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Northwest Connecticut Regional Food Hub Starts up this Spring

New Venture to Help Farmers Connect with Wholesale Market
By Ruth Melville

After over two years of research and planning, an innovative approach to supporting local farmers is about to get underway. The Northwest Connecticut Regional Food Hub is scheduled to launch in the 2017 growing season.

What is a “food hub”? The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as “a business that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and/or marketing of . . . products from regional producers” in order to increase their capacity and their access to buyers. In effect, the hub collects the food, stores it, finds wholesale buyers and then distributes the food to them. Farmers are free to concentrate on what they do best—producing meat, vegetables—confident in the knowledge that their market is secure for that growing season. Given access to a wider market, farmers will be able to expand production. For their part, buyers will have easy access to high-quality, locally grown food—with the added benefit of keeping business in the Northwest Corner and reducing transportation costs.

The prime mover behind the idea of a local food hub was Bill Burgess, president and executive director of the nonprofit Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities (PSHC), based in Litchfield. Burgess, who is a retired food industry executive, has long had an interest in food hubs. He and his colleague Kay Carroll brought the idea to Jocelyn Ayer, economic development director of the Northwest Hills Council of Governments (NHCOG), and the two organizations have been working together to shepherd the project through the planning stages.

Last year the PSHC and NHCOG conducted a feasibility study to determine whether there was enough supply and demand in the area to support the start of a food hub. This study, funded by the state Department of Agriculture, determined that there was both interest in local sourcing and a diverse supply of products available—fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, dairy and eggs, honey and maple syrup. Twenty-eight producers and 21 wholesale buyers expressed interest in working with the food hub. Both groups indicated that they would like to see a unique, regional brand—not just “Grown in Connecticut” but “Grown in Northwest Connecticut.”

A subsequent grant from the Draper Foundation Fund and the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation enabled the PSHC to draw up a detailed business plan, and Ayer is currently applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a grant to cover start-up costs for the new food hub. The feasibility study predicted breakeven within a few years and foresaw the potential for long-term profitability.

In its first year, 2017, the NWCT Regional Food Hub will be a small operation—basically a refrigerated truck that will pick up produce and deliver it to the buyers. Food hub staff will negotiate the seasonal contracts between farmers and buyers: specialty grocery stores, restaurants, independent schools.

In year 2, though, the plan is to join forces with another new and exciting food-related venture. New Opportunities Inc., a Connecticut-based nonprofit, is opening an aquaponics facility in a 32,000 square-foot warehouse in Torrington to grow greens and herbs indoors. That program, called Connecticut Food 4 Thought, will have warehouse space, coolers and loading docks, and the NWCT Regional Food Hub will rent space in the facility. Food 4 Thought, in turn, might provide hydroponic greens during the New England off-season. “There are other ways we could partner with them,” says Ayer. “There can be good synergy if we work together.”

There is an increasing demand for locally grown food, as exemplified by Norfolk’s Farmers Market, now in its 11th year. This is good for farmers, of course, but it’s not enough. As Ayer says, “99 percent of the food we eat comes from wholesale channels like grocery stores.” She adds, “Money made will be reinvested in the hub itself so it can serve more farmers and provide more access to locally grown food. The main purpose is to support farms and increase Northwest Connecticut’s agricultural economy.”

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