New venture connects farmers, community

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Imagine a Facebook-like online community that connects local farmers with restaurateurs, school chefs and retail business owners. Consumers can post items they’re in need of, and farmers can announce their harvests.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Wrong.

Such an animal exists in other parts of the country, and one Middle Tennessee woman with a passion for local farmers is working hard to create a statewide food hub.

As publisher and editor of The Local Table magazine, the seasonal local food and farm guide, Lisa Shively has made extensive contacts in the food world which inspired her to start her new project: Local Table’s Farm to Plate Local Food Hub.

“This food hub is to connect the grower and wholesale buyer to create a healthier and more sustainable local food system,” she said.

“The logistics for sourcing local food can be cumbersome and difficult for both farmers and chefs and this website will make the process simpler for each to connect with the other. It will help get fresh, healthy local food into our local food system - by bypassing the need for our food to travel long distances while losing both nutritional value and taste.”

Well known in the Nashville music industry for her public relation skills that helped launch and sustain many country music careers, Shively turned her eye to the local farming communities when she and husband Dale Cox moved out to Pleasant Shade to live on their own small patch of land.

They are the real deal, raising goats and chickens, providing a home for several abandoned horses and many dogs and cats. Being so hands-on in the farming community was a very educational experience for Shively, she explained.

“It’s a tough life as we all know but as we have seen with the success of weekly farmers markets and local (Community-Supported Agriculture) farms, there is chance to make a living with a small local farm,” she said.

“At the same time awareness about food quality and safety has grown tremendously. Southern cooking is fashionable again, as evidenced by articles in Vogue and InStyle this summer. ‘Locally sourced’ and ‘sustainably farmed’ are big buzzwords in the food world. ‘Farm to Plate’ restaurants are all the rage in the big cities but I think that everyone has the right to have access to healthy, nutritious food.”

Local Table’s Farm to Plate will function in real time, so retailers and artisan bakers, alike, can quickly search for a particular item. The hub will be membership-based, so only members can view posts by other members; posts will not be viewable by non-members. Additionally, farmers can list their certifications -- certified organic, certified humane, etc. -- for consumers to view.

Without the hub, farmers would have to call each individual shop owner with updates about current products. Likewise, consumers would have to call each individual farmer in hopes that one will have a specific product.

“Hopefully, this will free up time and energy and help make that connection a little easier,” Shivley said. “I know a lot of local school systems are interested, but don’t know how to make that connection.”

The idea for a food hub came to Shivley about five years ago, just about the same time she decided to launch The Local Table.

“I had been interested in preserving local farmland and keeping local greenspace,” she said. “I wanted to do something to keep local farmers in businesses.”

After viewing a farm/food guide during a visit to another city, Shivley returned to her home in Middle Tennessee to search for a similar magazine that would help connect farmers to the consumer and help them grow their businesses. It didn’t exist. So she created the magazine herself.

“Ever since I started the magazine, I’ve gotten calls from restaurants, Second Harvest Food Bank has called, people are looking for ways to connect to the food they’re looking for,” she explained.

“Basically, all I’d been able to do is say, ‘You can use our guide as a resource and start making food calls.’ But that’s a lot of work for people. Unless they have an assistant or someone to do that for them, it’s a lot of effort.”

Because food hubs are being developed and used in other parts of the country, Shivley thought it would make sense to integrate it to the database she already has from the magazine.

However, while Shivley has the contacts and the marketing skills and help from many friends, a realistic business plan shows that the project needs to raise $8,500 to hire the web designer and software engineer to get the hub up and running.

“We are very encouraged because we already raised $1,145 as of today, in just over a week. But we need your help to get the word out. If we reach 7380 people who donate $1 each, we can have the hub up ad running for the crucial fall harvest period,” she said.

Local resident and Rutherford County Farmers’ Market manager Janie Becker was one of the donors. As someone whose professional and personal life is involved in local farming day in and day out, she recognizes the food hub as essential.

She explained how food hubs can benefit small local farms by providing a single product repository with many distribution channels, helping a small farm get their goods into a variety of settings such as schools, hospitals, grocery stores, and restaurants without all of the legwork that would be required if the individual farm had relationships with each institution or business.  

Additionally, it helps to group like- products from multiple farms so that the volume of locally-sourced goods needed to meet the demands of large end users can be met.

“This helps make the supply more consistent and predictable and the choice for businesses to utilize local products more sustainable,” Becker said.

“I donated to the Farm to Plate food hub start-up because I know that it takes community support and lots of collaborators to get a program like this up and running. We can all dream of ways to help improve the communities we live in, but it takes real work, coordination, and, yes, money to get systems like this off the ground. I donated because I want Farm to Plate to succeed.”

Each Tuesday and Friday, Becker witnesses local residents shopping at the Rutherford County Farmers’ Market. Right now, they’re buying tomatoes and summer squash, honey and jams. But oftentimes, farmers need more than just farmers’ market sales to individuals.

“Well-run food hubs shouldn't conflict with the mission of local farmers' markets because they are serving different clientele,” Becker said.

“When a farm attends a market, they're typically selling raw ingredients directly with the household consumer, whereas food hubs tend to focus on sourcing to food service folks like restaurants and schools. Food hubs can make it much more viable to place locally-produced food throughout our community--not only in the homes that make the effort to buy it directly from the farmers.”

She explained how local residents can also encourage their favorite restaurants to source their ingredients locally.

“Show them that you care and live up to it by patronizing them if they start to offer dishes with local components,” Becker said. “I'm not trying to suggest that everyone needs to become militant locavores, just that we speak up to our favorite lunch spots, our school boards, hospital administrators, etc. Or, if you're not into activism, support the efforts of folks like Lisa Shively, who is willing to do the legwork for all of us!”

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Agriculture, Business, Farm to Plate Local Food Hub, Farmers Market, Food, Social Media, The Local Table
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