Food Hub’s feasibility debated for Easton site

Managing Editor

EASTON, Md. (Nov. 25, 2014) — As backers of an Eastern Shore Food Hub campaigned last week for town officials to approve a land lease for the project, others, including area farmers, questioned the project’s fairness and viability.
Herb Miller, chairman of the board of directors of the Easton Economic Development Corporation, told the Easton Town Council the purpose for the hub is to make Easton the Mid-Atlantic center for “healthy, organic and sustainable food.”
The plan is to use the leased land to build a $2.4 million facility and food grown on Delmarva and distribute it within a 200-mile radius which is home to about 40 million people.
“It’s the right place at the right time,” Miller said. “There is not another place in the United States that can reach that many people from an agricultural community.”
Plans also include programs to cultivate and educate small and beginning farmers on growing food for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast markets.
Miller said there are more than 200 food hubs across the United States and 62 percent of those started in the last five years.
This project would create 12 jobs initially, Miller said, and estimated another 110 jobs in related industry as it scales up.
“It’s a great way to provide jobs and improve the community and that’s why we’re interested in it,” he told the council.
The food hub project has been in the works for more than a year after the formation of the Easton Economic Development Corporation in June 2013 began to push the concept of getting fresh food to more people at less cost. But the project gained wider attention recently when The (Baltimore) Sun reported the 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 owns a 40-acre parcel near Easton Airport that supporters are asking to lease for $12,000 per year with a 1.5 percent increase each year. The project also has $500,000 in state funding pending if matching funds are found and the project moves forward.
John Ford, town council president, said the lease amount is about six times what is collected now on the property which is leased for farmland.
Several town residents spoke in favor of the food hub during meeting’s public hearing on the topic, echoing Miller that it would stimulate existing farms and help start new ones.
Though Braver didn’t speak that Nov. 17 council meeting, she told a crowd of about 200 at the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s annual planning conference the project “will be a game changer for Eastern Shore agriculture.”
Others who spoke said they were confused on whether or not the food moved through the food hub would have to be USDA certified organic.
Andy Andrews, co-founder of Colchester Farm in Georgetown, Md., and food hub organizer, said it wouldn’t be limited to organic food “but we would want to have certain best management practices in place and work toward to maintain some integrity of the program.”
Eric Kleinicke, owner of Becky’s Beanz, a produce and herb farm in Berlin, Md., said he was concerned there wasn’t a lot of transparency in the project and few details offered at the hearing.
“I hear a lot of ‘we’re going to make this happen,’ but how are we getting there? Where’s the map?” he said.
Miller responded that they will make a business plan available as the project progresses and the council will continue to have a say in how the project develops.
“We believe it makes financial sense,” Miller told the council. “We’ll get the right operator and you will choose the operator.”
Other speakers at the hearing questioned the fairness of the project getting state funding and possibly help from the town.
Ed Bush, general manager of Teddy Bear Fresh in Easton which sells wholesale and retail produce said the business owners will consider moving their operation if the food hub is established.
“Quite frankly, we’re going to be hard-pressed to stay in a place where my tax dollars are used to fund my competition,” he said.
Bush said he buys produce from local farms when the market and season allows but there are times when it’s more cost effective to bring in products from out of state.
“My customer base cares about local until it hits their bottom line,” Bush said. “When in season, we are as supportive of local growers as anyone around.”
Bobby Hutchison, a Talbot County grain and vegetable farmer said Shore Gourmet, a non-profit organization that helps farmers bring locally grown value-added food items to market has been struggling to stay viable and questioned why a for profit company hasn’t picked up on the food hub idea if it showed so much promise.
Kelly Jackson, owner of Emily’s Produce in Cambridge, Md., urged council members to seek more information than what was presented at the meeting and especially consider what impact the food hub will have on existing produce farms.
“We’ve worked really hard to try to keep this business thriving,” Jackson said. “I would really hate to see this have a negative impact.”
Ford did not say when the council will vote on leasing the property to the food hub corporation but added the council has been supportive of the concept of a food hub since the formation of the Easton Economic Development Corporation.