FARMINGTON – An online food hub allowing people and businesses to place orders with local farmers has launched amid the coronavirus pandemic and a renewed focus on shopping local.
The goal of the Harvest Food Hub, housed in San Juan College, is to increase the opportunities of local farmers to market to local restaurants, schools and other businesses, while expanding access to local food in the Four Corners, said Erin Havens, project manager of the Harvest Food Hub.
Planning for the Harvest Food Hub began years before the global coronavirus pandemic caused people to rethink their food supply lines, but it has benefited from an increased interest in buying local.
“COVID hit right before we were planning on opening,” Havens said of the online hub, which officially launched the week of July 20. “Local food has gained a resurgence because people are realizing how important it is to have access to.”
Plans for the food hub originally focused on wholesale orders with local restaurants and schools. But increased interest in buying local led to the food hub to also provide for individual orders and a farm box of mixed vegetables.
“There’s a big demand for community supported agriculture-style orders and farm boxes,” Havens said.
Ordering is available every Monday. Customers can make their selections online and pick up their orders on Wednesdays, Havens said. If a business places more than five orders, the food hub will deliver its boxes. During its first week, the food hub received 39 farm box orders.
Customers have also been interested in wholesale orders. Farmington Municipal Schools is the biggest buyer, Havens said. Local restaurants and the Bloomfield Senior Center have also placed orders.
“It can be really beneficial to restaurants because local food looks better and tastes better,” Havens said.
The benefits of participating are also seen by farmers. Havens said the food hub handles much of the marketing and outreach, making it easier for farmers to expand their reach without having do the work directly.
Interested farmers submit an application and food safety plan to the Harvest Food Hub. Online courses explain how wholesale packaging and sales might differ from smaller purchases. Once farmers are approved, they are able to update their produce availability on the online ordering system for that week on Sunday.
Six farmers participated in the first week of operations, and there are 12 submitted applications, Havens said. She said although the majority of interested farms have been in San Juan County, there was one from Hesperus and one from Shiprock. The food hub is open to farmers across the Four Corners.
The food hub follows a long but often forgotten history of farming in the area.
Farmington once had a large agricultural industry, exporting fruit and beans throughout the Four Corners, including to Durango. Yet as the oil, gas and coal industry began to dominate the local economy, many farming and fruit groves shut down.
But in 2017, with the community looking to diversify its economy as it was faced with a declining oil and gas industry, farming and agriculture was identified as an area that could be expanded. The creation of a food hub was identified as a community need.
Shortly after, the Enterprise Center at San Juan College applied for a five-year grant through the federal Economic Development Administration. The college was awarded $564,000 in 2018 to establish a food hub.
“Agriculture has been identified as one of the areas to grow,” said Lorenzo Reyes, dean of Workforce and Economic Development at SJC. “The food hub is part of the initial steps to bring producers and buyers to one central point to begin to encourage that industry to grow.”
Havens said the last year and a half has been focused on building relationships with the community and farmers throughout the region.
“A majority of new jobs are created by small businesses,” Reyes said. “For a larger vision, we’re working with the city of Farmington to secure a location for a commercial kitchen.”
Havens said the commercial kitchen will allow food entrepreneurs to test different recipes and products in an industrial kitchen without being faced with the overhead of starting their own.
“We’re working to build a strong regional food system and expanding partnerships,” she said.