N.L.'s 1st food hub breaks down barriers to connect local farmers with local customers
Corner Brook-based pilot project at maximum customer capacity
From The Ground Up is a CBC series in collaboration with Food Producers Forum, looking at how small-scale growers are digging and dreaming agricultural innovations in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In the farming world, very little comes easily.
But when it comes to supplying his greens to the Western N.L. Food Hub, Richard Butt of Birch Bark Farms in Pasadena said so far, "it's been pretty seamless."
Butt is one of more than a dozen producers stretching from Bay St. George to Cormack taking part in the Western N.L. Food Hub pilot project, with the goal of connecting the region's farmers with customers hungry for local food.
Each Monday morning, Butt uploads what veggies he has available to sell to the food hub's website. Customers place their orders, and on Wednesday he picks and fills them. On Thursday morning a courier carts all his salad mixes to the hub's Corner Brook storefront where customers pick them up — along with whatever else they ordered, from meat to honey to potatoes — the next day.
"The food hub, having a local courier service and pick up the weekly delivery is awesome. All those little steps make it more convenient," said Butt, standing by his field popping with purple and lime green lettuces.
Food hub 101
The Western N.L. Food Hub is the first of its kind in Newfoundland and Labrador, but takes its cues from a food hub model well established across the country; there are 12 in British Columbia alone. All of them revolve around the same principle: connecting local producers with local customers by taking on the brunt of the logistical and marketing work.
"Most of the producers have their own little farm stand. And that's amazing — it's excellent for their own neighbourhoods, their own communities — but what this allows is our smaller producers to be able to access the larger markets," said Annette George, the head of the Western N.L. Food Hub and a program co-ordinator with Food First N.L., the non-profit organization overseeing the project.
Bringing a food hub to western Newfoundland had been simmering for a while, said George, but the onset of the pandemic laid bare the need to get more small farmers online.
The Food First N.L. team took cues from the Pan Cape Breton Food Hub, an organization that began in 2015 and has expanded to include a retail space and is now entering secondary processing.
For the hub's first year, George capped the number of weekly orders at between 50 or 60, following Cape Breton's advice. But George said each week the hub is at capacity, with a mailing list with more than 500 people.
"We've had an amazing response from customers and producers alike," she said.
Part of the appeal is the flexibility. Customers choose what they want, and how much of it: one recent Friday afternoon, Jerry Rex toted two bags out of the food hub, filled with cabbage, kale, ribs and beef liver.
"We think it's fantastic, because we can order it in advance, we just pick it up.… It's very, very easy to do, no long lineups, and we're supporting local farmers," Rex said.
Farmers also control how much they want to supply to the hub, and what products. George said some weeks there's been small amounts of lesser-known vegetables, like napa cabbage, sold alongside the staples, giving farmers a way to sell their agricultural experiments.
"Having the food hub allows producers to try out these smaller crops of food that is not typically grown here, but does grow well here. So the idea is that they can try it out," she said.
A rural development boost
George said the plan is to keep the Western N.L. Food Hub first season running until late in 2021, and then expand for the 2022 season with more coolers and storage space, to serve more customers.
The pilot project is so far funded by a combination of provincial and federal programs, and runs as a social enterprise, with the order-filling work done by employees through Choices For Youth, a non-profit that helps young people facing barriers enter the workforce.
Many food hubs in Canada are self-sufficient, and George said that's one big goal for the Western N.L. Food Hub.
She'd also like some sort of processing facility added down the line. Cape Breton's food hub is getting a space up and running this year, while other food hubs in British Columbia provide sites like industrial kitchens for rent.
"One of the big benefits that comes out of this, is the rural economic development that comes out of it," said George.
"It's developing those smaller businesses, those fledging farms, those fledging producers. Whether it be a baker who's starting out in a home-based bakery business, or a small rural farm, it's all about increasing capacity in the small business side, and in rural Newfoundland."
She also hopes more hubs pop up in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"This is something that is scalable, it's replicable," she said.
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At Birch Bark Farms, Butt agreed. With a lot of people to feed in the province, but only a few farms supplying local food, anything that helps connect the two is welcome.
"The more of that, the better," he said.