If you need evidence the demand for local food is booming, try showing up at the Boise Farmers Market at 11 a.m. Not only are produce tables pretty much picked over, but chalkboard signs that once listed dozens of products are smudged with strike-throughs. Ask someone involved in the local food movement what's lacking and they probably won't say demand, they'll say infrastructure.
"Anyone who's spent five minutes in local food knows that local food needs a big kitchen," said Chris Florence of Sweet Valley Family Farm, which sells foraged fare like wild mushrooms and huckleberries. "In order for local food to work, there has to be some value-adding, processing component. It's not enough to just try to aggregate and distribute fresh market produce."
Because the window for growing and selling fresh produce is relatively short in southern Idaho—around four months—and the margins are razor-thin, Florence and his peers are constantly searching for ways to add value to their products.
"The fresh market window is too tight; it's too stressful. ... So in order to round out the business model you have to put up jars of stuff—pickled stuff, frozen stuff, dried stuff—so that you can keep selling throughout the year," said Florence.
Unfortunately, the region lacks local food processing facilities. While some farmers pay to work out of the University of Idaho's Food Technology Center in Caldwell or rent commercial kitchen space by the hour to make their jams and pickles, it's not a particularly efficient endeavor.
"You need one big processing outfit that can contract with the producer pre-season and say, 'Your entire crop of pumpkin is sold because I have a contract to sell it all. I'm going to cook it for you; I'm going to add all the value.' That's what the producer needs is a purchase order, they don't need to be running around trying to do deliveries and trying to make jam," said Florence.
He isn't speaking hypothetically. For the last eight months, Florence has been working with Gem County to develop a business plan for a new regional food hub. Though a food hub can take many forms, like Idaho's Bounty or Brown Box Organics, its essential function is to link food producers and consumers.
"What we've found is people who are really good at farming don't always have the know-how or resources to do their own distribution and do it reliably. ... A hub might just make three phone calls and have an entire crop secured for a producer," said Florence.
Over the past four years, Gem County has been researching the feasibility of forming a food hub.
"We received a couple of grants: two from USDA and one from Idaho Department of Commerce," explained Dian Streeby, president and CEO of the Gem County Chamber of Commerce. "Then we went forward doing the architectural study and the producer/buyer study. Four years later, we've evolved and now we've identified [Sweet Valley] as the business."
Sweet Valley has signed on to spearhead the food hub effort in Gem County, which will most likely take over an existing building in Emmett and work with producers in a 400-mile radius. Eventually, the goal is for the venture to grow into a producer-owned cooperative.
There's another, even more ambitious, component to the project. The Gem County food hub also plans to incorporate a processing arm, which could potentially include freezing, drying and juicing facilities.
"For a food hub to exist here, it needs to have some anchor tenants, or anchor revenue streams," said Florence. "One of those that we identified as a potential was a juicing operation that services the new cideries in town."
According to Florence, most of the apples grown in the Northwest are shipped to two or three giant facilities in Washington state to be processed and juiced.
"As it stands right now, that juice for local cideries is being trucked back to the Treasure Valley and the cost of the transportation is actually more than the cost of the product," said Florence. "So just by being located in close proximity to these cideries, we have a pretty big competitive advantage."
Chris Blanchard of Longdrop Cider Co. in Eagle is on board to buy locally pressed apple juice when it becomes available.
"If we can get juice locally we'd far rather do that because it's $2,300 to send a truck down here full of juice. It's not cheap," said Blanchard.
But getting local apple growers on board might prove to be a little more difficult.
"Most of these big guys are contracted with Tree Top or somebody similar that's buying all their apples," said Florence. "It's a chicken or egg kind of scenario where we have to get producers to commit to be able to justify the project but you can't really get them to commit until you've proven something to them."
Florence recently submitted an application for a $19,000 USDA grant to continue planning the food hub project and he's confident he'll be funded "pretty soon."
"It's nice that USDA is helping to support the planning process because I've got two or three other full-time people working on just this hub and these business plans and running simulation models and trying to make sure that it works because it's too easy to lose money," said Florence.
Moving forward with the project, Florence will be looking for more grants and possibly seeking private funding to purchase processing equipment, which he calls "key infrastructure pieces that we can't live without."
"I think a lot of the press that comes out wants to make it sound very positive that local food is budding and blossoming and that everything is going well," said Florence. "We're seeing a lot of improvement, but this is a critical point where we're counting on support from the local community to help us move forward with local food and keep it going."