Region Roots supports farmers and expands access to local food

DEMOTTE – The dry grass along the highway was a faded yellow color and the surrounding cornfields laid bare, but inside Dan and Julie Perkin’s high tunnel there was an explosion of greens brilliant.

“That’s my combine,” Dan joked as he stuck a cordless drill into the hand vegetable harvester.

The drill spun the macrame brush, which quickly swept the fresh spinach leaves into the basket. Designed specifically for small-scale operations like Perkins Good Earth Farm, he said the tool makes harvesting much more efficient. For small producers, efficiency is paramount, as farmers have to wear many hats: marketer, salesman, distributor, chef and, of course, producer.

Region Roots Local Food and Farm Hub strives to relieve some of these responsibilities from the plates of farmers.

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“One of our goals was to not leave the farm,” Dan said. “That’s the beauty of this system (Region Roots), they take care of the delivery and the logistics. It’s hard enough to grow.”

Launched by the NWI Food Council in June 2021, the virtual food hub Region Roots connects restaurants, schools and other wholesale food buyers with local farmers and producers. Region Roots works with around 25 growers. In the first year of the initiative, the center moved over 20,000 pounds of produce, meat, cheese and grain, supporting over $45,000 in farm-gate sales. Anne Massie, local farmer and chair of the NWI Food Council, said Region Roots is on track to double those numbers this year.

“We’re trying to really rewrite what a healthy local food system looks like for northwest Indiana,” Massie said.

Although growers in the area have been discussing starting a food hub since around 2011, a formal business plan wasn’t created until 2020. When the pandemic hit, Massie said, cracks in the traditional food system have been exposed. Grocery store shelves were empty and farmers could no longer market produce as they had before.

The hub started out as a place where farmers could buy produce from each other, but thanks to a steady stream of grants, Region Roots was able to grow.

help farmers

When Dan and Julie Perkins started their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, they had to juggle raising young children, building up a clientele and maintaining a farm, all while working full time with Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District. .

“We had a few years where we kept saying, ‘This isn’t sustainable,'” Julie recalls. “I don’t know how many small farms can actually pull this off.”

In 2019, they were able to start working full time. Now they operate a four-season CSA, an on-site farm stand, a small take-out restaurant, and an Airbnb. Diversifying income streams helps spread financial risk, Dan explained.

Wendy Hager cleans green onions Wednesday at Perkins’ Good Earth Farm.

John J. Watkins, The Times

Julie said Region Roots has helped take out a lot of the “busy work” that comes with running a farm: restaurant billing, delivering orders and communicating with customers.

“We want to grow, not drive,” Dan added.

Bulk buyers can purchase ingredients from the hub’s website. Each week, buyers place their orders on Tuesday evening, farmers harvest on Wednesday, and Region Roots travels to collect and deliver orders on Thursday.

“Farming is one of the riskiest, if not the riskiest, occupations, and farmers often find themselves doing the work of four or five people to maintain their business,” Massie said, noting that 85% of farmers Indiana have off-farm employment, “which makes it difficult to recruit new farmers. The food hub is intended to take the burden of marketing and distribution off the shoulders of farmers.

Selling produce wholesale can be especially difficult for small-scale farmers, Massie said. Producers must meet specific certifications, undergo rigorous audits, and cannot always meet the high volume of product that restaurants require. Under the Region Roots model, small businesses that want to support local growers can consolidate orders using multiple farmers.

The producers set their own prices and the hub adds a small markup to cover the costs. Massie said large wholesale distributors sometimes take 25 or 40 percent of the sale price, which means producers make less profit.

Support the locals

Dan pointed to a row of green and purple Salanova salads at the bottom of the high tunnel.

“It’s the exact same lettuce they grow in California that you usually see in stores, it’s just that we can grow it in Indiana too,” Dan said.

He said much of the produce transported from California was already weeks old when it hit grocery store shelves. Most foods sold through the hub were harvested within 48 hours, which means they taste fresher and last longer.

Strengthening Northwest Indiana’s local food system would also benefit the broader economy, Massie said. One of her “favorite statistics to release is that 98% of Indiana’s fruits and vegetables are imported into our state,” she said. Massie said the figure was particularly “astonishing” because according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Indiana is the eighth-largest agricultural producing state in the country.

Anna Martinez, who works for Region Roots connecting growers to shoppers, said the Hoosiers spend about $14 billion on food expenses and an additional $10.5 billion on restaurants each year. If just 10% of household food expenditures were shifted to local purchases, some $2.5 billion would be added to Indiana’s food and agriculture economy, Martinez said.

Perkins Good Earth Farm

Dan and Julie Perkins started Perkins’ Good Earth Farm in 2009.

John J. Watkins, The Times

“We believe local food is the best kind of food and supports our local economy and creates a more resilient community,” Massie said, adding that the hub’s ultimate goal is to make it “easier to choose local.”

Roots Region received a READ, Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, Northwest Indiana Forum grant and now has funding for the next five years. Massie said they are looking to increase their staff, purchase an additional truck and possibly establish a brick-and-mortar hub.

While the local food hub trend is growing in popularity, Massie said, the majority of hubs have been around for less than five years. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionthere were 212 food centers and 234 local food policy councils in the United States in 2018.

“We want to build something that will last for generations,” Massie said.

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