For Iowa’s food hub managers, networking leads to solutions

June 2, 2017
food hub managers kaylaby Kayla Koether, Food Systems Specialist

More and more, locally grown food graces the grocery lists of Iowans. They want to support their local economy, and purchase fresh, source-verified products. While local food is becoming accessible in more venues, most consumers don’t realize that many small food businesses are working very hard behind the scenes (and doing so in partnership with non-profits and extension) to bring those products to the marketplace. Their goal: to support more farmers and make local food accessible to a wider range of consumers.

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The Michigan crew and part of our Iowa cohort at our last stop, the Iowa Food Cooperative in Des Moines.

These aggregators and distributors of local food, known as food hubs, vary in size, geographical area and marketing strategy. But they are key pillars and players in local food system development. Creating a mission-based business in a new niche is tricky, and the learning curve is steep and treacherous.

That’s why part of my role with the Local Foods Program, along with Jason Grimm at Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, is to facilitate the Food Hub Manager’s Working Group (FHMWG). A 2014 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture identified 31 food hubs in Iowa. Nine of those regularly participate in our quarterly food hub networking meetings. They are all relatively new, in operation fewer than 10 years.

Food hub managers host Michigan guests

Our gatherings give Iowa’s food hub staff opportunities to learn from each other, share best practices, see each other’s facilities and systems, and collaborate. This May, our working group hosted a group of food hub managers and food system professionals from Michigan. We took them on a whirlwind tour of Iowa’s food hubs, sharing stories and learning along the way.

Our Michigan guests included food hub managers Franklin Pleasant of The Local Grocer (Flint), Bobby Blake of Flint Fresh Mobile Market (Flint), Christine Quane from Eastern Market (Detroit), Jeremy Andrews and Brennan Dougherty from Sprout (Battle Creek), along with Noel Bielaczyc and Nick McCann of the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. While Michigan’s hubs are operating in much more densely populated marketplaces, we found that we could learn a lot from each other.

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Conversations all around at Iowa Choice Harvest’s freezing and packing facility in Marshalltown.

At our first stop in Northeast Iowa, the crew learned about a cross-docking system and phone app that students at ISU created through a SARE Partnership Grant. Jason Grimm of Iowa Valley RC&D managed and facilitated the project. He partnered with Caroline Krejci, assistant professor in ISU’s Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department. The team also included doctoral student Anuj Mittal, masters’ student Teri Craven, and undergraduates Veronica White and Mehul Shinde. Their presentation showcased this elegant system, which helps food hubs efficiently collaborate to transport local products throughout the state.

More hubs, and some frozen yogurt!

Next stop: the Iowa Food Hub in West Union. Here, general manager Georgia Windhorst shared the story of the hub’s development. The Iowa Food Hub focuses on wholesale business, and also runs a subscription food box program that is distributed at work sites and in rural towns. Georgia talked about their success in helping public schools purchase local food, and the challenges of marketing and distribution in a rural area.

Back on the road, we couldn’t resist a stop for frozen yogurt at Country View Dairy in Hawkeye. This is one of the farms distributing through the food hub collaboration. Next on the agenda was our tour of Iowa Choice Harvest in Marshalltown. Penny Brown-Huber and Jason Durham showed us the impressive equipment they use to freeze and pack local produce. And we sampled some delicious frozen sweet corn.

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Discussing retail and wholesale strategies for food hubs while relaxing at Alluvial Brewing.

We ended the day at Alluvial Brewing in Ames, where members of the FHMWG gathered with our Michigan guests to share best practices and challenges — and some much-needed refreshment. Conversations flowed freely as we broke into small groups. We discussed markets for meat, best software platforms, retail and wholesale strategies, and how to partner with extension and non-profits to help advance a food hub’s mission.

Through the rain to FarmTable

No Iowa tour is complete without an impressive thunderstorm. So bright and early the next morning, we drove through the rain to Harlan to check out FarmTable Procurement & Delivery. Ellen Walsh-Rosmann shared her story of moving to her husband’s family farm, growing vegetables, and realizing that she needed a better way to distribute and move her produce to restaurants and wholesale accounts. She created FarmTable in 2013 to fill that niche and improve the markets for local farmers. Along the way the business has grown into a beautiful warehouse space. And now they’ve even opened the farm-to-table restaurant Milk and Honey Cafe, serving up dishes featuring locally sourced food. We enjoyed a delicious meal there as the rain ended and the sun came out.

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Ellen Walsh-Rosmann describes changes in the warehouse space for FarmTable Procurement & Delivery.

Our last stop: back to Des Moines to see the Iowa Food Coop, where employees and volunteers were setting up for a distribution day. The Iowa Food Coop sells directly to consumers, who purchase through an online marketplace. Farmers receive orders and bring them to the coop. There, volunteers help assemble each customer’s order when they come to pick it up.

Our visit was punctuated by farmers dropping off beautiful produce. This helped us get a sense of the community that extends far beyond the brick-and-mortar building or the ordering website. Gary Huber, who directs the Coop’s operations, put it best: “I think the amount of time we spend building relationships that are based on affection, well, that’s the reason we’re still here.”

Reflecting on relationships

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Brennan Dougherty of Sprout and Gary Huber find common threads during a tour of the Iowa Food Cooperative.

As we wrapped up our tour, our Michigan guests reflected on what Gary had said about relationships. They were struck and impressed by the cooperation they saw among the diverse hubs in Iowa. They noted the strength that has arisen through a mindset of collaboration rather than competition.

As we set about growing Iowa’s fledgling local food system, it’s clear that trusting relationships and shared visions will bring strength and authenticity to our work and move us forward together. I’m pleased that through the Food Hub Managers Working Group, our food hubs are not only improving their businesses, but also building the trust and affection that will sustain them into the future.