From Farm to Table
Building local infrastructure to support local food
By Rowan Jacobsen
I STEPPED INTO a dusty barn in rural Vermont and shook hands with Peter Roscini Colman, who pulled up a trapdoor and led me down to the barn’s dark basement. I could just make out, hanging in a mesh cage attached to the wall, a handful of lumpy polygons covered in white (and not-so-white) molds. The air was thick with floral, funky, animal scents. Pete opened the cage and removed the hunks of raw meat that had been slowly desiccating in the fly-proof cage for months. We went back upstairs to a little apartment he had renovated in one corner of the barn, where he sliced paper-thin shavings off the blocks. There was prosciutto, coppa, guanciale, lonza, all exuding a vibe of porky seduction.
Pete, whose father is Italian, had lived in Italy for his first three years. In his teens, he began spending summers with his grandparents in a small town in Perugia. “I used to like to eat prosciutto a lot before lunch,” he told me. “You know, the pasta’s almost done, the kitchen smells amazing, and I’m starving, so I’d start shoveling prosciutto in my face, like any teenage boy would do. And then one day, on a whim, I said, ‘I want to learn how to make this stuff!’” Soon, Pete’s grandfather had called his brother Franco, who brought Pete to the local market to meet his friend Pepe, the butcher, who hooked Pete up with his brother Francesco, who performed on-farm slaughtering for people across Perugia. Francesco would cut up the pigs, make salamis and sausages, and rub the whole muscles with salt and spices and hang them to cure. In his twenties, Pete began apprenticing with Francesco and other Italian masters every fall, learning the ins and outs of letting bacteria, enzymes, and time transform raw pork into gastronomic magic.
“Especially in this area of Italy, it’s sacred to these people. There’s this awe, and this love. The whole family gathers around when this pig slaughter happens. You can just feel that this ritual has been going on for a long time. Maybe that’s what I connected to. It just seemed like it had meaning and purpose and was connected to what I’m interested in in life.”
Now, at twenty-nine, Pete wanted to capture some of that meaning and purpose in his own organic salumeria. He’d perfected a recipe for each whole muscle, and after so many years of breaking down mammal carcasses, he had the disconcerting habit of using whatever body was on hand to demonstrate the various cuts. “This is the coppa,” he explained, pressing between my shoulder blades. Then a surprisingly firm grip beneath my chin: “And the guanciale is the jowls.” Whack. “And of course the prosciutto is from the hams.”
I had just returned from a prosciutto junket in Parma, Italy, sampling the most famous hams in the world three meals a day, and Pete wanted to know if his stuff measured up. Was Vermont Salumi ready for prime time? I dropped a wafer of coppa onto my tongue, and instantly I had my answer. In a week of catholic consumption of all the cured pork in Emilia-Romagna, I hadn’t found anything half this good. Was he ready? Hell, yes.
The USDA, however, felt differently. Because cured meats are not cooked—instead relying on salt, desiccation, and protective molds to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria— the USDA treats them like supervillains, binding them in prisons of red tape and regulation. Could Pete unleash his basement denizens on the general public? Hell, no. If he wanted to go commercial, he was going to have to spend a hundred grand on a gleaming, inspected facility and an equally shiny HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan. So he focused on the fresh sausage business. Because fresh sausage is intended to be cooked, it requires no HACCP plan or fancy facility. Vermont Salumi survived, with Pete hocking his bangers at farmers’ markets and co-ops, but his dream of pork artistry had to be put on indefinite hold.
PETE IS ONE of countless small food producers in America who have found the cost of doing business—mainly the cost of infrastructure—to be prohibitive, one of the reasons why the local food movement has hit a wall. Whether it is the stringent requirements for slaughtering and processing meats, the cost of building a production or storage facility, the learning curve regarding food-safety regulations, or the dearth of distribution options, many small-scale food artisans find it discouragingly difficult to grow beyond the booth at the farmers’ market. And they are finding those farmers’ markets less useful. Although the number of markets in the United States has exploded from 1,744 in 1994 to 4,000 in 2005 and 7,864 in 2012, sales have not kept pace; more and more farmers are trying to slice the same pie.
“Farmers’ markets aren’t sexy anymore,” is how Jean Hamilton, the longtime market development coordinator for the Vermont chapter of the National Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), puts it. “The problem is that we were really good at launching farmers’ markets, and we launched a whole bunch of them, and we gave them just enough rope to hang themselves. So now there’s all these farmers’ markets that have really low capacity.”
Joe Buley agrees. A burned-out chef turned farmer, Joe holds down the booth across from Pete Colman at the Montpelier farmers’ market, selling eggs, tomatoes, and the sweetest spinach I’ve ever tasted. “The traditional markets are not working anymore,” he told me. “They’re oversaturated. It used to be that the Montpelier market was all there was. Now there’s a Barre market, there’s a Northfield market, there’s a Middlesex market. Even New York City used to just have the one main Greenmarket. Now markets have popped up all over the city. It’s diluting the dollars. It takes two full-time employees all day on Friday to prep and pack out everything for the market, and then there’s two of us there all day on Saturday. To leave with three hundred dollars? That’s going backwards.”
Farmers’ markets account for less than 1 percent of food sales in the United States. They are the window dressing. If the sustainable food movement is to become a true movement with any measurable impact on the way America feeds itself, it must find a way to reach beyond the early adopters. It must make it much easier for local producers and consumers to find each other. It must restore the regional infrastructure that withered with the rise of the national distributors, who have little interest in working with local operations. What we need is a system of local “food hubs” that can process and bundle local foods and deliver them to the places where America eats.
This is not exactly a revelation. The same conclusion has been reached by the USDA, by sustainable food advocates, and by the foundations that fund their efforts. Together, they have transformed the local-food scene in the United States. Working for NOFA, Jean Hamilton had a front-row seat. “Our movement shifted all at once. Five years ago, all the funders said, ‘We’re funding infrastructure.’”
Today the USDA recognizes 188 food hubs, a term defined as “a business or organization that actively manages 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.” Although most states contain at least one food hub, the majority are clustered in progressive farming regions like the Northeast, the upper Midwest (especially Wisconsin), and the mid-Atlantic states of Virginia and North Carolina. These food hubs are increasingly bringing local foods and small-scale delights like Vermont Salumi to outlets and neighborhoods that for years have eaten straight off the Sysco truck. Some simply bundle the produce of multiple small farms to reach the consistent volumes and product diversity required to supply local markets. Some are purely virtual marketplaces that allow chefs to find available produce from regional farms and buy it directly. Some have a social mission to not only bring foods to underprivileged neighborhoods but to increase food literacy as well, or to guarantee fair prices to farms and farmworkers. And some specialize in incubating new producers like Pete. Perhaps the only thing all these food hubs share is a conviction that there is value in preserving regional identity, artisanal character, and sustainable practices—in saving some products from the great meat grinder of industrial food distribution.
PETE COLMAN’S VISION of wowing America with his lardo was reborn the day he met Robin Morris, a soft-spoken British entrepreneur with a precise voice and precise business instincts. The former CFO of American Flatbread, Robin had just started the Mad River Food Hub in a warehouse that had once stored American Flatbread’s frozen pizzas. When American Flatbread sold its frozen business to an out-of-state company, Robin bought the warehouse on a hunch that the freezer, cooler, and loading dock could be an asset to local farmers. “The farmers were complaining about not making enough money. The only way farmers are going to make more money is by getting more value out of their products. But I think it’s fairly safe to say that most farmers aren’t naturally value-added producers.”
How do you “value-add”? “Through processing. Through delaying the availability of a product until you can get a higher price—storage. By getting your product to places that you haven’t had it in the past—distribution. And by running your business better—incubation.”
Robin figured he could provide those services. “I started kicking around ideas for a food-processing center. I didn’t understand this concept of aggregation, I just said, ‘We have a freezer, we have a cooler, we have space.’” Plan A was to help local vegetable farmers process the harvest. “I just couldn’t find a way to make the numbers work. Then we started doing the numbers for a meat business, and they dramatically improved. There was a huge demand for meat processing facilities. And meat is a year-round business, but vegetables aren’t.” Meat also has a far higher value-added upside. You can sell a whole organic pig for $3 a pound, cuts of meat for $6 a pound, sausages for $9 a pound, smoked bacons and fermented salamis for $12 a pound, or dry-cured prosciutto for $24 a pound. You can make a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
So in addition to the processing kitchens and the storage rooms, Robin hired an on-site butcher, built an inspected facility, and began processing animals for farmers who previously had to ship them to distant slaughterhouses. But he kept thinking about that $24-a-pound prosciutto. When Robin met Pete Colman through what might be called the Vermont Butcher Underground, he offered to build a state-of-the-art, USDA-inspected curing facility to Pete’s specifications. There would be no upfront costs for Pete. In exchange for use of the $80,000 curing facility, Robin would get a percentage of the sales—which is how he likes to incubate his tenants. “We just align ourselves with their vision. This is the message I try to get across to everybody. If they’re successful, we’re successful.”
That worked for Pete. “I get to make mistakes on someone else’s nickel,” he says. Not having to go into debt was only part of the appeal; the food hub also creates some much-needed distance. “It’s a little intense having meat inspectors in your home.”
Two years after my visit to Pete’s barn basement, on a cookies-and-cream last March, with wet gobs of snow and mud plastering the sides of roads and cars, the first coppa, lonza, guanciale, and salamis were hung in the Mad River Food Hub. For Pete, the day couldn’t come fast enough. “I spent the week burying myself in scientific documentation. Which is kind of fun. This is going to be the kick in the work that I really wanted—something a little more interesting. Because, honestly, the sausage-making is becoming a little monotonous. It’s the same every time. But now, with the fermentation of salamis and stuff? It’s like we’re diving into this whole new world.”
As Robin’s fourteenth tenant, Pete joined a hairy-hipster rogue’s gallery that includes a microbrewer, a raw pet-food company, a falafel maker, the Vermont Yak Company, and Jacob, the butcher, who comes complete with tattoos, mutton chops, leather cap, and HACCP training. (“This sink is for washing product. Do not wash your hands in there, or I’ll need to open up the wall and rip out the sink and put in a new one.”) Four days a week, a refrigerated truck delivers to restaurants and stores in the region. That was the key for Rookie’s Root Beer, a one-couple operation that has doubled its outlets without having to invest in a new truck. Kids in the Mad River Valley have probably never heard of the food hub, but they love the handmade root beer now available in most valley restaurants, and their parents have embraced the tiny-batch microbrews distributed on the same truck. Distribution has turned the Mad River Valley into a local food mecca.
ONE REASON THE MIDDLE infrastructure of the sustainable food movement has lagged behind the rest of the movement is that romance doesn’t scale. A farm is lovely; a warehouse is not. A single artisanal salami is sexy, but the only person who gets really excited about a thousand artisanal salamis hanging in a stainless-steel walk-in is the health inspector who doesn’t have to visit the client in his moldering barn anymore.
The Mad River Food Hub is a four-thousand-square-foot slab of sheet metal that looks much like the canoe factory it originally was prior to its life as a frozen-pizza warehouse. It contains fully licensed processing rooms, industrial kitchens, smoking rooms, coolers, freezers, dry storage piled with shrink-wrapped palettes of organic goodies, and concrete loading docks—plus Robin’s office, which is the side he tends to stay on (“I really don’t like touching food”). Everything smells like new paint. The place feels as antiseptic as a hospital, with white walls, gleaming steel machinery, and everyone walking around in white lab coats and hairnets. The floors are sprayed with epoxy and embedded with sand, for traction.
The curing facility consists of one cooler, two dehumidifying rooms, and two aging rooms. Each room has its own cooling controls. The “product” spends its first week on a rolling steel rack in the dehumidification room at a certain temperature and humidity level before being transferred to the twelve-by-sixteen-foot aging rooms for the next three months. Temperature and humidity levels can be checked from smartphones. If anything goes wrong, the coolers automatically make the phone calls. It is shiny, sterile, and efficient—and it is a viable business, which is something very few food hubs can claim.
“Almost all food hubs that meet the dictionary definition are not profitable,” says Amanda Oborne, who directs the conservation organization Ecotrust’s FoodHub, an online dating service for wholesale food buyers and sellers. How could they be? They are competing in one of the world’s most cutthroat businesses, which often operates on net margins of less than 1 percent, and they are trying to return more money to the farmers, operate on smaller scales, and provide additional social and environmental services. Cutting out the middleman to get more of the customer’s money into the hands of the farmer may sound great in a TED talk, but the reality is that there is no way to challenge the economies of scale of industrial food production, which is propped up by subsidies, kickbacks, and money-saving environmental shortcuts.
The problem is that what many of the foundations and government agencies were sold in those TED talks a few years ago was the idea that food hubs could become self-supporting; now those chickens are coming home to roost. Many food hubs find themselves battling for survival, says Oborne. “With philanthropic and government support for operations shrinking, the paradigm will definitely shift to ‘survival of the fittest,’ with fitness measured in terms of operational and financial efficiency.”
Jean Hamilton—who moved on from NOFA to become communications director for Black River Produce, a midsize distributor in central New England—admires Robin Morris’s tight operation and would like to see more food hubs follow his model. “What he’s done is think really carefully about scale, and where the disconnection is in the industry. He didn’t build something that involved hugely costly pieces of equipment that would necessitate huge volumes to justify it. He didn’t go into it saying, ‘My goal is to service the K–12 marketplace,’ whereas a lot of food hubs have that as their charitable mission.”
In fact, Robin purposely founded the Mad River Food Hub as a for-profit enterprise. “One of our core values was that we would not take any public funds for operations. If you have grants coming in, then your organization is sustainable only as long as the grants are coming in. We live and die on our own. There’s no one here to save us. The only way we can bring money into the organization is by adding to the success of companies using the food hub.”
Robin’s emphasis on problem-solving for his tenants, instead of pursuing a philosophical mission, means that the Mad River Food Hub isn’t particularly quixotic. It picks its battles. Like many other food hubs, he initially tried to deliver products to institutional clients like schools and cafeterias, but found the price points prohibitively low. However, by constantly testing the dominant food system, feeling for its weaknesses, Robin and his clients are slowly discovering how they can cultivate a flourishing, economically viable system of local food producers and consumers. Sometimes the trick is not to try to reform the old system from within, but to do an end run around it entirely.
ONE PERSON CURRENTLY digging his cleats into that end run can be found at the Mad River Food Hub right across the hall from Pete Colman. I encountered Joe Buley (the farmer who also sets up shop across from Pete at the farmers’ market) in the food hub’s processing kitchen, making chicken stock in a forty-five-gallon jacketed steam kettle. Two years ago, saddled with a glut of unsold veggies at the farmers’ market, Joe began making gourmet vegetarian soups. The soups were a hit at the market, and soon he had a handful of retail clients. But he was operating out of a kitchen in a church basement. “I had to get a variance for the wastewater permit. They said as long as you are only doing this on Mondays, we’ll give you a variance. But no meat-based soups.” Then Joe conferred with Robin Morris, who quickly attained state and USDA certification. Joe was the food hub’s first anchor tenant.
“This is critical,” he told me, pulling ten pounds of chopped onions out of the walk-in and stirring them into the kettle. “Just to fit out a place like this and meet USDA regulations? Let’s say $250,000 for a warehouse, loading facility, and a kitchen that’s up and running and inspected. Easily. This allowed me to skip that gray area where I’d take on a lot of debt to ramp up and expand, and basically gamble that I could meet all the monthly payments.”
Once in the food hub, Joe realized that the efficiency of its storage and delivery systems would allow him to mightily expand his CSA, which he’d been running off his farm. Instead of fifty members, he was gunning for five hundred members by offering workplace delivery to some of Vermont’s largest employers. “All the CSA shares will be palettized. Robin’s got a refrigerated truck. He’s got a proper loading dock, which means delivery trucks back right in and the product rolls off on a palette. I’m using the loading dock for CSA pack-out. We were doing it on a barn floor last year! Not real sanitary.”
Through Joe’s eyes, the most boring pieces of infrastructure—things like loading docks, and palettes that can transfer fifty boxes of local food from a truck to a drop-off location in seconds—become weirdly beautiful. “The share shows up at work, it’s boxed, it’s got their name on it, and they walk out the door with it. The potential is really big. I just keep bringing in other growers in the community to provide product. If a small farmer can produce two hundred ears of corn, that’s fine, I’ll buy it and find three more farmers, until I hit a thousand ears of corn. It’s very, very scalable.”
Perhaps most importantly, it helps local food reach beyond what you might call the low-hanging fruitcakes—those of us who will drive miles out of our way just for the privilege of living on local turnips all winter. “I’m accessing this whole new demographic. Ninety percent of my CSA customers have never belonged to a CSA before. These are people who are just not gonna buy a share and come out to the farm every Thursday night. They want to support farmers, they want to eat locally, but they don’t have the time. But if I can drop it off on their doorstep, they sign right up.”
And they especially sign up if they don’t have to cook it. Like most of America, they are done dealing with whole vegetables. They want Joe’s soups. Pete’s meats. “There’s a huge revolution going on in CSAs at the moment,” Robin Morris says. “We’re moving toward, ‘Let’s just deliver you the meal you’re going to put in the oven.’” New software makes it easier than ever for people to customize their orders, leading CSAs closer to full-delivery delis. “We don’t know where this CSA model is going to end up. Some of the models that we have at the moment will not exist in ten years’ time.”
It may turn out that salami, not salad, is the way to save America’s farms. Perhaps this is not your vision for the local food movement’s apotheosis. It certainly wasn’t mine. But that’s the point. By acting as go-betweens for producers and consumers, by allowing a two-way flow of communication, and by responding nimbly to the market, food hubs like Mad River can help us get over our preconceptions about what America needs (“More gardens! More cooking! Let’s get everyone back in the kitchen!”) and let us do some hard-nosed thinking about what America wants, and how sustainable food can fill that role. That is how we grow a new generation of local food entrepreneurs. And that is how change happens.
WHEN I LAST SAW Pete, we killed the end of his bootleg prosciutto with a bottle of Chianti and talked about the future. He was chomping at the bit to grow, both artistically and economically. “I like the challenge of new tasks, new hurdles. Right now I’m dealing with HACCP plans and whatnot, just so I can get up and running, but then I’m going to be diving into the effects of bacteria and how it affects flavor. What happens if we use a different bacteria? What happens if we ferment at eighty degrees for fifty hours, and then shut it right down to fifty degrees? You know, playing with those factors and seeing what it creates!”
Pete was hearing from people all over the country who wanted to carry his meats. “In a year and a half, I’ll be cursing Robin’s name as I hand over huge checks every month. But you know what? He helped me get to this place. In the long run, it’s so beneficial that I’m here.” Pete had the charisma, the back story, and the talent, and as he flickered on the edge of becoming a salumi rock star, he was already beginning to toy with the previously unthinkable—borrowing “two and a half mil” to go big. If that happens, he will graduate from the food hub, and Robin Morris will have a curing room and a battle-tested HACCP plan ready for the next salumiere who comes along. By then, Pete’s handiwork will be finding its way into America’s kitchens, waiting for ravenous sixteen-year-olds to shovel it into their faces and think, “I want to learn how to make this stuff!”
See an audio slide show about the Mad River Food Hub at the Reimagining Infrastructure series homepage, www.orionmagazine.org/infrastructure.
On November 21, 2013, the author joined a live Orion panel discussion of food hubs—listen to the recording here.