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Food hub seeks help from taxpayers

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GREENFIELD — Proponents of the Hoosier Harvest Market food hub are hoping to take the concept to the next level with public tax money.

The market, a fairly new concept for Hancock County, brings farmers together to market their crops to sell directly to consumers. Based out of the Hancock County Purdue Extension office and funded so far by grants, the market opened in June offering a wide variety of produce, meat and dairy products to consumers via online orders.

Buyers place their orders online and pick up their purchases at one of five drop-off points throughout the county. Since opening, the market added additional delivery points in Marion and Henry counties, and Purdue Extension educator Roy Ballard said if more funding is acquired, the market could expand.

Wednesday, Ballard pitched an idea to the Hancock County Council, suggesting that $50,000 for the next two years could go into greater marketing efforts for the hub.

The public subsidy could also be used as leverage for matching grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; a competitive grant application is due next month, and Ballard said since the grant would match local funds dollar for dollar, it could double the county’s investment.

The county funding proposal would total $100,000 to sustain the market for 2014 and 2015, Ballard said. While it would be used to apply for federal grants, Ballard said even if the grants are not approved, the money would be helpful in sustaining the market for the next two years.

Funds would be used to pay for transportation, marketing and promotional materials and a marketing coordinator for the food hub. Michael Morrow, market coordinator, said an advertising campaign in three Indianapolis-area magazines would tailor marketing to a broader customer base, and he hopes to get local produce and meat into area restaurants, schools and industries.

Ballard said the first year of the market, funded with a $30,000 grant, was a success, but to take it to the next level, more funding is required.

“There’s a chicken-and-egg scenario,” he said. “You can’t increase your market until you have the capacity to serve it. And farmers are not going to invest a lot of money into growing these food crops until they know there’s a market that’s sustainable.”

The council was generally receptive to the concept and agreed to have the additional appropriation legally advertised before making a final decision next month.

“I’d like to see it grow, find a way to help; but also be responsible for taxpayers’ money,” said Councilman Marc Huber. “A lot of people see it as a separate enterprise or business.”

But Councilman Jim Shelby pointed out that the council has set up a fund from economic development income tax money to help local businesses thrive. President Bill Bolander said he’d like to see the council loan the money to the food hub with the goal of getting it back to invest in other economic development deals.

The council asked Ballard to bring back a business plan on how the funds would be used. Ballard said afterward that he was pleased overall with how receptive the council was.

“I know it’s sort of an unknown for them, and they want to do the right thing with taxpayer dollars,” Ballard said. “I appreciate their thoroughness.”

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