"Food hubs" are popping up across the country. These food processing and distribution centers make it easier for restaurants, grocery stores, and others to buy local food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says there are more than 220 of them in 40 states plus the District of Columbia. As IPR's Sean Powers reports for Harvest Public Media, it's a trend that's not only helping struggling farms, but also bringing in new talent to agriculture.
DONNA: "Max! Pig, pig, pig. Come on Max!"
Donna O'Shaughnessy and her husband are first generation farmers in rural Chatsworth, Illinois, about two hours south of Chicago. They sell dairy and meat.
O'Shaughnessy was a full-time nurse for many years, while her husband focused on the farm. They ended each year in the red. But about five years ago, business took off, with restaurant owners as far away as Chicago putting in order requests.
DONNA: "For years, we did not think we could ever be self-supportive, totally sustainable that we would always need my nursing income, but then when things really started to pick up with us, we made that decision I would retire from nursing and ironically that's when we started to turn a profit because I was able to do the marketing..."
...And her husband focused on other tasks on the farm. This was all possible because they joined a year-round food hub called Stewards of the Land, started in 2005 by this guy.
MARTY: "Peppermint, borage flowers, radish pots."
WILL: That should be it.
It's a little after 6:00 on a recent morning in the nearby town of Fairbury. Marty Travis and his son, Will, load a van with roughly 15-hundred pounds of food from about a dozen area farmers, who filled a walk in cooler the night before with fruits and vegetables, poultry and meat, and grains and flour. In about an hour, Travis drives the shipment to restaurants and grocery stores throughout Central Illinois and Chicago. Basically, he's the middleman. A farmer himself, he took on this role to fill a hole in the market.
MARTY: "So, as we go, we can incubate these farms, and get them on their feet to do their own things."
Travis and his wife formed this food hub, and started a second one a few years later. Members include about 40 small family farmers, who pay a small fee to join. Travis says they get cheaper liability insurance, access to a much larger pool of businesses, and farmer training.
MARTY: "I would say the new generation of farmers are a little over half the group. Many of them were under the age of 18 when they joined. We're very interested in growing great produce, but we're also very, very passionate about growing great farmers."
One up and coming farmer is 15-year-old Derek Stoller of Fairbury. He joined Stewards of the Land when he was 9- years- old and growing Indian corn. Since then - working in his parent's backyard and putting his family to work - he's moved on to other things, like beets, parsley and carrots.
DEREK: "Last year, I grossed around 15,000."
POWERS: "What's probably the most exciting thing you've learned about this sort of work?"
DEREK: "That you can grow off of a little patch of land, and make a lot of money off of it."
DOUG: "We recognize that there is significant opportunity for small entrepreneurs."
That's Doug O'Brien, the U-S-D-A's Acting Under Secretary of Rural Development.
DOUG: "For those who are willing maybe to pay a little bit more for food that comes from close by that structure is lacking, but it's growing fast. Food hubs respond to that call."
The U-S-D-A recently awarded a nearly $100,000 dollar grant to set up three food hubs in Central Illinois. One of the people behind that effort is Terra Brockman. She estimates the region loses about $5 billion dollars annually because money is spent on food and agricultural inputs from outside the area.
TERRA: "It used to be that when we talked about rural development, we talked about prisons and factories, and you know we're finally at the point where it's like, 'Hey, look around. In Illinois, when you're talking rural, you're talking farming.' Particularly this kind of small farming, direct marketed, feed your community kind of farming, where the money does stay and circulate within your community."
O'Brien expects the U-S-D-A to continue supporting food hubs. Though some farmers worry that could lead to more regulations, even with federal support. But at least for now, that doesn't appear to be keeping food hubs from growing.
Learn more about Food Hubs from Harvest Public Media
Support Your Public Radio Station