Embracing a few more middlemen

cinco estrellasIf you’ve made your way to our website, chances are you’ve also read Dan Barber’s op-ed “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong” published in the New York Times this past weekend.  I read a lot of opinion pieces on local food systems, but few resonate as this one did for me.  Certainly a big reason is that just a few years ago our family began subscribing to a local bean and grain CSA and experienced a similar awakening that Barber describes when visiting Lakeview Organic Grain Farm.  Truth be told, we joined the CSA because I had become a bean fanatic and the CSA had about 6-8 heirloom varieties of beans and the grains were just a part of the deal.  I was determined to use the grains and invested in a couple of cookbooks and got creative with adding barley to many dishes that call for meat, replacing whole wheat flour with rye or spelt flour, and more.  Kasey and Jeff, our CSA farmers, insisted that CSA members get both the beans and the grains because both were required for a true investment in their farm and its ongoing success.  Our family is grateful for their insistence as we now have a pantry full of whole grains and legumes.

Barber paints a pretty depressing picture of the local food movement’s results in making fundamental changes to our food system and while I can certainly drum up success stories and statistics that are a bit rosier, its hard to argue with his conclusion that we’ve barely moved the needle.  The most refreshing part of the article is that his suggestions for driving fundamental change are based on the bigger picture of our food system instead of looking at it from his perspective as a chef and owner of a high end restaurant.  He concludes that the movement needs a “few more middlemen”, such as canneries, mills, processors, and distributors.  I think he’s suggesting that we borrow a few ideas from the big-ag playbook to begin leveling the playing field – namely creating more efficient supply chains.

We at LFM spent a good chunk of last summer looking deeply at how our customers, food hubs, can compete more effectively and ultimately drive change in our food system.  We studied best practices of successful food hubs, interviewed dozens in the supply chain including producers, buyers, and food hub managers and similarly concluded that food hubs needed to move beyond selling whatever they can get their hands on (typically whatever producers can’t sell through other channels) and begin planning with producers and customers.  A forecast helps solve a couple of key problems – it reduces producer’s risk because they have more information on what and how much to plant, raise, or produce and it helps provide buyers with a steady, consistent supply.  Please note that I wrote “helps solve” instead of “solve”.  As we all know, plans must evolve with weather, pests, and other unpredictable events.  Having a plan, though, does provide a framework for dealing with those events as they arise.

We’ve continued to study the nuances of planning for different sales channels throughout this winter and spring and are looking forward to seeing how the beta test of our planning module unfolds over the harvest season.  We’re betting that integrating supply and demand forecast into food hub operations is one key step in helping the local food movement gain some ground.  Stay tuned as we approach the commercial release of our planning module later this year.