By FALPC Intern Jacquelyn Burmeister
Worcester County boasts being the one of the most important agricultural producers in the state. The majority of our producers are small farms, containing 65 acres or less of land. This means that when we buy local in Worcester, we are directly supporting families and small businesses, and not large, faceless factory farms. Since most agree that local food is the healthier option for both the environment and and the local economy, we should consider ourselves lucky to be in such a productive geographical local.
Why then, does it seem that Worcester has such a dearth of local food options? How can it be that a city surrounded by food actually has food deserts?
Small farms face challenges that large farms do not. One of the biggest may be getting their produce to market. Contracts with large produce suppliers require that a farm has large and consistent yields, and small farms can not always meet such grand commitments. For this reason, many small farms may attempt to unload their goods with several small contracts, or through farm stands and farmers markets. While this may be sufficient for some, 75% of small farmers in the county are bringing home $25,000 or less a year from produce sales, and work other full time jobs.
“Its really a connectivity problem”. Says Dr. Ramon Borges-Mendéz, Professor of Community Development and Planning at Clark University, who I had the opportunity to talk to last week. “[As a farmer,] you want to get your product to your buyer in a relatively short time if you want to make a profit”. Regardless of how much is produced, if farmers can not get their product to the consumer it will rot, and everyone loses. But the amount of time that a farmer spends at a market may not even be worth it, if he is losing time in the fields and the market is not popular enough to turn a profit.
In order to better understand and tackle this problem, Dr. Borges-Mendéz has teamed up with the The Regional Environmental Council (REC) and the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commision (CMRPC) to submit a grant to the USDA requesting funds to investigate feasibility of creating a food hub in Worcester.
A food hub, also known as a food watershed or food cluster, is a central locale where local food can be collected, sorted, processed and sold. Farmers could unload all of their product in a single place at one time, instead of driving from farmers market to farmers market, and losing time in the fields. Consumers would then be confident that they can find the products that they are looking for in the quantity that they require. Because while one farm may not be enough to constantly supply the local produce at a restaurant, three may be. Ultimately, a food hub means getting more local food into Worcester, and as well as more food related economic activity, such as locally sourced restaurants.
The first step to make this possible is to do an investigation of the challenges and opportunities that a food hub in Worcester would present. Dr. Borges-Mendéz explained that the feasibility assessment that they requested funding for will cover four areas. First, it survey the transportation and connectivity of small farms with urban consumers, attempting to figure out what, specifically, is preventing the food from getting from Point A to Point B. Is it a lack of knowledge of local markets or communication between farmers? Or is it that there is not enough time to get to all of the farmers markets that do exist in the area?
After this, researchers will compile the data with area maps, creating a model to plot the gaps in the current agricultural production and distribution system. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and STELLA modeling technology will play a major role in helping to predict what course of action would be most effective based on the survey data that they collect. The model would be interactive, allowing farmers, consumers, policy makers and researchers to forecast how various policy changes would affect the current system. Is the problem actually just building better roads to these farms in order to get food out? Would it be better to create more farmers markets closer to home, or perhaps just an electronic network to connect people directly to the farm?
Next, this technology will be implemented to help evaluate the feasibility of creating a food hub in Worcester, and to understand what other policy changes would have to be in place to make it possible. In essence, Borges-Mendéz says, “We want to find out what [the farmers] are doing, what they want to do, create a tool, and build a bridge”.
The final part of the assessment is to examine food demand in Worcester. What opportunities and markets exist and are ready to be exploited? The team would examine hospitality, institutional, retail and food justice food demands in order to further refine the roles of the food hub. Do we need to provide more training in food preparation? Or do we need to provide materials to feed the up-and-coming confectionary goods market? This part of the assessment is, in essence, a citywide assessment of the current opportunities surrounding the infrastructure of the food economy. Apart from guiding the hub’s course of action, it would serve to help potential entrepreneurs open shop in Worcester, providing them with the background research for a business plan.
In fact, each of the above four parts of the USDA proposal could serve to better the Worcester economy regardless of if the final food hub vision comes to fruition. “In Worcester,” says Borges-Mendéz “I see a much more aggressive pursuit of infrastructure development in terms of food”. The funding of the research project would therefore be a win-win for farmers and health conscious local consumers, and more broadly for the city of Worcester itself.
The Worcester Food and Active Living Policy Council is generally interested in the provision of local, healthy food to the people of Worcester, and hopes to be able to facilite in the bringing together of the various players to help dissipate knowledge of this project. As consumers, our awareness of the project and input is important as the initiative takes shape. Do you have any ideas for the development of a local food economy? Let us know! For now, we are all waiting and crossing our fingers until September 1, the day the USDA announces the winners of the grants.
For more information about CMRPC, see: http://www.cmrpc.org/
For more information on REC, click: http://www.recworcester.org/
For more information on Dr. Borges-Mendéz’s work, click: http://www.clarku.edu/departments/IDCE/faculty/rborges.html