Building a Food Hub for Economies of Collaboration
By CHRIS HARTMAN
Economies of collaboration can compete with economies of scale. That theme, first introduced to me at a National Good Food Network conference a few years ago, speaks to the fundamental strategy behind food hubs and the regional food system development efforts they represent. Across the country, food hubs are innovating and operating alternative supply chains, partnering with networks of small, midsize, and large farms, processors, and food producers, as they offer a wide range of customers a robust and resilient catalog of regional foods. The important and immediate opportunity at hand is that the pool of customers interested in this regional, values-based supply chain is moving beyond the “choir” of individuals, independent retailers, and farm-to-table restaurants, and is beginning to include a far broader and vastly larger set of customers, including public and private institutional procurement. This is a grand moment of opportunity for food hubs and independent regional food system networks. This is also a precarious time in which large, established, industrial food system players recognize the shifting sands and seek to maintain their strategic need for control and scale.
Headwater Foods, Inc. (headwaterfood.com) is a food hub in upstate New York. We work with more than 200 different farms, processors, and food producers, and we source and sell regional foods across New York State. Many of the farms we work with fall into the mid-size and large category, this is within a NY family farm context. We also work closely with small farms that seek a wholesale market in addition to any direct markets they already serve. We work with produce growers, grain and legume growers, farms raising animals, dairy farms, and a wide range of processors and value-add producers making all sorts of food products. We work towards whole crop utilization with some farmers and plan years in advance, and we work with surplus and seasonal opportunities with others. Our level of planning and communication with our farm partners is unique to each relationship and our shared sense of mutually beneficial business. The agricultural practices utilized by our partnering farms range from Certified Organic (piloting regenerative certification) to conventional farming. There are Animal Welfare Certified, pasture-based meat operations in the mix, and a cull NY dairy cow program producing ground beef. Our supply chain seeks to be inclusive and capable to meet customers where they are at regarding their values and goals around food purchasing while offering a well-supported path towards ongoing enhancements and further ability to lean into those values.
Our customers include smaller restaurants and retailers in our local service region, colleges and k-12 schools across a broader area of the state, foodbanks across all of NYS, and other distributors seeking to offer a set of local products to their own customers. Our delivered orders range from a few cases of produce, meat, and grocery items to a smaller local customer, and full truckloads of product to larger customers in NYC. Our offerings range from unique local foods for specialty chefs (rainbow carrots and heritage pork) to NY Grown and Certified staples for institutional kitchens (frozen vegetables and canned beans). Ultimately, we sell “Programs” to these customers, a planful, relationship-based approach to building and coordinating a supply chain to support their operation, including the reporting, compliance, and storytelling needs they may have.
Many of these customers are public institutions or publicly funded organizations. In this case, we add a few layers of value and ultimately “sell” to a few different audiences. The economic impact associated with food purchased from a network of independent, regional farmers, food producers, and distributors is significant. New York public dollars spent on food can, and should, have multiple layers of benefit, impacting the social, economic, and environmental health of our communities. Whether we are supporting fresh, healthy, and enjoyable foods for people facing hunger and food insecurity, or filling the dining halls of our schools and universities, we work closely with NYS to support a supply chain that invests in and helps to build the future, sustainable food system we want and need.
Headwater’s focus has been to inspire, aggregate, and organize values-based demand across various customer segments, allowing us to coordinate and build capacity within corresponding values-based supply chains. Headwater began within a neighborhood farmers’ market project in Rochester NY with the intention to help move local foods beyond the high-end, boutique market they seemed trapped in. Our interest has been to look at both supply and demand as we seek positive change in this way. We have worked to create fair, diverse, and durable, regional markets for farms and food producers while building capacity and inclusion within the regional food production system to meet this greater and broader market demand. We have helped to grow a collaborative network of farms, food processors, and other food hubs and distributors so as to create a scope and scale that can meet much of the significant food requirements of our region. We are committed to a shared understanding of the path forward, learning and aligning values across this network of partners, and building solutions that work for all of us. As we work to “regionalize” national commodities, connecting the significant (and increasingly values-based) purchasing power of public and private institutions to regional production, processing, and distribution, we are beginning to see the economies of collaboration and we are beginning to compete with those that have focused on economies of scale. How we continue to build capacity and define inclusion within the supply chain, and how the collaborative network undergirding this emerging regional food system grows and evolves, is the important work ahead and will be much of the measure of our true success. I look forward to following up on our progress in future additions of this fine publication.
Author Bio: Chris Hartman is founder and President of Headwater Foods, a NYS focus Food Hub based outside of Rochester NY. Headwater is a Certified B-Corp, and is committed to developing a socially and environmentally sustainable food system for the Northeast Region. Chris has worked for more than 25 years as a farmer, a community organizer, an educator, and a social entrepreneur towards a better future food system for NYS.