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TOP STORY, March 3, 2015

Food Hub representatives ‘retooling’ network

 

By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
Managing Editor


EASTON, Md. — After a series of meetings last month throughout the Eastern Shore, development of a local food branding campaign picks up where a controversial food hub project left off.
The food hub project had been in the works for more than a year after the formation of the Easton Economic Development Corp. in June 2013 that began to push the concept of getting fresh food to more people at less cost.
The project gained wider attention last fall following news reports that the Martin O’Malley administration was planning to buy a 255-acre farm in Kent County and lease it for $1 an acre to the nonprofit Eastern Shore Food Hub Corp., led by Cleo Braver, an organic farmer and former environmental lawyer.
The state later backed away from leasing the property but still moved forward in purchasing the land.
The town of Easton then considered renting the non-profit a 40-acre parcel near Easton Airport to serve as a home base for the food hub but concerns from area farmers and residents led organizers to regroup.
“Since then we’ve pulled back and we’ve been retooling,” said Tracy Ward, executive director for the Easton Economic Development Corporation
The result is the Chesapeake Harvest Food Distribution Network, an effort to help small and mid-size farms capitalize on demand for locally raised food.
While the project’s organizers didn’t have many firm details to offer, they pointed to Delmarva’s proximity to a large population base — 40 million people in a 200-mile radius and a growing demand for locally grown food as key reasons for building a regional brand and a network of growers.
Ward said it could start with one or two employees tasked with market and selling produce for participating farms. As the project grows, more grower services like assistance in packaging and food safety regulation compliance could be added.
“We’ve kind of turned things around and made it more inclusive and I think we’re on the right road with it,” said John Trax, a member of the project’s advisory committee.
Ward said renting or purchasing land for the project is no longer part of the project.
“I think we’ve put that to rest,” she said. “I hope.”
As for a timeline on the project, Andy Andrews, a Kent County farmer and one of the network’s organizers, said they will continue to seek feedback on the project and seek out potential buyers and form a business plan for an anticipated launch in the spring of 2016.
Andrews said the network could also involve different levels of participation based on certain practices used on the farm. Farms could join the network at one level and after adding certain growing practices, change levels in order to better promote the value of the practices they use on the farm.
As the framework of the network evolves, project organizers said the need for more locally grown food is very clear. Andrews said local food sales in the Mid-Atlantic region have increased from $4 billion in 2002 to $11 billion in 2011.
“Based on some initial conversations (with buyers) there is tremendous potential for Maryland growers. Now just have to get the details,” he said.