Connecting Farmers to Local Markets

Farmers who want to stay focused on traditional agriculture have their own challenges when it comes to earning a living. One of the bigger ones is gaining direct access to local markets and consumers. That’s where their profit margins can be healthier than selling their products in the commodities market, where they have no control on price.

The best opportunities come with being able to sell produce in some of the big farmers markets in the D.C. metro area, an approach that’s been key to the sustainability of local farms such as Waterpenny and The Farm at Sunnyside. But getting into the more lucrative farmers markets, such as at DuPont Circle in D.C. or Takoma Park in Maryland, is increasingly difficult, and it’s not really an option for livestock producers.

A feasibility study is now exploring an alternative to the existing system, one that could not just help farmers in the region achieve the scale they need to supply large food buyers, but also allow them to maximize the return on their products by providing a regional food processing facility.

The study, funded by Fauquier and Loudoun counties and a grant from the PATH Foundation, is focusing on how a “food port” would best serve the needs of Piedmont farmers. The research is being conducted by Tom McDougall, founder of 4P Foods, a D.C.-based business that has become one of the larger food hubs in the region.

Food hubs — facilities designed to aggregate, store and distribute food products from a region — are a fast-growing trend in the U.S. McDougall estimates there are as many as 400 in the country, more than four times the number in 2014. They’ve been described as online farmers markets. 4P Foods now delivers food to about 1,000 customers in D.C., Virginia and Maryland — primarily businesses — while sourcing from 212 farms.

“The farm-to-table movement, as wonderful as it is, is often only accessible to those who sit in a place of privilege, like the people who go to the farmers market in DuPont Circle,” McDougall said. “Our mission is to create a marketplace that transparently tells the story of local farmers using good practices, and to make the kind of food they are producing truly accessible for all people.”

But as much as food hubs are proliferating, they still don’t have the scale to compete with the giant food companies on pricing. So, McDougall believes it’s time to take the next step — create a regional food port that connects food hubs and optimizes their distribution routes through a more sophisticated technology system. “By connecting them,” he said, “you can bring scale to the system.”

Another key feature of a food port, McDougall noted, would be the addition of a regional food-processing facility. That could enable farmers to generate more revenue from their products. For instance, someone raising cattle might be able to make broth from bones instead being solely at the mercy of the market price of ground beef.

“Local food processing on a large scale doesn’t really exist,” he said, “so people are trying to make their margins on just selling the whole tomato instead of other foods that can be produced from it. Without that, it’s an uphill battle. It’s a critical component to addressing the pricing on products. Or at least to making farming profitable again.”

McDougall is looking at what kind of food processing would be most helpful to farmers in the region. “Are we talking about flash-frozen processing equipment so that we can freeze blueberries and strawberries. Or are we talking about a slaughterhouse to handle more grass-fed beef?”

Rappahannock farmer Mike Sands, who owns Bean Hollow Grassfed, appreciates the value of a regional food processing facility, but feels it’s important to proceed cautiously. “If you do something at that scale,” he said, “it will be a big deal, it will cost a lot of money, and if it goes down in flames, it will throw us back.”

McDougall is expected to make his recommendations by the end of the year.

“My dream,” he said, “is to build that alternative supply chain that connects tens of thousands of small farmers into one national-regional platform that allows them transparency, so that all of their stories can be told. And, to be able to attach data to food so you’ll know where it came from. In a perfect world, we want to create a supply chain that can sell to Amazon, not compete with it.”

The Series:
Part 1 (June 28): Rappahannock is facing an economic transition. But it has a long history of dealing with changes brought by forces beyond the county line.
Part 2 (July 12): Farming in Rappahannock is going through a transition. What challenges does the community face in holding on to its agricultural core?
Part 3 (July 26): What role might the county’s business community play in its future? And, can boosting tourism make a difference in generating revenue and creating jobs?
The Rappahannock Hustle (Aug. 2): The challenges facing people under 40 in Rappahannock and why, despite the hurdles, some are choosing to come here or are returning, mimicking a trend seen in small towns across the United States.
Part 4 (Aug. 9): What are other rural communities doing to adjust to the same demographic and economic changes? Could any of those strategies work here?

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