by Joe Bossen
The Mad River Food Hub (MRFH) played a big role in my deciding to move up to the Mad River Valley from down in the Rutland area back in late 2010.
The Wallace Center defines a food hub as a “business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers for the purpose of strengthening producer capacity and access to wholesale, retail, and institutional markets.”
My take on the definition might read: Food hubs help remove barriers and increase opportunities for folks looking to craft foods from nearby farms’ produce and sell these products primarily within that same food shed.
My company, Vermont Bean Crafters, uses the MRFH to aggregate locally grown organic vegetables, beans and grains and turn them into products, such as our bean burgers, hummus and even catered meals, which we then distribute across our food shed, nourishing neighbors and the regional economy all the while.
We easily halve the distance the average bite of your meal has traveled through our food-shed networks. The hub is the nexus of that network; the heart of that entity. At the crux of hubs is an assumption that folks using them have an intention to participate in their regional economy as a core part of their business model, that they prioritize depth in their enterprise over breadth.
Instead of growing our business by making widgets that industry research tells us are worth making based on how they resonate with emerging markets, and then going on to identify transnational markets where we can unload said widgets on a breadth-based model, our model asks deeper questions within our community, such as: What products do local restaurants, retailers, schools and hospitals regularly use? Among these products, where do they value freshness and quality most? Of these products, can we reconstruct them with the local ingredients presented to us from our initial question? These inquiries have helped us get to a point where, instead of building a business out of putting inanimate products on distant store shelves we’ll never see, we can focus on increasing the extent to which we bring more nutritious food to our community.
As a testament to this point, 10 percent of our sales last year were to public schools in Vermont. Over three-quarters of both our suppliers and customers exist within 300 miles of our kitchen in Waitsfield as a result of asking these questions and listening to the answers. Because we go for depth rather than breadth, we can offer better service and can guarantee a level of freshness, authenticity and transparency that wouldn’t be available to us were we to just buy items from a company like Sysco and sell products back into the same faceless food system, where everything arrives in the same eerie white boxes sans gusto.
But businesses need more than a model to be viable. We need infrastructure: the stuff that enables you to make other stuff. This is what’s vital. And this is where food hubs pick up—exactly where entrepreneurship leaves off, where bravado meets bricks and mortar.
Before the MRFH, I tried making a transitional home for Bean Crafters at the on-farm kitchen of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland, where I had worked on and off for a couple years. Working around the farm’s CSA pack schedule, crammed coolers and freezers and omnipresent sheepdogs proved trying and led to weekly through-the-night production sessions to keep up with demand.
I was beginning to question the long-term viability of my ambitions, when the MRFH got underway. With the food hub’s support, the business was able to take off. We doubled our gross sales for the fourth year in a row last year, buying over 79 percent of our ingredients from farms in Vermont and New York. We introduced new products and strengthened all three of our bottom lines in the process (people, planet, profit).
We are doing all the things I had hoped all along we’d be able to do. And it’s worth putting a point on this: We would not be in a position to grow our business to this point of viability without having access to the MRFH. Think about it: a several hundred thousand dollar facility that we can pay per day to use rather than going several hundred thousand dollars into debt to create.
We have been at the hub for two years now, and within another year or so, we will have grown beyond its bounds. A happy dilemma, and one that is the core of the hub’s business plan, a plan that brings thousands of pounds of locally grown organic produce to plates in homes, restaurants and institutions across the Northeast.
The key takeaway: It takes stuff to make stuff. Food hubs humbly provide the stuff we need to make the stuff we need, if we are up for prioritizing a food system of depth over breadth.
Joe Bossen is founder and president of Vermont Bean Crafters Co.