Richmond County is soon becoming the home of the Sandhills AGInnovation Center, also called the “food hub.” The SAIC is a county project that is located in Ellerbe on Crawford Road, that was funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation and Richmond County for the purpose of helping farmers become more profitable and helping new farmers start growing produce.
According to the 2015 National Food Hub Survey, food hubs can be defined as “businesses or organizations that actively manage the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products, primarily from local and regional producers, to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand” (Barham, 2012). Food hubs can be viewed in many ways:
• As vital connectors between the shrinking number of small and mid-sized farms and large, previously inaccessible markets
• As sources of community economic development and placemaking
• As part of a solution to the complex problem of food and nutritional insecurity
• As a key to scaling up local food
The study found that food hub suppliers and customers are almost entirely regional, most located within 400 miles of the food hubs. Food hubs are good for small and medium-sized agricultural operations, mostly sourcing from farms with less than $500,000 in sales. In Richmond County there are few farms growing produce and this business could help them expand and help new farmers enter the market.
Food hubs strive to increase community food access and improve health outcomes. At the SAIC we plan to be able to process fruits and vegetables for institutional markets such as schools and hospitals. Food hubs are addressing challenges that include compliance with the Food Safety and Modernization Act. The SAIC will be fully certified and compliant with all food safety laws, and we will help farmers also comply. Without this intervention, farmers would not be able to sell their products to most of the larger distributors.
In 2015, 113 food hubs across the country reported total gross revenues in excess of $370 million. The business model of the Sandhills AGInnovation Center includes services provided to farmers and buyers in the areas of cooling, processing, and equipment rental. The team is exploring the feasibility of also adding freezing to the menu of services provided to farmers and buyers.
We need the SAIC in Richmond County for several reasons. First, the rules in the Food Safety and Modernization Act are complex and require a cold chain to be established from farm to plate. Farmers will receive help in this area through rental of cooling trailers, coolers and information. Secondly, the Sandhills region can grow a lot of exceptional produce including berries, peaches and many vegetables. Having a central location for pickup of cooled produce adds value to our products and helps promote Sandhills produce outside the region.
In addition, the Sandhills AGInnovation Center will provide coordination between farmers and buyers. The reputation of the area will become more widely known through the marketing efforts of the SAIC. Farmers just getting started can rent costly equipment rather than buy it, and connect with experts through Cooperative Extension.
One of the most promising aspects of the SAIC is the processing room, which opens up new institutional markets that are hungry for sliced, washed greens, lettuces and much more. This facility will be unique in our area in providing this service.
We should celebrate the foresight of our county commissioners for supporting this project. Through this support they are providing new opportunities for small and mid-sized farmers to be profitable and improving our quality of life. To help celebrate, mark your calendar for Sept. 7 at 10:30 a.m to attend the ribbon cutting and open house at the SAIC, 1298 Crawford Road in Ellerbe. To RSVP and for more information, please contact me at 910-997-8255.
Susan Kelly is director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Office in Rockingham.