By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions
Good Food Economy Digest
People building strong places with local and regional food
Good Food: Healthy, green, fair, and affordable
In this Edition
In this edition, we see how some local governments in North Carolina are moving the good food sector forward with infrastructure needed to link business networks. We also see how facilitators are key such as the NC Growing Together program. It makes wholesale happen by connecting small farmers, big buyers, and partners like local governments.
Get started by hooking up with similar resources and initiatives in your state. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to make the connection.
Mike Burris recently wrapped up 27 years as director of produce at Hickory, NC-based Merchant Distributors (MDI). The food wholesaler serves more than 600 retail stores in 11 Southeast states.
Today Burris spends most of his time out of the office with his windows down and his tie in the back seat. He now works fulltime as MDI’s local food gatherer in North Carolina.
MDI believes smaller farms and food entrepreneurs can be a big part of the distributor’s regional supply chain. So far the number has increased from about half a dozen in 2012 to about six dozen in early 2015 delivering directly to MDI’s main grocery customer, the Lowes Food Stores chain.
Burris travels across the state now, seeking more suppliers at what he calls the “deeper levels” of local, smaller farmers down at the food industry’s grassroots.
“I think we’ve tipped the iceberg,” he says of local food’s move from market edges to the mainstream. “But you just got to work it, you have to work it.”
For Burris, “working it” is beating the bushes for farms he can sign up, or groom, for wholesale. It is also interacting with some of the many local governments now adding agriculture to their business development portfolios.
Including small farm businesses in economic development is an outgrowth of the results communities are seeing on the ground as the local food sector expands. Those results range from new farmers enlivening old towns to new people visiting or moving to places where local food is on the menu – from downtown eateries to schools and nursing homes.
And local leaders want more.
All 16 regional councils of government in North Carolina last year listed local food network building as a top action item in a joint five-year strategy delivered to the state’s department of commerce. This week they gather to discuss this strategy at the North Carolina Regional Councils of Government NC Tomorrow summit.
Local food network development also tops the list in strategic planning at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a 13-state -federal partnership that includes North Carolina’s Department of Commerce.
Olivia Collier is the ARC Program Manager for the state of North Carolina. She says the missing link is the technical assistance and infrastructure that budding local food entrepreneurs need to get to market, and to collaborate and scale.
“A lot of people are starting to focus on that challenge, and the real opportunity in it,” she says. “That can have a big impact.”
Orange County is one of the North Carolina governments leading the way. It’s situated on the rural west side of the busy Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “Triangle” region, home to three major universities where local food is big.
Along with three neighboring counties, it operates the Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing Center. The three-year-old business incubator has 40 clients. Orange County also hosts the Breeze Farm incubator with space and support for startup producers.
“What we need now is a broker to facilitate the connection between producers and markets,” says Orange County commissioner Barry Jacobs.
The county created a new position in its economic development office to help get that done. Mike Ortosky is now on that job full-time.
His charge is to grow the business cluster of local food producers, processors, distributors, retailers and others now emerging. Helping these entrepreneurs connect and collaborate is the path to scaling up the entire cluster, or local food network.
“The environment is right to move some things forward,” Ortosky says. “The demand is there, from county purchases for the jail or senior meals, to the universities and other wholesale buyers in the region.”
The bottleneck is logistics.
Ortosky and his county commission know they need a place where local food producers can pool and stage their products for distribution. They are also ready to front the research and development costs of getting such a “rural aggregation site” up and running. Their goal is to attract and support an entrepreneur that could take it from there.
That’s very possible and needed, says Rebecca Dunning. She heads up NC Growing Together, a multi-partner initiative focused on building wholesale capacity and connections for smaller farms and food businesses. It’s part of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a partnership of NC State, NC Agricultural and Technical State University, and NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
CEFS’s NC Growing Together introduced Mike Burris and MDI to some of their first “deeper level” local food suppliers.
Dunning says local governments can play a key role, as they do in other sectors, by building infrastructure. They don’t have to operate it, just build it to attract and support the many entrepreneurs in this sector that will come.
“Everything from cold storage to high-speed Internet allows new enterprises to collaborate and scale, “ she says.
One model is western North Carolina’s TRACTOR Food and Farms. It is now on its own coordinating the flow of products from area farms to markets in and around Asheville. TRACTOR is one of more than 300 “regional food hubs” now operating nationwide. Food hubs are businesses that provide the middleman services that both local food producers and buyers need to succeed.
TRACTOR is well known to MDI’s Mike Burris.
“I just met with them two weeks ago,” he says. “We’re coordinating with the local growers, getting crop forecasts and letting them know what we want grown for us and how we can support them.”
“I’d really like to see that happen in more places,” Burris adds. “I’m working with different areas trying to put these together.”
Ortosky says what they’re putting together long-term in Orange County is a larger food innovation business campus, or district. They want to foster the kind of business synergy that occurs when related businesses co-locate and collaborate.
It’s much like state leaders expect with their new Food Manufacturing and Processing Initiative. Orange County’s planned food innovation campus is a “deeper” grassroots version.
Ortosky believes the local food cluster it will support can grow in statewide economic value and importance.
MDI’s local food gatherer Mike Burris does, too.
It’s his mantra when he sits down with smaller, local growers every day across the state and says, “Let’s see what we can stimulate.”
To get started on local food as economic development, communities can find important information and allies among local, state, and university initiatives. In North Carolina, for example, an important educator and facilitator is the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
Another CEFS program, NC Choices, is a partnership with NC Cooperative Extension. It drills down to the niche meat sector to strengthen both smaller scale producers and processors. This work has helped North Carolina’s niche meat sector grow from a "handful" of producers a little over 10 years ago to more than 800 in 2013.