Although there are risks, researchers on Monday gave their thumbs up for pursuing a "food hub" that would collect and distribute produce from northeast Kansas farmers.
The results of a survey, conducted by SCALE, Inc., to determine the viability of such an enterprise, were presented to an audience of 40 farmers, restaurateurs and other professionals at the Douglas County Extension Office.
The study determined there to be a "critical gaps" in existing infrastructure, but said that the demand for locally grown foods, although varied across the region, exceeds the current supply. The full study can be found at www.douglas-county.com.
The goal of a food hub, which would cover a 16-county region including Douglas County, is to increase the availability of local foods and spur agricultural business. The survey was performed at the behest of the Douglas County Food Policy Council, made possible by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kansas Health Foundation.
Anthony Flaccavento, the principle researcher, said at the meeting that the region lacks a central aggregation warehouse, cooling and produce-packing systems and has a limited meat-processing capacity.
But at least parts of the region do have a rising consumer interest in local foods, according to Flaccavento. He said Lawrence has a mature market for it, while those in Manhattan, Hiawatha and the rest of Brown County are emerging. Topeka represents an untapped market, he said.
Researchers consulted 125 farmers in northeast Kansas. Flaccavento identified six to 10 farmers interested in being "anchors" and 60 to 100 other contributors. Researchers concluded that a pilot food hub could launch in 2016.
A food hub in this area would have to survive on grants and other subsidies for four to five years before becoming self-sufficient, Flaccavento said.
He recommended the business model of a "producer-driven, entrepreneurial, non-profit" that has a high level of autonomy.
"You cannot successfully run a food hub if every time a truck breaks down, or a farmer doesn't show up with what he said he was going to show up with, you have to call a committee meeting," he said. "It has to be entrepreneurial."
Eileen Horn, the sustainability coordinator for Douglas County, called the survey encouraging. She said the Douglas County Commission is expected to sit down with the food council next week to digest the results.