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Scaling Up: Meeting Demand for Local Food

LOCAL FOOD PRODUCERS WON'T HAVE TO GET BIGGER, BUT THEIR DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS WILL, SAYS NEW UW REPORT

Consumers' growing appetite for locally produced food presents both an opportunity and a problem for local growers. Demand is fast outpacing what roadside stands and farmers' markets can supply, but supermarkets and restaurants are geared to expect substantial volume, consistent quality and year-round delivery-all things that small-scale, seasonal operations struggle to provide.
Correcting this mismatch won't require bigger farms, but it will require larger-scale systems for getting the food to market, according to a new report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW- Extension.
"Part of the problem is that a lot of the mid-scale distributors, the logistics people who used to consolidate produce, have gone out of business," says Michelle Miller, an outreach specialist who studies local food issues at the UW-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. "To really have potential for local food in a regional market requires thinking about how to build that back up."
The new report, "Scaling Up: Meeting the Demand for Local Food," takes a close look at 11 enterprises and organizations that are trying to fill that gap. These groups represent a variety of business models and geographic regions, but they report a similar set of problems in their efforts to aggregate and market the products of many small farms.
One common concern cited in the report is maintaining the story behind locally grown food. People who buy local food are often willing to pay a premium for knowing where and how it was grown, a big part of the appeal of farmers' markets. But when food from many small producers gets lumped into a big shipment, those stories are often lost.
Another issue is maintaining consistent quality, a concern from the standpoint of marketability, shelf life and food safety. Retailers want to know, for instance, that produce was properly cooled down immediately after harvest. If there's a problem, they want to be able to track it to the source. When a shipment comes from many farms, this is more difficult.
"Another big problem is seasonality of production," Miller says. "If a store needs a product year-round and you're only producing it for a couple of months a year, how do you manage that?"
One of the firms profiled, a Minnesota apple distributor, handles that by distributing local fruit during the apple season, then switching to apples grown in Washington state the rest of the year.
Identifying such obstacles and strategies for overcoming them is the point of the report, Miller says.
"These are stories of things that have worked and some that have not worked as well. We hope this will provide new business start-ups with a guide about how to proceed," Miller says.
The Scaling Up report is available online at CIAS

 

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