by Alex Nielson, Article originally posted in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 30, 2016
A typical morning for a produce manager at a grocery store may begin like this: coffee, inventory check, phone call, place an order with a large distributor, done. It takes only moments to order a truckload of produce sourced from afar and have it on the shelves the next day. The process is easy, quick, and comes with minimal hassle. The downside? That money flows out of Mendocino County and away from our local farms. Not to mention the tomatoes taste like sour water and the melons lack that freshly picked sugary aroma.
What if it were just as easy to get fresh, seasonal, locally grown produce full of flavor and with the connection to the farmer intact? Enter the MendoLake Food Hub, Mendocino and Lake County’s source for the freshest offerings direct from our farmers. The idea for the Food Hub has been in the brainstorm phase for years in our area, but was finally translated into solid action in 2014 thanks to a Specialty Crop Block Grant written by North Coast Opportunities, the regions Community Action Agency. Through the collective vision of NCO’s Patty Bruder, Susan Lightfoot, and Miles Gordon, the Food Hub grant was written with the intent to expand the food system by increasing local food access across Mendocino and Lake Counties while increasing the viability of local farms. John Bailey now heads the program as the Food Hub Coordinator.
Until now, a viable option for wholesaling produce grown by local farmers has been non-existent and completely reliant upon the farmer to do the leg work when it comes to marketing to grocery stores and restaurants. This requires the already busy farmer to make phone calls to potential wholesale customers and, if they place an order, drive one to two hours one way to make a delivery. For many of our small-scale farmers this is simply not an option because in many cases it requires a refrigerated truck and, of course, valuable time.
What the Food Hub strives to do is close the gap and connect the dots between farmer and customer. Twice a week in the summer and once a week in the winter, farmers list their available produce on the Food Hub website with a few clicks of the mouse. Instantaneously, restaurants and grocery stores — or even individuals who wish to buy in bulk — can view available produce on the website and place an order from one or multiple local farmers. The Food Hub’s customers include Harvest Market in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, Surf Market in Gualala, and Anderson Valley’s Boont Berry Farm Store. Farmers then receive a pick ticket so they know what they need to harvest and bring to their closest cold storage node, each of which are re-commissioned freight containers that have been insulated, outfitted with washable surfaces from top to bottom, and wired with Cool Bot A/C units to make sure produce is kept cool and fresh. Within a day, our friends at Mendocino Coast Produce deliver the goods to their respective customers via rapid transit on a route covering Mendo and Lake Counties from the south coast to Clearlake.
Finally, there is a wholesale way to go local, and our farmers have a hassle-free method to get their veggies on the shelves across the county!
“The Food Hub has literally doubled my sales!” said Irene Engber of Irene’s Garden in Laytonville at the 2016 Farmer’s Convergence at Ridgewood Ranch in Willits on Tuesday, March 1. As one of the Food Hub’s largest producers, she is very eager for the coming season and is planning her planting schedule to meet local supply and demand. Engber, a certified organic farmer through CCOF, is able to get her products on the shelves at grocers such as the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op, which requires its producers to be either Mendocino Renegade or California Certified Organic. She was a big contributor to the $90,000 in sales that the Food Hub facilitated in 2015. As it gears up for its second year, the Food Hub is looking to double sales for 2016 and be self sustaining by the 2017 growing season. For farmers wanting to get their produce onto local shelves and plates, the Hub is a viable wholesale option.
The Food Hub really is the “easy button” for farmers. The website interface allows them to create a profile similar to a Facebook account where they can wax poetic about their farm and growing practices. Or they can keep it simple. Once their profile is created, they can add produce that they grow for retailers and restaurants to purchase. It all happens within minutes. We all love Farmers’ Markets and they are crucial to local food supply, but retailers don’t always have time to go and buy from each farmer individually. The Mendo Lake Food Hub has covered that base, making it possible for customers to buy from every farmer with available listed produce at light speed! All that the Food Hub requires is a bit of accountability from registered farmers including an approved source certification and a certified producer’s certificate. In short, the Food Hub requires the documents that a certified Farmers’ Market requires for registration as a vendor. The producer can signify other certifications when creating their profile, such as CCOF certified or Mendocino Renegade certified.
Buying local is quickly becoming the norm in Mendocino and Lake Counties. Our school districts have created programs to purchase local produce for cafeteria meals, as well as for Harvest of the Month in which schools feature a specific item grown by nearby farmers. Last month’s harvest was carrots, and the transaction was facilitated by the Food Hub. With spring and summer production gearing up, our youngsters will have the pleasure of eating delicious fruits such as watermelons and peaches fresh from our farms. And we all know how a freshly picked tomato compares with one from a supermarket.
With the bright yellow and red Buy Local brand that has been popping up in local grocery stores, our fine farmers have an opportunity to get their farm on the scene and in the hearts of all who eat! Seely’s Farmstand of Lake County has had its apples and pears appear on center stage at Surf Market on the Mendocino Coast, an eager participant in the Food Hub and a major supporter of buying local. Its staff is ecstatic to be part of a movement that can supply broccoli from our farmers that is in co-owner Steve May’s own words, “the best broccoli I have ever had! I will be unable to have any other broccoli unless it is grown by a local farmer.”
Anderson Valley has a location advantage for use of the Food Hub: it is right on the route that our Mendocino Coast Produce delivery truck, driven by Josh Cavender, uses to get from the Ukiah area to the coast. The Valley’s own Petit Teton, Filligreen Farm, and Anderson Valley Community Farm are already on the Food Hub’s producer list, and the Hub encourages any local startups or seasoned farmers to get on the Food Hub website and get your produce out there! Visit mendolakefoodhub.com or call us at 707-467-3238.