Food hubs are joining local farmers, markets

Will Harris of White  Oak Pastures is active in a Southwest Georgia food hub.

Will Harris of White Oak Pastures is active in a Southwest Georgia food hub.

ATHENS — Small-scale farmers face a common problem in the sale of their produce. According to a survey at the University of Georgia, a growing number of farmers have too much produce for a local farmers market or a community supported agriculture system, but not enough to meet the needs of restaurants, schools or supermarkets.

To meet the “too little/too much” situation, farmers across the state are forming food hubs to provide large amounts of local produce needed to grow local markets.

The survey, completed this summer, is the first step in a Georgia Sustainable Agriculture Consortium plan, led by UGA Cooperative Extension, to support the development of new food hubs. It found that farmers and entrepreneurs across the state — whether or not they called themselves food hubs — were already coming up with partnerships to help meet consumer demand for local produce. For the purpose of the study, researchers defined food hubs as organizations that brought together five or more farmers and had a wholesale component.

According to Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE), the consortium was created primarily by “key” partners in the effort, including The University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgia Organics and USDA Agricultural Research Service. SARE provides grants and education toward the advancement of sustainable agriculture.

Will Harris, of White Oak Pastures in Buffton, is active within a Southwest Georgia food hub of cattle farmers providing grass-fed beef to Georgia Publix and Whole Food stores. White Oak processes beef from other cattle producers in Georgia to justify the cost of their equipment. According to Harris, his operation has purchased $5 million in processing equipment in the last five years.

“It’s not so much the little guys can’t sell to supermarkets,” Harris said, “They just don’t have the volume to buy the equipment.”

“Agriculture is Georgia’s No. 1 industry,” said Julia Gaskin, a sustainable agriculture coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, who directed the recent survey. “There is a demand for local food and limited infrastructure for small and mid-size farms to access wholesale markets. Food hubs have the potential to make this link, increase the viability of these farms and create jobs.”

According to SARE, food hubs may even be the next evolution in Georgia’s agricultural industry, turning the state’s largest economic sector into an even larger engine of job creation and rural community revitalization.