Local governments are seeing results on the ground as the local food sector expands. They 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, for example, 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. Local food network development also tops the list in strategic planning at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a 12-state rural development network 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.”
Economic Developers Join In
Orange County, North Carolina, is one of several local governments leading the way.
Orange County sits on the more 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.
Mike Burris of North Carolina’s Merchant Distributors discusses wholesale marketing of local foods.
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 business 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.
Business Network Grows
One model is western North Carolina’s successful TRACTOR Food and Farms, which coordinates the flow of products from area farms to markets in and around the local food hot spot of 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 local food buyer Mike Burris.
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.
“I just met with TRACTOR 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.”
MDI believes smaller farms can be a big part of the distributor’s regional supply chain. Burris travels across the state now, seeking 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 more and more local governments that are ready to help.
“I’d really like to see (rural aggregation sites) 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.
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.”
This article originally published April 27, 2015 in the Good Food Economy Digest for the Wallace Center at Winrock International, home of the National Good Food Network.
In North Carolina, local food networks have been growing and connecting through statewide facilitation and nurturing from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. CEFS is a partnership of NC State, NC Agricultural and Technical State University, and NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
For example, a CEFS program focused on scaling up local food, NC Growing Together, introduced Mike Burris and MDI’s main grocery buyer – the regional Lowes Foods chain — to some of their first “deeper level” local food suppliers.
Lowe’s is up to six dozen smaller local food vendors after starting with about half a dozen in 2012, says Rebecca Dunning who heads up NC Growing Together. “The value of sales has doubled each year.”
Another CEFS program, NC Choices, drills down to the niche meat sector to strengthen both smaller scale producers and processors. It offers training and technical assistance. It also brings the niche meat sector together every year at the Carolina Meat Conference.
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.
Dunning says local governments can play a key role, as they do in other sectors, by building infrastructure. Everything from cold storage to high-speed Internet access allows new enterprises to collaborate and scale.
“Local government can mainstream it,” she says. “Farms are really small and medium-sized businesses that can play a dynamic role in the local economy.”