A stone’s throw from Hartman’s Creek State Park, west of Waupaca on Highway 54, sits a modest pole building looking out over hundreds of acres of tidy farm land.
At the edge of the driveway leading to the building, a clean and modern sign reads, “Wisconsin Food Hub,” and it points the way to one of the big ideas in sustainable agriculture.
Several weeks ago, I met there to talk with Tara Roberts-Turner, manager of the Wisconsin Food Hub, or “the Hub” as it’s known to local farmers.
The Hub, now in its third year, is a farmer-led cooperative owned by the participating growers and the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU), which was designed to efficiently distribute the product of small local farmers to big markets.For instance, if you shop at a grocery store owned by the Roundy’s Corporation, you may have seen the larger-than-life full-color ads in the produce section, promoting their locally grown produce. Roundy’s is by far the largest single customer of the Hub aggregate, accounting for roughly half of their million dollars in sales in 2014. Other customers include the Sysco Corporation (which dominates sales to restaurants in the U.S.), V. Marchese, Midwest Foods, and a handful of other vendors. Other large vendors are being targeted for future sales opportunities.
There are currently about forty members in the cooperative, most of them modestly sized vegetable growers. A growing number of value-added producers, such as maple syrup harvesters, cheesemakers, etc., are swelling the ranks and represent a portion of the food market that the co-op is actively courting.
In return for a portion of the sales, membership in the Hub gives the farmer-owners access to large-scale sales with retail, institutional and food-service outlets. Other membership benefits include insurance, training and participation in a well-connected network.
In the waning years of the last century, local food advocates, well aware that exceptional food was being produced in Wisconsin, were actively trying to figure out how to get that product in front of the consumer.
Dane County, with its longtime investment in farmland preservation efforts and a deep appreciation of the merits of maintaining a viable farming community, eventually commissioned a feasibility study. It concluded that potential sales for local growers could range from $18 million to $26 million a year. The study recommended creating an efficient system to make concrete connections between large markets and small producers. At this point the WFU stepped up to offer planning assistance and ultimately suggested a cooperative model that became the Hub. They also offered $250,000 to help get the plan off the ground.Tom Quinn, executive director of the WFU, told the Wisconsin State Farmer that the project fit perfectly with several missions of Farmers Union, not the least of which was getting farmers a fair price for their product.
Sales through the Hub are predicted to top $2 million dollars in 2015.
“Our greatest challenge right now is finding enough growers to meet the demand,” Roberts-Turner said.
While overwhelming demand for product may seem like a good problem, it can still be frustrating. What’s working against the Hub is that some farmers aren’t willing to trade any portion of their already slim profit margins, even for a larger volume of sales. And many are reluctant to give up the branding of their product, preferring to maintain a strong link with their wares.
“Our value-added partners maintain their identity,” said Roberts-Turner, pointing to a palette filled with clearly labeled jars of maple syrup. “But it’s a little trickier when we’re filling an order for, say, winter squash.”
In that case, product from several farms is combined to meet demand that a small farm couldn’t satisfy on its own.
“So it’s not for everyone, but for those who are willing to sacrifice a little name recognition, the rewards can be awesome, offering a cash cushion to supplement their own direct sales.”Adding that all of their members are listed on their website and get the benefit of all the Hub’s marketing, Roberts-Turner notes, “For instance, a farm can put a couple of extra acres into a crop or two for the Hub for a quick, solid sale without any of the uncertainty of hoping to find a buyer.
“Maybe they don’t make as much as they would have otherwise, but they don’t have to put any extra effort into selling the product, either. All they have to do is deliver it to the Hub.”
Once at the Hub warehouses (there’s another one in southern Wisconsin), product is packed into palettes and shipped off to buyers. In addition to large-scale freight trucking, this year the Hub is partnering with Minnesota-based Spee-Dee Delivery for quick turnaround on smaller orders, even offering next-day delivery.
Roberts-Turner, who is the third-generation operator of Turner’s Farm Market in Waupaca, is no stranger to the vagaries and challenges of farming.
“It’s a lot to ask of someone that they not only be skilled at growing things but also be skilled in marketing, in logistics, and in dealing with the public.“Some people can do it all. But for those who can’t, the Hub means that they can do what they do best. They don’t have to worry about making sales. They can just grow and farm.”
Bonni Miller is the manager of the Waupaca Saturday Farm Market, which operates year-round on the public square in Waupaca. She’s also the owner of Chez Marche Foodworks, which provides local food sourcing and personal chef services. She hates her phone, but she wants to hear from you. Your best bet for reaching her is to send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.