By Brandy Harrison
SMITHS FALLS — A Smiths Falls start-up may soon be a go-between for direct market farmers and their buyers — drumming up business and hitting the road for deliveries but letting farmers set the price.
Two Rivers Food Hub aims to build markets for small- and medium-sized farms by combining orders and delivery to attract volume buyers, says general manager Bruce Enloe. “We’re creating the missing piece.”
Food hubs have popped up across the province for the last decade. According to the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, food hubs can be actual or virtual places where food is collected and resold to processors, retailers, or restaurants but may also provide space for food preparation or processing. In a recent survey, the centre identified at least 77 hubs in Ontario. There are as many as 300 south of the border.
Hubs save farmers time but also boost the bottom line by expanding customer base. A 2013 United States Department of Agriculture analysis noted a 25 per cent sales increase for farmers working with one Virginia hub.
Last December, Two Rivers signed a lease and took over the commercial kitchens at the back end of the Gallipeau Centre, formerly the Rideau Regional Centre.
It’s starting small. Last month, the hub became the Fitzroy Beef Farmers co-op distributor, which will soon test the hub’s online ordering system. The hub also piloted distribution with Wendy Banks of Wendy’s Mobile Market, a Lyndhurst-based delivery service that supplies customers from Prince Edward County to the Ottawa Valley. The hub has netted Banks more buyers and suppliers with access to a larger food warehouse. But to get on Banks’ truck, the goods have to be local.
Neither Banks nor the hub take a cut: Farmers set their price and it’s up to the non-profit hub to assign a mark-up to cover costs, says Enloe. “We would never argue a price.”
To develop new products or produce on a larger scale, farmers or processors can rent one of eight kitchen prep zones at the hub that include a long, stainless-steel table, commercial dishwasher and sink and small appliances for between $7.50 and $15 per hour, plus a $5 to $15 per hour premium for larger appliances, such as a convection oven, a piston bottle filler, or dehydrator. There’s also a label maker and dry, freezer, and refrigerated storage for between $10 and $50 per month. Three farms are renting space to produce the Korean side-dish kimchi, pickles and jams, and garlic products.
The hub makes referrals and has held monthly sessions with industry experts since July on preserving, marketing, accounting, and insurance. It’s even open to pilot projects, launching a collaborative weekly food box program this spring after farmers pitched the idea.
Between 20 and 30 farms have already used the hub with requests coming in daily. For now, the hub works with farmers in Lanark and Leeds-Grenville counties.
“We’re learning as we go,” Enloe says. “We’re trying not to outpace ourselves. If this is going to succeed, it needs to be a good business, not just a good idea.”
With a similar goal, Northumberland County took a slightly different tack.
The county put up half the cost of the recently-opened $2.5 million Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre in Colborne as a launch pad for farmers to test new products. But the 15,000 sq. ft. niche-batch processing and packaging space leaves marketing and distribution to farmers.
The centre has been in the works since a lack of local food infrastructure was identified in a business retention and expansion project that surveyed more than 350 local food businesses in nine counties and cities in 2012.
It has a vegetable processing space, a hot prep kitchen, meeting room, and even a project development quality control lab to tweak, scale, or pin down nutritional content for recipes. Rental rates range from $50 to $240 per half or full day.
The centre lets farmers make the leap to processing without a $200,000 price tag for building and equipment, the hassle of health and safety regulations, or the risk of being taxed as industrial or commercial, says Trissia Mellor, agriculture manager with Northumberland County Economic Development and Tourism.
“Here, you can test it before you go whole hog. For $300, you can find out if there is a market for a product. If it doesn’t work, you can always try something else next year,” she says.
While it’s not set up for meat or dairy products, equipment is included in rental rates and dry, refrigerated, and freezer storage is $30 to $40 per pallet per month. Farmers can even hire trained casual labour to wash, prepare, and package produce for $20 per hour. Farmers need equipment training and a food safety-food handler certificate, a $40, two-day course. Book space at www.oafvc.ca.
With the Business Advisory Centre Northumberland on site, farmers can also access one-on-one advice free-of-charge from brainstorming how to get a premium on a crop and recipe development to mentorship and help with funding applications and labelling legislation. It can also make referrals to external specialists, such as branding gurus and graphic designers.
There is no geographic limit on who can use the centre and interest is heating up with everything up and running this month, says Mellor. “We’re easily fielding six calls a day.”