Priya opened up the weekly box delivered to her door by the South Island Farmhub. Her eyes took in the deep green leafy vegetables, juicy tomatoes, fresh herbs and farm fresh eggs. To think this food had come from just down the road at Mary Alice’s farm! Things had been tough during the pandemic but knowing she would have these fresh foods to provide for her family made her feel part of a community who cared. She was also glad that local farmers who had lost a lot of their sales from restaurant closures were being supported to find new markets. The South Island Farmhub was such a positive idea, she wondered how it had all come together? But then she remembered she had better get to chopping those vegetables, if dinner was to be ready on time…
The South Island FarmHub (SI FarmHub) was launched with support of the Rapid Relief Fund in the wake of the first-wave of COVID-19. The FarmHub was created by the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR) and the Victoria Community Food Hub Society (VCFHS) to fill a crucial gap in our local food system which had long existed but became critical during the pandemic lockdowns. Island farmers had planned and planted their crops for restaurant business which had evaporated – some losing up to 40% of their usual sales. At the same time local charities were seeing an increase in demand for food supports as the community experienced the economic impacts of the pandemic. The FarmHub stepped in to link local farmers with folks eager to buy their fresh fruits and vegetables – community members, chefs, charities, and non-profit organizations.
What is the South Island FarmHub and how does it work
The SI FarmHub is a project of the Victoria Community Food Hub Society – Making good food, fresh from local farms, accessible to everyone in our community.
The SI FarmHub operation provides an online platform where farmers upload their available weekly produce, either in bulk or a la carte. Then, wholesale clients, home delivery customers and charitable agencies visit the platform to choose what they want to purchase. The produce is picked up from the farms and taken to the Esquimalt warehouse (a shared space with the Mustard Seed Food Security Distribution Centre), where it is washed, sorted, and repacked into produce boxes. The orders that have been placed then get delivered to the customers and agencies who purchased the goods. Using funds from the Rapid Relief Fund, the FarmHub kick-started the “Farmbucks” Program where charity organizations receive Farmbucks to offset the slightly higher cost that local produce has over global suppliers. This makes farm-fresh foods available to support the health and wellbeing of food-insecure folks in our community, an important program helping us meet our mission of “Good food for all”. This program is still continuing and has provided $150,000 worth of Farmbucks credits. There is currently a fundraising campaign happening to ensure that the program can continue into 2022.
Groundwork and Networks
Prior to the injection of funding from the Rapid Relief Fund, which allowed us to get up and running, CRFAIR and members of the Good Food Network had laid the groundwork through their efforts on the Closing the Supply Gap initiative to identify important infrastructure needed in our region. Barriers had already been identified, but so had existing demand and gaps (aggregation and distribution of local food) which needed filling to build a more food-secure South Island. A feasibility plan for a local food aggregation and distribution site had already been completed in 2019, and a partnership with the Mustard Seed Food Security Distribution Centre, was established to provide a warehouse location. When funding from the Victoria Foundation Rapid Relief Fund, Jawl Foundation, and Times Colonist came together in March 2020, we were ready to act and implement the feasibility plan.
Critical to the success of the initiative and its ability to animate quickly was the existence of an established network of farmers (Farmer2Farmer network) as well as charity organizations who supported emergency food provision efforts (Victoria Food Share Network). This meant that there were existing relationships and connections which the FarmHub was able to tap in to and support.
Goals and Mission
The FarmHub’s goals and mission are an alignment of the goals and mission of the farmers, organizations, and people who make up the FarmHub.
When pandemic-related closures struck, the FarmHub team reached out to farmers in our region and asked – what do you need? To which they responded: “just sell our produce!” Since the VCFHS already had connections with farmers through CRFAIR, we were able to identify some anchor farmers that were ready to get things going right away.
We set out to be farmer-driven, aiming to get produce grown here on the South Island, out into our local communities and homes.
For our charity partners, the need was to respond to exacerbated inequalities and food insecurity unleashed by COVID-19. At the same time, they wanted to be able to support local food producers and provide fresh produce that would support a more nutritious diet.
The FarmHub sought to close the loop between food being produced in our region and a desire to access local food. We wanted to bring together farmers, organizations, and individuals, build a stronger local food economy, and greater food security together.
The Farmhub has helped feed over 15,000 people in the Capital Regional District (Greater Victoria area) and has also generated over $260,000 worth of sales for local farmers and food producers during the pandemic. We work with 30 non-profits or charity organizations and have partnerships with more than 40 farmers and food producers. The FarmHub has been able to address multiple dimensions of food security in our region by closing the loop between local farmers and food insecure communities.
We have seen the vulnerabilities in our food supply system for some time and there is multi-sectoral work underway to rebuild our regional food supply and infrastructure (see Capital Region District Food and Agriculture Strategy: https://www.crd.bc.ca/project/food-agriculture). This not only creates and sustains local jobs, but also supports reduction of food transportation, environmental impacts, and climate change. With land prices very high, labour shortages, increasing food and safety regulations, and rising cost of inputs for local farms, there are significant challenges with competing in the global marketplace. But local food champions are seeing a growing customer loyalty base and when hit with the uncertainties of a pandemic, we have seen an increase in farm gate sales up to 400% (Michell Farms).
Generally, retailers and wholesalers have significant issues accessing a diversity of small, mixed, local produce, from local farms. We do not have many farms here with the quantity and consistency of supply for these larger markets, let alone the CanadaGAP Certification required . Through working together, there is the option to build capacity of local farms to sell their product and also step further into these markets. Having the infrastructure of the new Food Security Distribution Center, operated by the Mustard Seed, creates the physical infrastructure (loading bays, temperature-controlled storage and packing and sorting areas) to make the new SI FarmHub possible. There is a lot of space to go around and we find having many folks working towards a food secure future under one roof to be motivating and inspiring!
Ingredients for Success
Key staff, networks of people, existing models, and processes were required for logistical success. These included:
- Supporting Organizations: key organizations with a clear mission and organizational capacity to launch and develop the program, as well as have a strong commitment to ensuring its ongoing success and sustainability, bringing in key financial planning and administrative expertise
- Staff team of Lead Developer, General Manager, Warehouse Manager, Administrative Assistant, Warehouse and Distribution Assistant (x2), and Marketing and Communications Coordinator. With continued growth, 3+ warehouse volunteers have been needed for sorting and packing orders
- Logistical needs: warehouse space (including large, walk-in cooler), 2 Vans for aggregation and distribution, 100 blue reusable totes, online sales platform, website and social media presence
- Experience-sharing and support from the Cow-op, an existing organization filling the same role in the Cowichan Valley. They have been a partner to bounce ideas off of and ask for help with logistical challenges. The Cow-op has been very supportive as we learn from their model.
- Local Food Marketplace online sales platform – this business providing a digital sales platform has been great with customer relations, assisting us in using their program in numerous ways, and making numerous developments which have been very helpful. They take our feedback seriously and implement it
- Farm partners advisory group – key to ensuring this initiative meets the needs of the farm community this group provides regular feedback and meets in the winter to guide and develop our service for farms
- Charity partner advisory group – shares with us what charities need, and how we can best support them
- Existing network of wholesale purchasers (including chefs, charities, and post-secondary institutions) with an understanding of local food systems, existing shared values based on work done previously, who were ready, eager, and willing to support this
- Mustard Seed partnership – with a feasibility plan for the food hub ready and existing partnership, we had a space secured.
- Funding from the Victoria Foundation, Rapid Relief Fund, Jawl l Foundation, and Times Colonist
Both our Food Producer and Charity partners describe transformative impacts that have grown from their involvement in the FarmHub.
Brian Cox, Chef at OurPlace Society, describes the long-term relationship building with farmers and food producers as a huge positive for his organization. Brian shared:
Alejandra, at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, highlights that for newcomers, the FarmHub has introduced people to regional and seasonal foods they have potentially never seen before, and provided an opportunity to connect with the community living here.
Mary-Alice Johnson, owner of ALM Farm, also describes new relationships and powerful connections that have grown from her involvement in the FarmHub:
Mary-Alice also loved forming a connection with the Foods program at her community’s Secondary School. She loves her relationships with chefs and purchasers, these connections keep her going in her farming and she doesn’t want to lose touch with her customers. She felt the FarmHub respected this and allowed her to connect with organizations who are feeding the community.
The FarmHub has had a great deal of success in scaling its operations by gradually growing the number of partner farms, areas served, infrastructure, and customers and revenue streams over time. The rapid and ambitious growth have also presented challenges.
Growing our capacity to meet opportunity
There is much opportunity to expand local food sales and to support our charity partners. The start-up costs involved in lifting the SI FarmHub off the ground are significant and being able to grow our team to fulfill all the different roles needed from administration to farm support to sales and marketing at the pace needed with limited budgets has been a challenge. Creating a viable social enterprise or business that is reliant on grants and donations at start up and gradually building revenue streams through sales towards long term viability takes careful planning, constant adaptation, and innovation. The organizations, farmers, partners, SI FarmHub team, and funders all need to believe strongly in the vision, have good communication and constant feedback loops for the development and commitment to success. It really takes a teamwork approach.
Serving outer communities in the region
Initially, we were challenged in our efforts to serve outlying communities of the Capital Regional District (CRD). The CRD is a very large area, including multiple municipalities as well as Island communities. Some of the processes we had been using for those more centrally located, such as aggregation points in farm regions, didn’t work in the Westshore. To adapt, we created a satellite hub. Food produced in the Westshore is aggregated in the Westshore and delivered to Westshore customers. Food is not brought into the city along with the rest of incoming food products.
Health and safety policies and protocols
A challenge for many small food producers are existing regulations around health and safety required by larger markets (for example Canada Good Agriculture Practices (CanadaGAP) certification.. While it is important to have high standards, many small producers simply do not have the equipment or scale to meet the requirements. Moreover, protocols are set for large farms with a maximum of two large crops, whereas the majority of farms we work with are quite small and grow a variety of crops. As part of our long-term goal to integrate local food into institutional and wholesale purchasing in the region, the FarmHub has been seeking ways to make it easier for small farms and food businesses to become CanadaGAP Certified. To address this local food policy challenge, the FarmHub is working to open a pathway to achieve CanadaGAP certification. By expanding the Food Hub services and hosting “Kitchen Connect”, the FarmHub will be able to offer access to washing equipment, packing equipment, and a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HCCAP) certified kitchen. With this additional infrastructure in place, small producers will be able to serve larger markets and take advantage of the opportunity to have their produce certified.
A major challenge to the FarmHub getting started was funding. Significant capital is required for staff, space, online systems and platform, and additional infrastructure. Due to the funding that became available through the Rapid Relief Fund at the start of the pandemic, we had enough startup capital to get things off the ground.
Funding remains a challenge in particular for the Farmbucks Program. Farmbucks require renewed funds that can be provided to charities, who are then able to purchase food at a subsidized cost. All our charity partners pointed to on-going funding as the major challenge for their continued participation with the FarmHub.
Following a social entrepreneurship model, we have been working to grow other aspects of the FarmHub to create additional revenue streams that allow us to continue to support charities in accessing fresh produce through the Farmbucks Program. When we had capacity, we created a home delivery stream, offering community members the opportunity to subscribe to a CSA-style box, or to build their own customized “à la carte” order. Our plan is to continue to grow this side of the FarmHub so that in the long term, it can support the charity side of our work.
As the FarmHub works to support farmers and charities as well as connect with community, we have learned lessons in collaborating and decision-making with others. It has been invaluable:
- To have a farmer on the team, working in production and on producer relations.
- To have team members with experience in accounting, administration, management, and marketing.
- That our food sector itself was ready – allies (purchasers, charities, and institutions), were ready for something like this and eager to join.
- To have relationships within and between different elements of the food sector, as well as connections with key leaders.
- To build relationships embedded with organizations and businesses, rather than with just one individual, so that staff turnover doesn’t mean the loss of relationships.
- To have shared values, within the FarmHub team for everyday decision making, as well as within the food sector as we work with our partners on both ends (production and purchasing).
- To consult with everyone (both farm and charity advisory groups, as well as with board and funders) to find the right way forward.
In terms of working with local governments, our prior relationship with the City of Victoria and other municipalities has created an environment of support and trust in the initiative. They have worked with us to provide funding and remove policy or regulatory challenges. The mission of the FarmHub is very aligned with municipal plans to support local agriculture and food security. We would like to work more with municipalities and Indigenous Nations to reach more communities and individuals across the CRD. The Federal Government has supported our infrastructure development through grants. As mentioned, we worked with the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture on a feasibility report. We are exploring how other ministries could support our work as well, such as partnering on work experience and job creation programs.
For the FarmHub, prior work done on the Good Food Network and in particular the Closing The Supply Gap initiative provided us with key relationships, values, and documents that were in place and which would be necessary for establishing a FarmHub. In our region, Closing The Supply Gap led the way by providing cross-sectoral leadership across the food system. They created values alignment between funders, farmers, producers, and charities. Importantly, we also benefited from the business and feasibility plan by CRFAIR, the Mustard Seed, and the Ministry of Agriculture. The Good Food Network and Good Food Leadership Group meant that networks necessary for our success were already in place. We acknowledge that this work made the creation and operationalization of the FarmHub possible and successful, and would highly recommend that communities interested in creating their own FarmHub undertake similar preparatory and relationship building work.
Diving deeper into this preparatory work and how it helped the FarmHub get started, we would highlight that relationships with the farming sector are key to success. Knowing what is happening in our region, and how we can fit into what is already existing, cooperate, and fill existing gaps, rather than competing, is important for a project based in community collaboration. We recommend that once gaps have been identified, it is important to meet with all the stakeholders and find out how to best fill that gap. Surveys, questionnaires, and research should be done to find a solution that benefits both producers and purchasers.
If we were to go through the process of setting up the FarmHub again, we would start in the winter – getting things running March through May overlaps with the increase of food production and can be stressful. Otherwise, we would repeat our recipe for success. We have had great support to do the preparatory work, and have been able to fill a gap in our local food system. We would add that transparency and being iterative – constantly gathering and improving on feedback from everyone, has allowed us to keep improving and meet the needs of the various stakeholders.
As Priya’s family sits down to a meal prepared with fresh, regional ingredients, her heart is warmed thinking about the journey the food took from farm to plate. Priya is thankful for the bounty that is nourishing her and her family. She looks forward to a future where the FarmHub is a cornerstone of her community, and people share in the food security of her community.
The FarmHub is part of a network of regional infrastructure to support and grow a thriving regional food system. Some of our goals include continuing to work with the Supply Gap initiative and to support the development of a satellite hub for aggregation and distribution of local food in the Gulf Islands, and expanded home delivery throughout the CRD.
In the near-term, we will continue to build the resources needed, , our team is growing, and we are working with our partner agencies to add Kitchen-Connect as a fully-fledged food processing kitchen for local food processors to the food hub. We look forward to supporting more food grown and processed in our region, and shortening the farm-to-table journey for people in the South Island.
We are working to make the Farmbucks Program sustainable, but this remains a major challenge and we are currently dependent on grants. We are building our fundraising capacity for a long term and sustainable Farmbucks Funding program to ensure that we can continue to support local charities to access healthy fresh local produce and foods for vulnerable communities in our region to fulfill our mission of “Good food for all”.
We see the SI FarmHub flourishing into the future. We are grateful to have the support of so many community partners, and look forward to the continued work with them. It is our pleasure to serve our community.
Special thanks to our Farm and Charity Partners who contributed to our reflections:
Mary Alice Johnson, Brian Cox, Karin Zylstra, Alejandra Mendez, and Kylie Marshall
Special thanks also to our two illustrators:
Miranda Maslany, poster-infographic
Jessica Stepushyn, doodles throughout
And to the core FarmHub staff team, for sharing their thoughts:
Tysh, Lauren, Colleen, and Linda