Observations from Feb. 3 symposium – ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food: A Local/Regional Food System Conference’ – Chicago Illinois, sponsored by the USDA, Fresh Taste, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Illinois Farm Bureau and Sheila Simon, Lieutenant Governor of Illinois.
This conference drew participants from around the Midwest and at least two specialists in food security: one from Primus Labs California and one from Equicert, which specializes in meeting the food security needs of horse-powered farms.
The conference was chaired by Illinois’ USDA Rural Development State Director Colleen Callahan with keynote addresses from Senator Dick Durbin and the USDA’s Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. It seemed like government and the private sector were really trying to collaborate. That alone was a shock to me. Also, virtually none of the talk revolved around commodity farming. Corn and soy beans were generally off limits. The audience of farmers, shippers, grocers, agricultural extension educators and regional planners were entirely focused on bringing local fresh produce to the consumer.
For me the highlight of the morning session was a presentation by a team from southwest Wisconsin. The regional planning manager, Amy Seeboth (government), David Bruce, Organic Valley’s produce director (cooperative) and David Parr, founder/owner of Parrfection Produce (entrepreneur and a senior at college!) talked about how they were promoting the local food movement with a group of regional partners from about 20 counties in three states. Their initial funding is through a USDA grant program. Their goal is to tap into a 34-million-person market which spends $105 billion on food annually all within a four-hour drive. The presenters really gave the impression of wanting to make regional collaboration work between government and private sector participants.
Separately, Jim Slama of FamilyFarmed.org noted that of $50 billion spent on food annually in Illinois, only about five percent ($2.5 billion) is “locally produced food.” Most new business sponsors would salivate at market data like this. There’s no room for ambiguity there. Usually the most difficult part of the start-up process for an entrepreneur is working out an answer to the question “what is my market?”
Another tough issue is resolving the logistics challenges. It begins with a lack of local aggregators (collectors and intermediate processors for “Mom and Pop” producers), not enough packing sheds with temperature controlled facilities and loading docks that are too high, too low, or not there at all.
The largest distributors have to worry about making sure that their supply chain is full. If you need to meet 98 percent of your orders in less than 48 hours, you need to be sure that the local growers on whom you are relying have the capacity to grow the product … and for as long a period in the year as possible. These big wholesalers would therefore likely encourage the use of season-extending technologies such as growing tunnels or hoop-houses, CO2 recycling and innovative temperature control technologies as important elements in the development of local contributors to the food network.
When you start to think about how these needs could be met in a produce-growing market like the one in southwest Michigan, you begin to understand the multiplier at work in terms of job creation. The USDA’s Merrigan referred to a study that found that $1 million in revenue from local/regional food production creates 13 jobs as opposed to only three jobs created by mainstream food production. This doesn’t begin to take into account how many jobs might be created by enlarging the network of growers contributing high quality produce to the supply chain.
With stories about how David Parr, at only seven years old, was growing more vegetables in his garden plot than his family could eat, which led him to find new markets; and about how Supervalu through its supermarkets like Albertson’s and independent grocers served by its trucks has been finding ways to offer local products on ersatz farm stands in their stores, this was a dramatic and inspiring day.