Upon reading the question "what is a local food system?", consumers and growers alike will respond with terms like "CSA", "farmers' market", or "produce stand". Farm-to-consumer channels dominate the local food conversation right now, and with good reason. Local food implies a connection with the farmer and that naturally lends itself to the idea of shaking his hand, talking about his farm, connecting with him on issues. For the farmer, the direct-to-consumer means a higher margin on product sold and working with customers who are often evangelically enthusiastic about his efforts. This is the idyllic situation for many farms.
But step away from the romantic for a moment and put on your business hats. According to the Organic Trade Association, 93% of all organic food sold in the United States in 2010 was sold through retail grocers (see here). That is a staggering number and amounts to a market potential of $25B. Who do you think is taking advantage of that potential? It isn't the small family farm. Our regulatory environment, including that monstrous FSMA, makes the landscape hostile for small farms who want to enter the wholesale market. So Big Ag is filling the gaps with huge production areas in California, Florida, and Mexico as well as imports from South America. But the small family farm can tap into this market. In fact, the growing interest in local food begs for entrepreneurs who can figure out how to get it to the mass markets in a relational and connected way. And we really don't have to forge new tools for this.
In the remaining parts of this series, I'll write about two of the tools available: food hubs and branding. Food hubs are aggregators. They bridge the volume, overhead, and regulatory gaps between the small farm and the big market and meet an essential need in the local food system supply chain. Branding has always tried to connect with consumers. And I believe it can be used successfully to connect consumer with farmer in the local mass market retail system.