“Now, we find, ‘the market-place’ assumes another aspect, a change which time and circumstances have created. The producer is often hundreds of miles in one direction, while the consumer may be as many hundred in another, from the mart at which the productions were sold and purchased. Through the course of the year, the products of the North, South, East, and West, are to be found in our large public market-places; from which great quantities are disposed of, to be consumed in other cities, towns, or villages, or on the many ocean or river steamers or other vessels, as well as in foreign countries.”
THOMAS F. De Voe, Butcher.
JEFFERSON MARKET, City of New York, 1864.
Mr. De Voe’s book, “The Marketeer’s Assistant” is an incredible documentation of the available foods for sale in the East coast markets around the time of the Civil War, including some criticism of the logistics and facilities for distribution. Fortunately, for us modern day shoppers willing to take a stroll down the aisle of a past era, copies of this work are included in the Longone Culinary Archive at the William Clements Library on the University of Michigan campus, and the Special and Rare Book Collection at Michigan State University. MSU also included this selection in the “Feeding America” project, which digitized important volumes like this and was assisted in selection by Jan Longone. Here are a couple more excerpts:
“A great trade has imperceptibly grown upon us, which I have sometimes thought, would have been more profitable to both producer and consumer, if proper laws, and practical, honest heads, had been placed over these vast interests, which so much affect the general health and comfort, as well as the pockets of our over-taxed citizens; and I cannot avoid the conclusion, that if our public markets were properly conducted, they would be highly advantageous, not only to the city and citizens, but to all who have occasion to obtain supplies, as they facilitate the voluntary inspection, as well as the comparison of every article offered for sale in them, and they also concentrate the trade by which the people are protected from imposition.”
“This great metropolis should have her public markets as objects of our city’s pride, by having proper and substantial buildings, kept orderly, cleanly, well-arranged and officered, when they could be visited by strangers in safety and comfort, as well as by all her citizens, who would find pleasure and exercise in the performance of a necessary and agreeable duty.”
Well stated Sir! Our mega marts and broad line wholesale suppliers might be fulfilling this role for the majority of consumers in any given area, and even offer support to locally based producers. Our challenge now is to create an efficient system that provides fair access to the bounty of our local sustainable food shed and traceability throughout the value chain. In doing this, we may also celebrate our culinary heritage and enjoy the prosperity of a sustainable regional economy.
Local Food Summit was a Success:
Washtenaw Food Hub planning team members played an active role in preparing for and participating in the Local Food Summit on February 22. WFH folks helped with food sourcing and meal preparation for the day’s menu, which is posted at the WFH page at realtimefarms.com. We had a table at the Summit to spread the word about our efforts so far, and a few of us also presented in the afternoon breakout sessions about local food distribution and food hubs.
In the last afternoon session, 18 people joined in for a great conversation about wholesale distribution for sustainable products from Michigan and the surrounding area. There were producers, distributors, wholesale buyers and “eaters” present. We discussed what is going well in terms of wholesale distribution; we discussed places for improvement; we also came up with some recommendations that would make wholesale distribution of local, sustainable foods a bit easier and more efficient in our region.
First, the good things: participants agreed that Michigan benefits from a great growing climate, resulting in a variety of crops and an impressive diversity of producers and products. Additionally, the large number of farmers markets in our region presents opportunities for retail. The good news is that there seems to be a common mindset and growing demand for local, sustainable food products. With tools like the internet at our disposal, relationship building and networking across the value chain is becoming easier, and participants agreed we should be using that to our advantage as we continue to build our regional food system.
Of course, we can’t talk about wholesale distribution for our region’s sustainable food shed without identifying some challenges for producers, distributors and buyers alike. In keeping with our ‘look to the past’ theme of this post, let’s highlight some action steps with quotes from an article in the New York Times, one hundred years ago, which interviewed Cyrus C. Miller speaking to the challenges surrounding food distribution in his metropolitan area.
At the time, Mr. Miller was President of the Bronx Burrough and had proposed changes to a Mayor’s appointed committee addressing these difficulties. His comments, in bold font, are listed under some current observations from our workshop group. It turns out that, while we had some great ideas, they are not new, historically speaking!
At our workshop, both institutional buyers and producers stated that cold calls to match producers and buyers are a lot of work. There are dedicated folks who do this anyway, but it takes an incredibly discerning person to keep up with this.
“The quick and cheap distribution of farm products among the people of this city is almost essential to their best welfare as the quick and cheap distribution among them of water and light”
“The small and occasional shipper ought to and must become an important factor in our food supply. At present he is not.”
In building an efficient market system, Miller believed,
“The buyer, no longer asked for speculative food prices, would buy more freely. The apparent anomaly of lower prices for the consumer and higher prices to the farmer would result.”
With a lack of processing facilities and distribution channels for small producers in our region, many find difficulty in accessing larger markets.
“As things are, farmers cultivating acres close to our borders have no advantage within our market over those who till the soil a thousand miles away. The distant market sends it’s products here in (rail) carload lots, the nearby market sends it’s in by wagon loads.”
“The tendency in this and other most desirable directions among nearby agriculturists will be strengthened when a system is adopted here which will enable them to feel reasonably certain of a market with fair prices and without waste.”
Existing retail farmers markets typically do not have storage facilities for local food products, meaning that timing and logistics are all the more important when distributing local food products.
“Every Market should have refrigerated rooms into which refrigerated rail cars could be be directly discharged without subjecting perishables foodstuffs to a change in temperature.”
“When the produce has been economically transported to the market buildings, cold storage rooms must wait there for such of it as needs them, while generous facilities must be at hand for storage of commodities which do not require refrigeration”
By creating producer co-ops, members would benefit from shared costs of scaled-up production, group certification, and educational opportunities or information sharing regarding wholesale distribution.
“Cooperative associations have not been notably successful in this country, our people are too individualistic. In Europe, such associations have succeeded because people have been driven into them by necessity… It is possible that in the course of time our people will learn to successfully cooperate (in commerce) through organized association. But the building of efficient markets is no less co-operation, and a form of co-operation better fitted to this place and time.”
The group also suggested more large-scale certification for producers, including
whole farm certification (as opposed to individual crop certification within individual farms), which would make it easier to sell to larger markets. There was general consensus that institutional purchasing policies and regulations should be analyzed (and lobbied for changes when necessary) to make it easier for small-scale producers to access these larger markets. In the meantime, it was suggested that we team up with conventional distribution channels, making use of existing infrastructure like processing facilities and distribution networks, as we continue to build a local food distribution system that functions well.
This was a great discussion that, as you can see, led to a lot of suggestions for the
near future and we are pleased to present the relevant comments from those who addressed these complex challenges not so long ago.
We were impressed with the diversity of interests represented in our workshop and
the specific recommendations these folks had for improvement. Do you have more
suggestions? Please contact us (washtenawfoodhubevents@gmail.
One more thing before we go: in January the USDA published a report on the role of Food Hubs in marketing local foods. Be sure to look at this for the latest information from the USDA!