Local food is big business in Western North Carolina. In Watauga County, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture is expanding the High Country Food Hub to meet customer demand for local food products.
“We’ve been operating the High Country Food Hub since 2016,” said Dave Walker, Development Director at Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. “It started as a shared storage facility for farmers, mainly livestock growers but also some other producers. We worked with our county government to establish a food hub in a county building. We also recognized that access to local food market channels was a need especially among beginning farmers. The Food Hub started an online farmers market that was unique at the time.”
While the Food Hub has steadily increased year over year, in early 2020 during the pandemic, certain food was scarce. The High Country Food Hub, a local food market, had the staples that grocery stores were missing.
“We really saw the impact of local food with the onset of COVID,” said Dave Walker, Development Director at Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. “Our sales from February to May of 2020 were about six times greater than what they were in January. At the height of the stay-at-home order, we saw 100 new customers join each week. It was a pretty impressive time to figure out how to handle new customers as well as welcoming new producers who saw their markets disrupted.”
While the idea of expanding to satellite locations wasn’t new, the clear customer demand for it was.
“Folks could not get ground beef at the grocery store,” said Shannon Carroll, Finance Coordinator at Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. “We had freezers full of ground beef and other meat. People saw that the local supply chain was coming through in this situation. Many of the customers had their first experiences during the pandemic when shelves were empty in other places.”
The food hub was even helping some restaurants to stay in business during the stay-at-home orders.
“Several restaurants made meal kits to stay connected with their customers,” said Walker. “They sold soups and casseroles and were able to keep some of their staff employed during a time when the doors were closed to customers.”
Once people started to return to work in June and July of 2020, the new challenge was making local food more convenient for the customers who were no longer working from home.
In April 2021, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors awarded Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture $108,000 to develop a total of five satellite pick-up locations in Watauga, Avery, and Ashe counties for the High Country Food Hub online marketplace. Golden LEAF funds were used for equipment, a delivery vehicle, and other Food Hub distribution-related expansion costs.
So far, the Food Hub has added three of the five locations in Avery and Watauga counties and hired two new staff. The new satellite locations have had 141 new orders placed, totaling more than $10,000 in revenue for local farmers. The average producers selling products per week has increased from 55 in 2020 to 61 in 2021.
“The satellite pick-up option makes local food even more convenient for customers, who cannot make it to the Saturday farmers market or commit to the weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box,” said Walker. “Data shows, when it is convenient for customers to access local food, we see the same customers every week or even a couple of times a month. With the satellite pick up option, local foods are convenient to people in their regular routine.”
The High Country Food Hub has the data needed because their whole system is based on an online market. Customers sign up through the system, and staff can track where there are large concentrations of customers. This data has helped build out the plan for the satellite locations. The Food Hub also works with community partners to provide locations that are convenient and accessible.
“Our different partners is what makes the Food Hub work,” said Carroll. “Our farmers, our customers, funding partnerships, and networks. It’s really about the relationships that we develop across all the parts of our community. It is key to the success that we’ve had and that we will continue to have. As we expand out to the satellite locations, we are expanding that partner list and that relationship list. Relationships is what it all comes down to in making something like this be an asset in the community.”
The online Food Hub with satellite locations model is working to help increase good healthy food in rural areas. The High Country Food Hub is providing convenience for customers, increasing markets for farmers, and increasing overall revenue.