I’ve decided to celebrate National Farmers Market Week, (Aug. 7-13) not just by thinking of all the local markets I’ve had the opportunity to visit, to meet the vendors, and to help tell their stories. Instead, I’ll examine the different ways in which farmers take their products to market.
Recently, the New York Times published an article about aggregators and distributors more clearly defined as food hubs calling themselves CSAs. The upshot of the Times article was that, like many terms heard where farmers are directly marketing to consumers, the term Community Supported Agriculture is unregulated (except in California, no surprise), and there is no clear definition. To be fair though, and for the purposes of this article, as well as the information you’ll read on these pages in general, let’s look more closely at these terms.
The National Food Hub Collaboration defines a food hub as follows: “A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.” Locally, the entity that most closely meets this definition is Green BEAN Delivery.
Contrast this with the definition of a CSA from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”
Clearly, the heart of a CSA is a farm, and farms come with farmers. According to the Times, a company called Farmigo that was delivering boxes of produce in New York, New Jersey, northern California, and Seattle, abruptly shut down that operation in the middle of the 2016 growing season, to return to its core business: the food distribution platform software that the company’s founder, Benzi Ronen, says will eventually and completely replace the supermarket. The Times article calls this delivery service a CSA. I’m reminded of the Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the Big Bad Wolf blows down Bugs’ house, and shoving Bugs aside, rummages through the rubble, disappointed. “No pigs here,” says the wolf. Well, no farmers, either.
Farmers are competing with these other services by acting as aggregators, as well. Locally, Rice Family Harvest, and Our Harvest, are farms that are delivering their own produce, and delivering other foodstuffs that they buy in, or simply distribute for other farmers.
Green BEAN Delivery started out as a food hub, doing distribution. They have added processing their own private-label products, and bought a couple of farms, one of them in Mason. In my opinion, farming is not their primary business. Not everyone will agree. Once again, in the space where farmers directly market to consumers, many terms are not clearly defined.
While it’s helpful to understand these things, there is good news. Defining these terms is not important. A recent University of California study indicates that buying local really does help the local economy. The study looked at producers engaged in direct marketing, and those who were not. It was acknowledged that direct marketers used other channels to do business. On average, they generated 44 % of revenue through direct marketing.
The study concluded that direct marketers purchased 89% of inputs (broadly, labor and materials) in the local marketplace, while the others purchased 45%. The total economic output factor was 1.86 for direct marketers, 1.42 for the others.
There are many ways for farmers to bring their produce to market. The local farmers market is primary for many, but by no means all.