Trying to cultivate a new growth industry
In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to get big or get out. They listened. One estimate is that 6% of America’s farms produce 75% of its agricultural products. But small might be coming back in vogue. Clustered food systems — self-sustaining cycles of small local producers growing, packaging and selling food to local customers — are popping up around the nation. “There’s a realization that there’s a value added to the community because it keeps money within the community,” says Chris Beacham, co-principal of Regional Technology Strategies Inc., a Carrboro-based research company that studies agricultural systems.
To help grow Triangle food systems, Orange, Chatham, Durham and Alamance counties opened the Piedmont Food & Agricultural Processing Center last month. “Local food producers were not well-equipped to process their products,” says Noah Ranells, Orange County’s agriculture economic-development coordinator. “A food-processing center was needed to help get local products into local institutions.” In a 10,400- square-foot renovated warehouse in Hillsborough, the business incubator provides access to a commercial kitchen — including ovens, coolers, freezers, produce washers, mixers and fryers — as well as vacuum sealers, label applicators and label printers for packaging. It will even host marketing classes and is expected to attract producers within a 75-mile radius. That covers almost a third of the state’s farms.
The economic impact of local-food systems has been difficult to measure. A UNC Chapel Hill study found that local-food sales in Orange and Chatham totaled $3.1 million in 2008 — a tiny splash of the counties’ $156 million agricultural sales — but the researchers admitted their calculation was flawed by differing definitions of “local.” But most agree the processing center should help. “The more that these inter- mediary services (i.e. processing, packaging, etc.) are provided within the community,” reads a Duke University study, “the higher the economic benefits to that community will be.”
Dani Genke, co-owner of Boxcarr Farms LLC in Cedar Grove, says the kitchen will enable Local in Motion, her Chapel Hill food truck, to expand to Durham and Hillsborough. Costs depend on how often people use it: The highest fee, for infrequent users, is $25 per hour, while the lowest is $15. Its feasibility study projected the processing center will break even after its third year, with startup costs of slightly more than $1 million. Rannells hopes it will be a conduit between local food producers and more profitable markets, particularly large chains such as Food Lion and Harris Teeter. “Providing better selection and allowing customers to select local products is just smart business sense.”