An emerging nonprofit group called the Tahoe Food Hub is reaching out to foothill farmers in Western Nevada County in an effort to supply restaurants and natural food stores in the Truckee-Tahoe region with fresh, locally grown produce.
If done well, the project has the potential to reduce the headache of marketing and distribution while securing a steady stream of revenue for local agriculture, say some local farmers.
A food hub aggregates food from regional producers, stores it, markets it and distributes it within a local area, according to the Tahoe Food Hub’s website.
“We’re mirroring a national food system but doing it on a regional level,” said Susie Sutphin, co-executive director of the Tahoe Food Hub.
Food hubs help small-scale producers find new markets, provide local communities with healthy, ecologically grown food and educates consumers about the importance of sustainable agriculture and the positive ripple effect of buying local.
Besides acting as a distributor and food connection between Truckee-Tahoe and lower elevation Nevada County, the Tahoe Food Hub has a mission to provide schools, hospitals and low-income families with locally grown food.
Bill Kelly, the co-founder and board president for the Tahoe Food Hub recently acquired 24 acres along Wolf Creek just off Lime Kiln Road.
Already he is teaming up with area farmers and ranchers to grow food on the property for local consumers and the higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada.
“We’re going to be using the property as a hub — a mini food hub — for the Tahoe,” Kelly said.
Pablo Wilkins of Four Frog Farm is one local farmer who is working with Kelly and the Tahoe Food Hub.
At 6 p.m. April 13, Sutphin, will attend the annual membership meeting and potluck dinner of Nevada County Grown at the Methodist Church in Grass Valley to outline her proposal and gather input from area farmers. Folks who are not yet members can join at the door.
“I’m excited about Susie coming to talk to local farmers. I’m hoping we have a good turnout,” said farmer Deena Miller of Sweet Roots Farm.
Miller sees promise in the Tahoe Food Hub. She and her partner, Robbie Martin, grow 60 different vegetables and 50 types of flowers on their three-acre farm. Miller grew up in Tahoe, and many of the farm’s CSA members live in the region.
Miller sees the Tahoe Food Hub as becoming an essential part of a farming business by increasing the efficiency and convenience of an operation. If done right, the food hub could free up a farmer’s time by relieving farmers of marketing duties.
“Marketing is such an exhausting and kind of intense proposition,” said Miller.
Marketing, distributing and picking up surplus would be an organizational feat that would require careful planning and professionalism, Miller said. Farmers could hone their crop plantings according to pre-agreed upon demand by high-end restaurant owners in the resort community.
In order to be successful, farmers will need to get a good price, better than wholesale, for their product, Miller said.
Because most farms in Nevada County are small, scale presents a challenge to expanding production. She estimates it will probably take several years to iron out all the kinks of the program.
“The main hurdle I see is it’s going to take a little while for quantity, consistency and demand to match up,” she said.
Building a community food system
Recently Miller visited Sutphin at the Truckee Community Farm where Sutphin lives and manages a 33-foot space-age geodesic dome greenhouse where vegetables are grown year-round despite harsh winters.
Despite freezing temperatures, heavy snow and high wind, Sutphin is able to grow leafy greens, such as kale, arugula and chard along with root vegetables, during the winter months inside the solar-heated “Growing Dome” produced by the company Growing Spaces.
The Tahoe Food Hub donates 50 percent of the food grown in the dome to Project Mana, a hunger relief agency based in the Tahoe-Truckee area.
“Not everyone has access to this kind of food,” Sutphin said.
Part of the Tahoe Food Hub’s mission is to connect with area schools and hospitals and build growing domes at these public institutions to supply on-site food for patients and students. Similar to western Nevada County, parents, nutrition advocates and community members in the Tahoe-Truckee region are moving toward a “scratch cooking” policy for school meal programs.
Children will grow food and learn about composting and a number of offshoot science-related studies.
“It’s teaching kids more about what they eat and eating healthy. It’s a more direct connection to their food — where it comes from and where it goes,” said Melissa Mohler, executive director of Sierra Education Watershed Education Partnerships.
Sutphin is known in Nevada City for her work with the South Yuba River Citizens League. For five years, she managed the national touring Wild & Scenic environmental film festival.
It was during her involvement with the film festival, that Sutphin became “impassioned by films that inspired activism.”
Among the films that moved her were documentaries based on sustainable food systems that were changing the way people ate.
In 2011, she left her job with SYRCL and started exploring food hubs.
She went to food growing workshops, read books and interviewed farmers.
She met up with Kelly, who was building a growing dome on his property.
“It hadn’t even occurred to me that we can grow food here,” she said. “It was the missing link. In order for the Tahoe Food Hub to build a sustainable food system, it demonstrated we need to not only source regionally but also to grow locally.”
Meeting Kelly helped the project fall into place.
“We like to think we were on parallel trajectories when we met, each bringing a unique piece to the project,” Sutphin said.
About a year ago, Sutphin contacted about 25 farmers in western Nevada County to gauge interest.
“We started creating this buzz,” she said.
Sutphin sees 2013 as the soft launch for her project, a time when she makes connections with area farmers and buyers to gather input and formulate a plan for next year’s growing season. By 2014, she hopes to have the information she needs to give farmers direction for planting crops according to demand.
She admits getting the Tahoe Food Hub off the ground is both exciting and a little overwhelming, but Sutphin says it’s the community that keeps her going.
“It’s such an infectious process. I’m getting calls all the time and that’s what is really motivating me,” she said.
To learn more visit: http://tahoefoodhub.org/
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.