As reported - by Leslie Hutchinson of the Registered Citizen, Tuesday, August 21, 2018 - HARWINTON — Fresh produce from Litchfield County farms is reaching more customers this summer with the help of the Northwest Connecticut Regional Food Hub. The project is operated by the Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities Inc., a nonprofit group, with support from the Northwest Hills Council of Governments.
The food hub program buys produce from participating farms and distributes it to clients, including restaurants, natural food stores and a private school.
"It lets farmers stay on the farm and not drive produce around. They grow beautiful produce, and can concentrate on that,” said Jocelyn Ayer, community and economic development director for the council.
The idea is working. Last year, the program’s first summer, 10 farms sold produce to the food hub. This year, the number has grown to 16. The client base has nearly doubled, from 10 to 18.
“It’s a wholesale project for produce,” said Mark Gauger, owner of Maple View Farm in Harwinton. “They buy up surplus items. We have sold potatoes, onions and carrots.”
Gauger and his wife, Carole, have owned the farm since 1990 and operate a Community Supported Agriculture site, which allows members to buy shares of the farm’s weekly produce harvest.
The food hub offers to buy produce on a weekly basis, Gauger said. “They send a text, ‘What do you have? Any of this?’” he said.
If he has a surplus of specific vegetables the food hub needs, a worker will pick up the produce at the farm and pay a negotiated price.
“It makes life simple for us so we don’t have to go out and sell,” said Jon Sederquist of Deeply Rooted Farms in Harwinton.
He said small farms can’t grow enough produce to sell at wholesale markets. “Driving to Kent with two flats of strawberries doesn’t make sense,” Sederquist said.
He and his wife, Patti, plant 1.5 acres of “day neutral” strawberries, also known as everbearing. The plants flower based on temperature, and can be harvested as late as September. The farm also grows gourds and Christmas trees.
Sederquest sold four flats of strawberries to the food hub this week, he said, adding that the family’s involvement in the program has been very positive.
“It could be a material contributor (of income),” Sederquest said. “It’s a good chance for smaller farms to get a good price at a wholesale quantity. I was surprised by the price point.”
“This is a huge advantage” for small farmers, said food hub operator Kay Carroll.
“If they grow it well, they will be able to sell it and the client will have food to provide,” Caroll said.
Carroll said the organization’s clients include Ore Hill & Swyft restaurant in Kent, Community Table restaurant in Washington, The Watermark at East Hill in Southbury, a senior living facility, the Forman School in Litchfield and New Morning Market in Woodbury.
“They are all interested in local, sustainable food,” she said.
To operate the program this year, the food hub received grants and donations of nearly $108,000, from a variety of sources, Ayer wrote in a statement. “(The funds were) managed and secured by Partners for Sustainable Healthy Communities,” she wrote.
A small portion of the funding pays to rent a warehouse on Broad Street in Torrington, where the food hub produce is delivered and packaged for distribution.
The distribution process begins with a list of what’s available from farmers, Carroll said. The client orders from the list and the produce is picked up from farms and delivered to the client locations. The list for the Aug. 12 distribution, for example, offered the clients more than 20 kinds of produce. The choices of vegetables included Green Slicer cucumbers, Chocolate Pear tomatoes, pea shoots, orange carrots and mixed edible flowers.
“Our goal is to have more places available (to purchase produce) and more people involved,” in selling it, Carroll said. “We have doubled business this year. Our producers are very happy.”
“I expect to continue with the food hub,” Gauger said. “I want to keep the relationship going and work on the list of what works for them.”