Polk fresh food hub seeks to expand

Published 7:22pm Thursday, January 2, 2014

Public hearing Jan. 6
for county funding
by Leah Justice
Polk County’s already established local food hub, Polk Fresh Foods, is looking to expand with county funding as it attempts to become self sufficient.
A public hearing is scheduled for the Polk County Board of Commissioner meeting Monday, Jan. 6. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Womack building in Columbus.
The county is considering a one-time funding of $40,000 to Polk Fresh Foods to help the hub expand.
Polk County Interim Agriculture Economic Development Director Dawn Jordan said.
Polk Fresh Foods is a virtual food hub that manages the sourcing, marketing and distribution of local agricultural products. The distribution is mostly done online with the buyer knowing exactly where his or her food is being grown, Jordan said.
Polk Fresh Foods (PFF) allows a farmer/producer to list his or her products on the PFF website where the buyer is able to order online.
The farmer receives a confirmation of the order, harvests the product and brings it to the Mill Spring Agricultural Center where it is temporarily stored at proper temperatures and humidity, then delivered to the buyer within 48 hours.
Jordan said benefits of the hub are the farmer only harvests what products are ordered so there is no waste.
Polk’s food hub also offers buying clubs where a group forms and chooses a day of the week for delivery (every two weeks or once a month) with each member of the club placing his or her individual order.  Orders are then boxed according to the member and dropped off at a central location.
“Another positive of the food hub is that any size of grower can access Polk Fresh Foods system,” Jordan said. “A backyard gardener that wants to specialize in herbs can place product on the website, as can a producer of value added product such as jams and chutneys.
“The decades old trend of local food sourcing is now pushing on the door of distributors, restaurants and institutions as they work to meet the consumer demand for local product. Since the distribution need is very different for local product to institutions and restaurants, food hubs are becoming increasingly popular as a means of moving local product.”
PFF is currently being managed under the Polk County office of the Agricultural Economic Development.
The goal is for the PFF to be managed and operated as a separate, not for profit entity in two years.
“It needs the flexibility to grow and develop as new markets are opened, especially in our local community,” said Jordan.
Polk Fresh Foods currently has an eight-member interim committee and a full-time manager that has been and will be working hard to develop new markets, educate producers on market trends, expansion of product, packaging and opportunities to develop new producers. As new and expanding producers have the opportunity to sell product, they can focus on the preservation of the rural, agricultural character of the county by developing viable farms, Jordan said.
The best way to preserve farmland is to have a producing farm operation, she added.
“This develops other business support such as supply and equipment stores, restaurants offering local product, delivery personnel, equipment operators, educators, managers and value-added facilities that allow for year round local product,” she said. “When we support our local economy, we are creating a healthy place to live, learn and grow for ourselves, our neighbors and future generations.”
Polk County has local produce from strawberries and kiwi, to Swiss chard and sweet potatoes, according to Jordan.
“Locally raised beef, pork, poultry, duck, rabbit, lamb and fish can be found within a 30-mile radius of any location in our county,” she said. “We have a variety of organizations that are focused on nutrition and education about healthy lifestyles. We have an outreach ministry that desires to offer nutritionally dense foods to underserved citizens. Polk Fresh Foods is a model set in place to continue to get locally grown product on the plate of food conscious consumers.”
During the county’s Dec. 2 meeting, Jordan and Polk County Cooperative Extension Director John Vining presented the local fresh food market to commissioners, including its recent growth around the region.
Jordan told commissioners that certified Appalachian grown products have tripled in the last few years from $17 million in 2007 to more than $60 million in 2010.
Vining said Polk’s farmers do a great job producing great products; the issue is getting the product to consumers.
Vining said if each Polk household spent 10 percent, or $40 a month, on locally grown products, that would mean $2.89 million per year.
August is the highest production month for locally grown products in Polk County with sales of $104,000 in 2013, which was a 150 percent increase from 2012. At a conservative 60 percent growth, estimates are that $168,000 could be sold in 2014 and $268,000 in 2015.
PFF’s next actions are to create a local marketing strategy, develop cost effective delivery, complete a market survey report to farmers on market trends, seek grant funding (for refrigeration capacity, etc.), hire a part-time bookkeeper, provide technical support to farmers and increase direct sales efforts.
Jordan said currently the majority of product moving through the hub goes to Charlotte. One of the reasons PFF is seeking funding and working to become a separate entity is to work on the local market access. Jordan said PFF plans to assess consumer interest including restaurants and institutions, as well as looking at a vehicle for delivery.
For local individuals, the buying clubs are the easiest way to get started locally, Jordan said. A club usually consists of 10-15 people.
For more information on PFF, including placing orders and learning about local farmers, visit polkfreshfoods.com.

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