June 29, 2008

Connecting Small Farms and Big Buyers

A little late coming to this, but better late, eh?

In any case, the so-called locavore movement seems to be picking up steam in these here parts, with an organization called the Progress Fund launching a new program called the Produce Grown Here, or PGH, project.

The project will help local farmers deliver the produce by connecting them with buyers and reduce costs by joining with other farmers to streamline operations.

First, let’s begin with The Progress Fund. What is it?

Few conventional lenders and business gurus tailor their offerings to small, rural businesses. The Progress Fund supports businesses that build the rural economy, typically while honoring the environment, reusing historic structures, reinvigorating traditional business districts, and creating living wage jobs.

From the description on its Web site, it sounds like the Progress Fund may have got its start thanks to one of Rep. John Murtha’s famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) earmarks. Nevertheless, in this case, it appears to be a worthy organization.

Next, some more details about the program.

The PGH project will focus first on Giant Eagle and Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, helping them to expand their existing local buying operations by connecting more local farmers with the two companies.

Because the local farming economy is fragmented -- there are 17,000 family farms in Western Pennsylvania alone -- many farms are too small to fill the needs of large companies like Eat'n Park, whose restaurants can go through 35,000 pounds of tomatoes a week.

The Progress Fund’s president and CEO, David Kahley, was kind enough to reply to an email to offer some further details on the PGH project:

“We’re presently focused on four products (tomatoes, corn, apples, and potatoes) to stay focused rather than scatter our initial efforts. I think our chances of success are best protected by staying focused. However, once we develop a good distribution system, our intention is to use that as a model for even more local foods, including high quality local meats produced by using sustainable practices.”

It is a bit disconcerting that the project’s launch involves to heavy hitters like Giant Eagle and Eat‘n Park, the latter of which already has ongoing efforts to get some of its produce locally.

But these are both fairly big operations that shouldn't necessarily need any free help if they want to source more produce locally. I can understand that both companies have choices and may be able to source many of the same products from very far away at an equal or even cheaper price, so if they can be encouraged to get more produce locally, that's fantastic.

However, in the current environment in which large recalls of vegetables and meat are a common occurrence, it’s a shrewd business maneuver – in that it could potentially reduce their liability in the case of future recalls (and let’s face it, there will be more recalls) – for them to take necessary steps to source more products locally.

In other words, this is something that it would appear these two operations – unlike smaller restaurants (even small, local chains) – have the resources to do on their own and should want to do.

In response, again, Mr. Kahley:

“For the foreseeable future, we are going to work with Eat’n Park and Giant Eagle because of their commitment and the partnership that has been developed over the past two years that got us to this point. But I’ll hasten to add that I hope that this effort will spread further into the community beyond our own efforts; by my way of thinking, the more involved will strengthen the overall results for [southwestern Pennsylvania].”

I hope to follow up with the project manager, David Eson, to get some more details about the participating farms and whether there are certain criteria that participating farms must meet (although it’s fairly obvious that, for the moment, they must grow apples, potatoes, corn, or tomatoes).

It would be nice if there were certain sustainability criteria that participating farms must meet (e.g., limited use of chemicals and pesticides and other sustainable practices) in order to participate, but that may be impractical and self-defeating. One would hope that most small-scale farms already operate in such a manner.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

I'd been wondering about the same topic... thanks for getting some answers, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't see why Eat 'N' Park and Giant Eagle should be the recipients of free help!