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Food hub concept gains ground with 2nd grant

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GREENFIELD — Emboldened by a second grant, organizers are moving forward with plans for a central Indiana food hub, which could start as an online portal as early as next spring.

The committee studying the concept has been awarded a second USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, this time for $37,000, to help cover start-up costs associated with getting a virtual food hub off the ground.

Now, all organizers need is producers to supply it. Oh, and maybe a market to sell to.

Hancock County’s Purdue Extension office will play host to an informational meeting next month to get feedback from central Indiana produce growers. Roy Ballard, extension educator and project leader, said he’s not quite ready to start signing up farmers, but instead wants feedback from the hub’s potential suppliers.

“We’ll really see if we have beekeepers, cattlemen, pork producers, vegetable growers … coming out and saying, ‘This sounds like it has some merit,’” Ballard said. “If not, why not?”

The idea is that a food hub will give local producers a chance to reach new customers, and maybe eventually new markets. Ballard said preliminary surveys show a great deal of interest in scaling up production through aggregation to a level that would appeal to wholesale and institutional buyers. Such a project would take a great deal of overhead, coordination and investment; if the hub grows to that level, it likely will not be for several years.

Jeremy Weaver is one producer interested in reaching larger, institutional buyers like schools, hospitals and restaurants. But for now, the producer interested in reaching larger, institutional buyers like schools, hospitals and restaurants. But for now, the Shelby County farmer and Hancock Harvest Council member said he is pleased even to see the virtual hub taking shape.

“We’re interested in any phase that it takes,” Weaver said. “It just gives us another outlet to market our products to consumers.”

Weaver started Weaver’s Produce in 1995 with just one acre. Over the years, he has grown that to 40 acres of sweet corn, tomatoes and other specialty crops. Weaver said he has the resources to keep growing but needs a larger market for his products. He hopes taking part in the food hub, in any form, will do that for him.

“Basically, most of our sales are direct-to-consumer sales,” he explained. “I’m looking to basically expand our operation more into wholesale sales. This would be the perfect opportunity to do something like that.”

The Dec. 13 meeting will be the first chance for Ballard and other organizers to see how many other supporters are out there. It is one of the final stages of a grant Ballard received last year to conduct a feasibility study. The study, presented earlier this year, found that there was enough interest and resources to support a central Indiana food hub. Now, Ballard said, the task is just finding out what that hub will look like.

Ballard said they’ll start small, with a virtual hub that will work much like an online farmers market. He hopes to have it off the ground next spring, in time for the 2013 growing season.

Plans are still in flux, but Ballard said there will be a platform that allows consumers to place orders online for meat, produce and other locally produced products. Shoppers will be able to see where the products come from and choose which farmers to buy from.

“It’s all up to the customers,” he said. “Just like at a farmers market and there are three beef vendors there, it’s up to the farmer to create a description of their product … to appeal to the customer.”

Farmers will then deliver produce at a location, to be determined, where it will be sorted and packaged for each individual customer. Most likely, those packages will then be delivered to drop-off points throughout the region.

Reaching out to those potential customers is also on the horizon. Ballard said little work has been done on that front, but a small marketing campaign is in the works as part of the current grant.

Traditional farmers markets are a staple of Indiana summers, but how an online shopping experience will fit into that landscape is yet to be seen.

Hancock Harvest Council President Earl Smith said he thinks a virtual food hub will draw a different kind of customer, opening up the ability to shop for fresh, local produce to people who may not have the time to stop by farmers markets.

“For people who don’t have time to meet (farmers) face to face, they can still have fresh products,” Smith said. “You’re looking at two different types of people and two different types of growers.”

Smith said some Harvest Council members have expressed interest in the hub, but most are waiting to see what direction the hub takes.

The grant funding the virtual food hub is good for one year. Ballard said it will cover some costs associated with building the online platform, hiring a part-time administrator to coordinate operations and transportation, among other things. Where the hub goes from there is an unknown, he said.

“We’ll actually see if this is going to work or not, and I really think it will,” he said.  “I think it’s going to be bigger than we imagined, but only time will tell.”

The upcoming meeting is free and open to the public. Any interested farmers in central Indiana are encouraged to attend. It will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Hancock County Public Library.

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