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March 06, 2014
Throughout the 20th century, farming has changed drastically in America. Not long after the great depression, small family farmers started getting squeezed by a number of economic forces. In it’s quest for profit and efficiency, the food industry developed all manner of processes to use and preserve every last bit of food. The more food is processed, the less freshness and quality matters. Low price became the sole factor used when purchasing food.
For farmers, this meant maximizing production. The farms that didn’t get bought up by giant agribusiness firms took out loans to keep up with the productivity gains offered by new harvesters and machinery. They started using chemicals to protect their crops from insects. With the growing dependency on harsh chemical fertilizers, they stopped rotating their crops to allow the land to recover. Big companies and their political allies established huge federal subsidies for corn and other commodity crops. In just a few decades, almost all of America’s farmland was consolidated and repurposed for industrial food production.
If you are reading this, you may have heard something about the environmental and health impacts that this system created. But one major impact of this history is only now becoming clear. Something was lost in the push for profit: a connection with the land, and the bounty it produces, which drew people to agriculture in the first place. As small farms got gobbled-up, farm kids moved to cities and learned to do other things. In essence, America lost an entire generation of farmers.
That brings us to today. For years, a movement has been quietly building to restore what has been lost, and reshape the food system in America. But despite political lip-service to the contrary, the agricultural system is stacked against small family farmers. Farming takes a lot of up-front money, and since one badly timed hailstorm can wipe out a whole crop in an afternoon, it is also very risky. On top of all of that, small famers don’t grow enough food to fulfill big contracts from supermarkets, and selling your produce at farmer’s markets takes a lot of time. Many farmers are not even planting all of the land they have, because they are not sure they can sell the additional produce.
What if a farmer could just focus on farming? That simple idea is the foundation for a new type of food business called a food hub. Food hubs act as the sales arm for a community of farmers. The food hub buys a big share of a farm’s production before it is even planted. That gives the farmer much needed cash up front to buy seeds, repair equipment, hire help, pay for water, etc. The food hub does this with dozens or even hundreds of farms in an area so that they can achieve the scale to serve grocery stores, restaurants, and even schools and hospitals. The food hub has some protection against the elements because even if one farm’s crop is lost, they still have all the others. It’s a great way to let farmers be farmers and since a well-managed food hub pays farmers enough to build a strong business, they plan an important role in the reform of our agricultural sector.
Jim Epstein and Mark Seale are food hub pioneers. Blue Ridge Produce is a food hub working with over 130 farmers throughout Virginia. Jim and Mark love to help new farmers get up and running, and work to help existing farmers make the transition to sustainable practices. A portion of Blue Ridge Produce profits go to helping farmers gain certifications like USDA Organic and GAP Certification that will help them grow better food and get better prices for it.
4P Foods founder Tom McDougall worked with Jim & Mark as their V.P. of Sales at Blue Ridge Produce for several years before taking the leap of faith to start 4P Foods. Today, 4P Foods is officially partnering with Blue Ridge to work with their large family of growers in an effort to provide our customers with great food from across the region. As a 4P subscriber, you can be proud that you are on the front lines of the movement to change the future of food in America.