No Leftovers

Harvest Hub bridges the gap between farms and tables



Michael Peterson and his son Nicolas are unloading pillowcase-sized bags of purple Brussels sprouts from their Willow Creek Farm truck. There are boxes of pale green bok choy and sacks of rainbow carrots, too, stacked up outside the entrance to the Harvest Hub run by the North Coast Growers Association (NCGA) on West End Road in Arcata. All of it is already spoken for, with somewhere to go from here. Some is headed for the menu of the South G Kitchen food truck, and some will wind up in kids' lunches at Coastal Grove and Burnt Ranch schools. The bulk is headed for Food for People's open pantry for those in need. But the Petersons needn't haul the food to all those buyers, nor will they have to follow up for payment.

Standing to the side, Harvest Hub Director of Cooperative Distribution Megan Kenney looks on like a child watching birthday presents being stacked, a wave of brown hair cresting over her glasses. Under the umbrella of the NCGA and a steering committee of stakeholders, she's shepherded the Harvest Hub program through its development into a nonprofit intermediary between producers and buyers, connecting local farms to some 18 schools, a handful of restaurants and a growing number of people facing food insecurity.

At a long stainless-steel table in late winter, volunteer Robyn Gorecki weighs potatoes from Wild Rose Farm and places them into open paper bags. She also adds apples, mung beans, Brussels sprouts, leeks and winter squash to be delivered to the 100 or so participants in the Harvest Box program, a kind of CSA box that draws from 40 participating farms. For $25, people who might not otherwise have access to farmers market produce due to disability, transportation or juggling care for young children can get a half-dozen kinds of fruits and vegetables delivered to them for a rate equal or lesser than the farmers market price. And delivery by the program's van means fewer cars on the road and fewer emissions.

"It's kind of the gateway," says Kenney, explaining how farmers who sign up with the Harvest Box program can learn the ropes of all the protocols involved in supplying farmers markets, schools, restaurants and grocery stores, independently or through the Harvest Hub. That might mean laying out safety and irrigation plans, and equipment cleaning protocols, or tracking and tracing produce for potential recalls. Kenney and other staff and volunteers are on hand to walk them through the requirements, opening up possibilities for selling to more and larger buyers than a stall on the Arcata Plaza affords.

Once the produce is dropped off at the hub, farmers bring invoices to the bookkeeper, who tallies up single bulk payments each week, covering combined sales to all the restaurants, schools and grocers who ordered. It's a good deal simpler for farmers than invoicing individual restaurants, sometimes for a single $30 case of product at a time, and chasing down small payments all over the county. It's easier, too, if a buyer doesn't pay their bill for any reason. "We have an insurance policy," says Kenney, which covers the organization for unpaid bills. Unlike smaller, less established farms that might not be able to make payroll if accounts don't pay up or are delayed, "we have a little cushion and grant money to pay some of our employees," says Kenney. "So it's not as huge a hit as if a farmer doesn't get a $1,000 payment, especially for farms in their first five years, where everything is in $10 increments."

Once Kenney gets a list of what's coming in from the farms, the available inventory is posted on the Harvest Hub website. Wholesale buyers can log in from Monday afternoon until Wednesday morning to order beef or mushrooms by the pound, and daikon and rainbow chard by the case, from a number of farms. Then, they can pay for it all in one place. The site has information on farms, as well, like whether they're certified organic like Willow Creek Farm, low-till and oxen-powered like Shakefork Farm, or practice low-stress cattle handling like Bear River Valley Beef.

Once the last orders are in Wednesday morning, farmers get individualized lists of which produce and how much of it they need to bring to their scheduled weekly drop-off at Harvest Hub. Every crown of broccoli already has a place to go, whether that's a cafeteria or restaurant kitchen, or to feed those coping with food insecurity. No leftovers.

Michael Peterson with Willow Creek Farm's weekly delivery of vegetables for Harvest Hub. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Michael Peterson with Willow Creek Farm's weekly delivery of vegetables for Harvest Hub.

At Willow Creek Farm, Michael Peterson says he's just started picking zucchini, while carrots, beets and corn are still a few weeks away. "I like a field tomato, I'll take a bite and throw it over my shoulder for luck," he says. He also likes being on the farm, planting, harvesting and planning crop rotations for his 17 acres. "I would like to cut back on the amount of time I spend away from the farm," he says. "And the hub does that for me."

"The convenience of the drop-off is that it's all consolidated. I can go there and unload a pallet," Peterson continues, noting it saves him the time and fuel expense of making deliveries around the county. The ordering system also frees him from substantial marketing duties. "It saves me all the effort of keeping in touch with all the [consumers]," and reaching out to new ones beyond his core wholesalers. "Markets that we didn't know existed are now asking us for product" via Harvest Hub's online ordering system, he says. "What it boils down to is you got the schools, the restaurants, the little mom-and-pop places, and they can get the list of what's available each week."

Especially in winter, Peterson says the farm has often produced more than the county could absorb, so he's sold his vegetables through Bay Area wholesalers, like Veritable Vegetable, before they went overripe. But Veritable Vegetable draws from geographically broader markets, he says, putting Willow Creek Farm up against "megafarms" and high-production outfits in Southern California, which can be tough to beat on price. This year, however, "Because there was more demand locally [through Harvest Hub], I didn't have to go out of the area." That, he says, means a break for him in terms of delivery cost and time, as well as his vegetables' carbon footprint when sold through out of area wholesalers, noting, "There's product that goes all the way to San Francisco and then it comes back up to Eureka."

Selling through Harvest Hub has also been fairly easy for Peterson, who finds his farm's name carries more weight with buyers here in Humboldt. He says the transition to using the hub's ordering system has been smooth, and the community of buyers and producers has been welcoming and supportive. "Megan is just a go-getter — she's just been awesome to work with," he says.

Ed Cohen, owner of Earthly Edibles, farms his "30-ish acres" in Korbel. If you're eating organic broccoli from a local market right now, it's probably from his farm. Cohen is a longtime member of NCGA and a member of the Harvest Hub's steering committee. "The hub is playing a cool part where they're reaching a lot of small places ... and they're giving newer, younger farms an opportunity," he says. Earthly Edibles is among the producers on the Harvest Hub website, having signed on as soon as it was up and running, and Cohen makes weekly drop-offs, same as many other farmers. But as a larger farm with larger grocery store accounts separate from Harvest Hub, Earthly Edibles has different needs.

"I'm a local high-production organic farm," he says. "Around here, there's probably three or four of us [of similar size] that produce a lot for local stores and markets ... and we are basically shadowing each other, going to the same stores and restaurants."

He's long hoped to come together to organize a shared delivery truck — much larger than Harvest Hub's current delivery van — to accommodate larger farms and cut back on time, cost and carbon output for all of them. It wouldn't be cheap, he admits, but it would reduce the number of vehicles on the road and farmers' costs. "It would just allow us to spend more quality time on the farm or with our families," he says, noting, "I'm relatively close but it's still a full day delivering" during the busy season.

Director of Cooperative Distribution Megan Kenney in the Harvest Hub cold room. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Director of Cooperative Distribution Megan Kenney in the Harvest Hub cold room.

"We're still in the infancy of what the hub is going to be," he says, adding, "Megan is an amazing woman who's heading this up ... so I think it's going to happen; it's just not going to happen overnight."

Daniel Emmenecker, co-owner of South G Kitchen, is one of the customers waiting for deliveries from Harvest Hub. He'd heard about the Harvest Boxes, and he knew Kenney from Redwood Curtain Brewery, where the South G Kitchen truck and its upscale pub fare are fixtures. "The moment I could start ordering, I started ordering immediately," he says, beginning with winter Brussels sprouts, shitake mushrooms, Little River Farm pea shoot greens, daikon, bok choy and heirloom carrots. "It's exciting because every week I jump on [the website] and there's always new things. ... Everybody isn't supposed to have everything all the time." His enthusiasm for local produce led him to a spot on the Harvest Hub steering committee and he's hopeful about its long-term impact.

"Honestly, I think it's the best thing in Humboldt County, this focusing on our food system ... this is what's going to uplift the farmers in our area," Emmenecker says. The mutual support between entrepreneurs and farmers, he says, "is part of the reason why I live here."

Without the hub, Emmenecker explains, outside of the farmers market, he'd have to take time to visit the farmers themselves or, without access to a local wholesale distributor, shoulder the added expense of going through a local retailer. The latter, he says, is unlikely to pencil out with the already slim profit margins of a restaurant business. He had been ordering organic produce from the Bay Area's Veritable Vegetable, but he prefers to support local growers and says he's getting better product at similar cost. (Brussels sprouts, it turns out, are seldom improved by the round-trip journey.) "To source local produce, it's hard, it's expensive, it's a huge endeavor."

Small wonder then that ordering ingredients from a corporation like Sysco appeals to so many restaurant owners whose budgets are already stretched thin.

"A lot of people complain about the food and quality here, but I think we need to fix the food system and then the food culture here," Emmenecker says, noting that bridging the gap between local farmers and commercial kitchens, as Harvest Hub does, is a start. "I hope everybody else gets on board."

According to Kenney, NCGA member Woody Ryno Farms owners Chris and Amber Ryno first posed the possibility of a food hub at a regular meeting. Shortly after, Kenney got a primer on food hubs at a conference. Her experience in the food industry, both in a restaurant and at Tomaso's, gave her some familiarity with distribution challenges. "I was like, 'Oh my god, this is exactly it,'" she says. "The pandemic sort of kicked it into high gear because shelves were empty but there were no shortages at the farmers market." The missing connections between local producers and local buyers and consumers was laid bare. It also highlighted the need to prepare for emergencies — like the weather, power and other calamities that can hit isolated areas like Humboldt extra hard — that might disrupt supply chains and block the transportation of food to and from the remote North Coast.

The next step was finding a location. "My husband and I would be driving by abandoned buildings and I'd be like, 'That could be a food hub,'" Kenney says, laughing a little at her own single-mindedness.

The space that became the hub is 6,000 square feet, the former home of Humboldt Farms cannabis processing, though not all of it is taken up by Harvest Hub. NCGA's headquarters are upstairs, as are the offices of Natural Decadence, Humboldt Made and Ashley's Seafood, as well as the Open Door Community Health and Wellness Garden Program. There's also a kitchen the NCGA hopes to convert into a space for cooking classes and demonstrations.

Downstairs, there's a 38 degree cold storage room, a serendipitous relic of the former cannabis business that allows the hub to hold produce to be shipped out. It is also occasionally used to help producers, who might not have access to such a facility, store their crops longer for farmers market sale. Earlier in the year, Crazy River Ranch, for example, had a corner stacked with apples in boxes. "Normally, they'd be done with their season," says Kenney, but the cold storage allowed the farm to keep apples fresh for sale. As the early summer season picks up, more and more fruits and vegetables will crowd the room.

While restaurants and grocers are perhaps some of the first businesses that come to mind as destinations for wholesale local produce, institutions like schools are where the volume is at. Kenney says she expected plenty of red tape, but was pleasantly surprised by how ready local schools were to connect with Harvest Hub and its associated farmers.

Eureka City Schools' eight school sites, charter schools and educational facilities serve three meals a day: totaling roughly 1,050 breakfasts, 1,800 lunches and 600 after school supper program meals, according to Food Services Director Kevin Ralston. "Eureka City Schools has always been pretty good about reaching out to local partners," he says, including Earthly Edibles and Clendenen's Cider Works. But when COVID threw schools and their meal programs into chaos, new protocols meant switching to sealed, pre-packaged food. He says the schools were slowly reintegrating fresh produce, "Then suddenly with Harvest Hub, we have access to all the local farms." He says there was little if any resistance to using the program from the school board and the response has been positive.

That includes the response from the kids. Golden beets roasted as a side dish at the high school were a surprise hit. ECS is looking at new USDA-approved recipes to make the most of local kale, quinoa and beets this winter, too. "We want to use them [Harvest Hub] as much as we can all year round," Ralston says.

"It's worth it to spend a little more," says Ralston. "The quality is fantastic, the relationships that we're building are great ... everything coming off the truck is organic and that's an improvement." An added bonus to featuring fresh fruit and vegetables has been "folding in that educational component," he says, showing kids "this is what an organic vegetable tastes like." For the coming school year, Eureka City Schools applied for a farm-to-school grant that Ralston hopes will pay for events like farmer visits, tastings and field trips to partner farm sites. "The full food cycle is what we're shooting for," he says, noting Harvest Hub is listed as primary purchasing partner on the application along with an organization called Grow Together that manages the school garden at Alice Birney Elementary School.

Stella Swenson, kitchen manager at Coastal Grove Charter School, is similarly enthusiastic about sourcing produce through Harvest Hub. But in contrast to large purchasers like Eureka City Schools, Coastal Grove serves some 150 kids lunch per day. "It's been amazing. They've made it very easy for us. The website is very easy to use. We just get on there, pick what we want to use for the following week and order it. The school's menu is largely from scratch, so the fresh produce is vital, and the feedback on the resulting meals has been overwhelmingly positive.

Before Harvest Hub, Swenson says Coastal Grove's kitchen ordered through Veritable Vegetable. "It's definitely been nice to hone into the local produce here," she says. Students appreciate the fresh produce, too, she adds. "I can tell the difference when I eat strawberries that were picked yesterday as opposed to ones picked a week ago, and I think they can, too."

Robyn Gorecki weighs potatoes for Harvest Boxes. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Robyn Gorecki weighs potatoes for Harvest Boxes.

As Food for People's local food resources coordinator, Allison Kenney (no relation to Meghan) runs the nonprofit's gleaning program, picking up and distributing excess produce from farmers' fields, unsolds from markets, and fruits and vegetables from individuals whose gardens and trees runneth over. As closely as she works with NCGA and its members, it's not surprising she's also part of the Harvest Hub's steering committee.

Previously, on top of its gleaning program, Food for People ordered produce for its food pantry from individual farmers. The organization was an early adopter of Harvest Hub's service and Allison Kenney says, despite some clunkiness in the beginning, it's been a boon for her organization. "It really streamlines things instead of having six different farmers coming in." Food for People, she says, also received $200,000 in federal assistance funds for produce purchased through an aggregation center, and Harvest Hub fits that bill. There's fluctuation week to week depending on what's available but since December, Food for People has received more than 34,400 pounds of local produce through the hub. The only downside she can think of is personal, saying with a sigh and a smile in her voice, "I miss chitchatting with the farmers, calling and texting with them ... just getting to catch up with the farmers."

"There's a lot of potential there for future partnerships, not just with our organization, but with others," says Allison Kenney. "I think it's a really great thing that was lacking here in Humboldt."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill.

Add a comment