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How Should Local Food Get From Farm to Plate?

Farmers spend too much time driving trucks, not tractors

Did you ever ride the bus to school? I did—assuming I could wake up in time to catch it. And if you were like me then you probably had to wait outside at a bus stop with the other kids from your neighborhood, too. It's a seemingly obvious solution to the age-old problem of getting things to where they need to be (in this case, groggy pupils), and it's analogous to one of the biggest problems facing the development of local food systems today. Let me explain.

Bus Stops, Food Hubs and Massification

The reason you had to wait for the bus with your peers is because walking a few blocks to the bus stop rather than waiting inside your home created a tremendous improvement in efficiency. Suddenly the bus needed to make only one stop instead of seven.

This is the same sort of planning that goes into local food hubs. The goal is to create a system that improves efficiency by increasing mass (aggregating products from multiple farms) because distribution on a small scale is not cost-efficient or eco-friendly. You may think that a dozen farmers who travel 100 miles to market must pollute less than the 18-wheeler that drives across the country, but you'd be surprised.

Cool Kids, CSAs and the Traveling Salesman

When you turned 16, you may have been cool enough to drive a car to school. And if you were that cool then you probably had a lot of friends who wanted to hitch a ride, which means you were faced with the traveling salesman problem. Who gets picked up (or dropped off) in what order?

That's the same challenge faced by distributors (some of whom are also farmers). After they've generated enough mass, they need to figure out how they can most efficiently distribute their products. It seems like a simple task on the surface, but there are a lot of considerations to be made:

  • Distance - How far is the farmer's hub from his customers?
  • Volume - How much product do his customers need? Are they big orders or small orders? And how many orders are there?
  • Timing - When do his customers need their orders? Will they be present to accept their order? Is there a lag time between customer availability?
  • Perishability - Do the products need to be kept in the cold chain? Are the products easily packable or do they need to be handled with care?
  • Mode - What mode or modes of transport will be used?
  • Identity - Will the identity of the farm's products be preserved or will they become commoditized en route?
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None of these questions are particularly hard to answer on their own. But when they're considered at the same time for hundreds of customers with varying demands, then it becomes exponentially more complex. And the solution seems to be at odds with the aspect that most people love about local food: a personal connection. That connection is lost at scale, yet scale is needed to deliver local food efficiently. Or is it?

How might we help local growers distribute their products more efficiently without losing that cherished personal connection? Local Orbit, based in Michigan, is focused on connecting wholesale buyers directly with farms. Good Eggs has established hubs on either coast to connect farmers and artisans directly with local customers. And Every Last Morsel is striving to help people like you and me shop for groceries right from your neighbor's backyard. Maybe it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

Image by littleny /

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