On March 23, a group of people dedicated to tackling this issue of aggregation and distribution of local food convened at the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action (KISRA) and its neighboring Paradise Farms facility in Charleston, WV. Representatives from KISRA, Mid-Ohio Valley Edibles (MOVE), and Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) shared about their distribution success and challenges. An atmosphere of transparency and frankness brought forth new ideas among the group about how to overcome some key challenges, when it comes to transporting fresh foods.
The trip was organized as part of the WV Local Food Corridor Project involving collaboration from Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF), The Value Chain Cluster Initiative (VC2), Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), Unlimited Future, Inc. (UFI), and the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition’s Aggregation & Distribution Working Group (a.k.a. The Hub Club). It was the second in a series of site visits aimed at building connections and capacity around local food distribution. The project is part of ongoing work to leverage the resources and networks of organizations like ACEnet, ASD, The Wild Ramp/UFI, MOVE, and KISRA to move products along a “corridor” between Ohio, WV, and Southwest VA.
Building linkages in the local food value chain
KISRA’s Carl Chadband, Joey Aloi, and Ture Johnson led attendees on a guided tour of their main facility and the adjacent large hydroponic greenhouses, packing house, and distribution vehicle of Paradise Farms. Paradise Farms is a piece of KISRA’s Growing Jobs Program which seeks to offer “second-chance employment” for people with a criminal background. The program also offers culinary skills training and access to lease a food truck so that program participants can try out entrepreneurship before investing on their own. KISRA is working with ACEnet, ASD, and the CAMC Value Chain project to become an aggregation point for products from other producers as well, or even a cross-docking location for other distributors. In this way, KISRA is poised to be valuable link on the local food supply chain.
A highlight of the trip was hearing about how KISRA, through the valuable mentorship and advice of ASD and Ag-Con consultant Wythe Morris, was able to get the proper records and systems in place to attain Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification for Paradise Farm. While most wholesale buyers require this, Paradise Farm is one of only eight WV farms with GAP certification.
Encouraged by KISRA’s experience, the group dove into discussion of how to enable more WV producers to attain GAP certification. This would open doors to many new market opportunities for WV producers and food hubs. The group also discussed the topic of USDA Group GAP, which may make is easier for producers to achieve GAP certification, through their hub or cooperative.
GAP is a third-party certification that many wholesale buyers require, but producers are not required to have it by law. However, the implementation of the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules in coming months will mean that producers and hubs will have to put food safety plans in place no matter what markets they are selling into.
In addition to GAP certification and food safety measures, ASD’s Kathlyn Terry discussed some of the main requirements that hubs and producers must tackle in order to enter wholesale distribution and marketing. She encouraged attendees to consider how to save money on distribution costs by planning their systems prior to acting – by choosing crops that would be most profitable given the amount of truck space they occupy, purchasing generic packing materials and boxes that can be used for various crops, and packing trucks efficiently on pallets. She explained alternatives to buying a truck, including collaborating with existing distributors and other hubs, and explained how tactics like ‘backhauling’ products can make transportation more financially viable.
Another big challenge to building distribution channels in WV is that many WV farmers have small quantities of product and live far from each other in rural areas, making for prohibitively high transportation and time costs, relative to market. This is where smaller rural food hubs and cooperatives, such as Mid-Ohio Valley Edibles, come into play.
MOVE Coordinator Joshua Donohew wrapped up the day with a presentation on their efforts to tackle these rural distribution issues. MOVE aggregates product from producer members at a central location in Spencer WV and delivers to customers in Charleston and along additional rural routes. Retail, wholesale, and institutional customers can purchase a variety of local goods through their online ordering system. By aggregating product together and delivering it as one organization and in one shipment, MOVE provides a way for its members to viably access larger markets. In this way, organizations like MOVE play a critical role in building important linkages in the local food distribution system. MOVE also described its intentions to collaborate with organizations like KISRA to obtain GAP certification for members and broaden its wholesale distribution networks.
To learn more about the WV Local Food Corridor Project, funded by a USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant administered by Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF), contact Mary Oldham at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about getting involved with the WV Food and Farm Coalition Aggregation & Distribution working group, contact Megan Smith at email@example.com.