, explained some of the channels and opportunities the team has already explored to date.

As we noted in my prior blog, one of the biggest challenges for local food producers is the ability to discover and develop market channels to get their produce, fish, meat, poultry, or dairy products to the market.  But there are many other challenges as well.  One of the biggest ones is price.

For some reason, people are loath to spend money on food.  And like so many other things out there – you get what you pay for.  There is a reason why so much fast food is bad for you – the alternatives in terms of finding flavorful food for many people are few.  We have a cheap food policy in this country, and it is driving a lot of farmers out of business.  Because so much food is mass produced to focus on being “cheap” for consumers, the trend is pushing out small farms who are growing food that actually tastes like real food!  If we are to have local food in this economy, we have to turn it around so there is more profit for the producer, and the end price of the food we eat needs to be higher.  This is a challenge, and so there may be a need for social programs that  care of those who don’t have access to local food and who live in “food deserts”.

Another big challenges is regulation, in the form of “Good Agricultural Practices” or GAP.  The USDA developed GAP as means of establishing some general principles for growers and producers that could improve food safety.  But then certifiers came in and offered to be the auditors of GAP – and this let to a new form of standard that became more and more difficult to meet over time.    We need to be able to find a way to make GAP standards reasonable, as some of the rules in GAP don’t make a lot of sense.  A big problem is fertilizer.  Organic farmers use manure as a resource for soil.  GAPS has regulations on how long manure needs to be composted – even though there has never been an outbreak in 25 years due to using manure as a fertilizer.  Bug GAP mandates no manure can be used at all.  It also stipulates that gardens need a fence so no deer can get into the location.  Which means if you have a school garden where kids are growing vegetables, they can’t even use the produce they grew in the school cafeteria!  So kids are learning to NOT eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and instead are reaching for the potato chips.  The USDA also has policies on other issues like standard sizes, which although not in GAP, provides challenges for local farmers.

As a result, there has been a massive decline in small farms.  The biggest decline is in farms with revenues of $350K to $1M.  These farms are part of the community,and have an important relationship with other businesses in the rural community.  If they fail, these rural communities are headed for collapse.

One of the important solutions for the distribution problem is the need to develop local food hubs.  Food hubs are essentially a grower-based distributor, and are often an offshoot of cooperative relationships with producers who want a fair shake when they are selling, especially if they aren’t large enough to sell to big grocery chains.  Large chains typically buy from wholesalers, which include companies like US Foods (which was recently acquired by Sysco, making it ever more of a behemoth in the industry).  Wholesalers don’t want to deal with local farmers – their volumes are too small, there is too much variation, and for the most part, they can’t be bothered!  Food hubs are one channel to fill this gap, as food hubs manage aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demands.  Food hubs not only aggregate products, but are actively involved in talking to farmers ahead of the season, and advising them on which crops to grow and the timing around the growth.    Organizing production isn’t typically done by wholesalers.  Food hubs can also become GAP certified, and take on the responsibilities of auditing farmers….this is one of the big projects we will be looking at this spring.

Another potential option is helping smaller producers to sell directly to the store!  This is what was done 80 years ago when all farmers sold to local stores.  But it was difficult.  Today, even if a store manager wants to buy local, there is no easy mechanism to do so, and there are challenges with inspection, auditing, paying, etc.   The direct to store delivery concept is one that the NC Growing Together team is piloting with a number of growers as well as food hubs.  Another potential option is to sell to military bases.  Such bases (like Fort Bragg) are typically serviced by a single large distributor, such as US Foods.  However, military bases have a vested interest in supporting local foods, not just to encourage healthy eating on the part of their troops, but also to preserve the rural nature of the surrounding areas around their bases.  So that is another project we will be working on with Fort Bragg.

This is going to be an exciting semester with lots of project work….so stay tuned!