COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Supporters of local foods should work within the current food distribution system to increase its availability instead of trying to start from scratch, says a new Ohio State University study.
Too often, supporters focus on alternative, direct markets to help farmers increase sales of local foods. But this ignores the reality that 90 percent of all food for home consumption is purchased at grocery stores and similar retail outlets, the researchers said.
Among their findings: Existing small and mid-sized distributors in Ohio are eager to work more directly with farmers to get local foods into the marketplace.
The report, "Scaling-up Connections between Regional Ohio Specialty Crop Producers and Local Markets: Distribution as the Missing Link" is based on one-on-one interviews of retailers and a survey of Ohio fruit and vegetable distributors. Authors are Jill Clark, director for Ohio State's Center for Farmland Policy Innovation in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics; and Shoshanah Inwood and Jeff Sharp, of the Social Responsibility Initiative and Ohio State's School of Environment and Natural Resources. The entire report is online at http://cffpi.osu.edu/.
"We knew a lot about farmers and consumers, but we haven't really focused on the details about how food gets from farmers to the retail outlet," said Sharp, who also has appointments with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State University Extension. "That's what this report tells us. There are distinct pathways food can get from the farmer to the store, and people who are interested in local foods need to be aware of the different distributors that are out there, and which actors are most receptive to expand local markets."
The findings challenge the prevailing thought in many local foods circles, Inwood said.
"A lot of people think we need to rebuild the local foods infrastructure," she said. "But if you're talking about going beyond farmers markets and getting into grocery stores or institutions, like schools or hospitals, we found that there are groups of distributors already in place who are interested in filling those gaps. If you want to be most effective with limited resources, the best way to invest is to make use of what's already available. Don't reinvent the wheel."
According to Clark, previous research about local foods distribution in Ohio has been limited to case studies, focusing on just a few examples of what seems to work. In contrast, this research includes data from 39 Ohio produce distributors representing 219 facilities in Ohio who employ 753 full-time and 37,620 part-time workers.
As the first comprehensive survey of produce distributors, respondents identified distribution patterns, practices and opportunities for expansion. In addition, the researchers interviewed managers of six retailers, each representing different market segments from a small co-op to a large national chain.
"Now we know that we have small and medium-size distributors who are willing to work to build relationships with small and medium-sized growers to increase the availability of local foods, not based on arms-length relationships, but a desire to build a mutually beneficial relationship between the producer and the buyer," said Clark, who also has an appointment with OSU Extension.
- As a percentage of overall produce purchases, purchasing of Ohio produce decreases as the size of the distributor increases. However, larger distributors purchase a higher volume of Ohio produce overall.
- Smaller distributors work more with single, independently owned stores and rely mostly on farmers for sourcing products. Large and mid-sized distributors primarily rely on grower-shippers.
- Distributors tend not to use farmer directories to source new products, although one-third have used Ohio MarketMaker, an online service co-managed by OSU Extension. Rather, links between growers and distributors are often made by word-of-mouth and referrals. Distributors tend to rely on farmers approaching them rather than seeking farmers out.
- Agencies and organizations interested in promoting local foods can assist by helping develop relationships between farmers, distributors and retailers. In addition, expanding the availability of aggregation centers with cooling facilities can help foster the availability of locally grown produce in Ohio.
For more on their findings, see the complete report at http://cffpi.osu.edu/.