Clusters key to the growing the local food movement

Nov 30, 2014

Credit Northern Colorado Food Cluster

More cities want to take eating local food from just a hip trend to an economic generator. But as with many grassroots movements, there can be some growing pains along the way. That has some looking to the tech sector for lessons, as Harvest Public Media’s Luke Runyon reports.

Transcript of the audio story:

RUNYON: When you talk about the local food movement to an economist or an economic development team, you’re likely to hear the phrase “cute to scale.” That means up until this point a lot of the movement has focused on the cute: bucolic farmers markets and high-priced farm to table restaurants, leaving the back end stuff like distribution and processing untouched.

BIRKS: “It’s great to do all that farm to table stuff, but let’s now figure out how to make it impactful.”

RUNYON: That’s one of those economic development folks, Josh Birks, economic health director with the city of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Credit Northern Colorado Food Cluster

He wants the city to help make local food more accessible, and he wants it to add jobs and tax revenue to the local economy. To do that, Birk’s department is supplying seed money for something called an industry cluster.

These “clusters” help business owners share ideas and facilitate planning. They’re part policy council, part think tank, part task force and part trade association.

BIRKS: “We’re taking a concept that has been successful in more traditional industry areas, like technology, apps, or the renewable energy space and we’re trying to apply it to something that’s very different: a food system.”

RUNYON: And because it’s very different, forming a food cluster comes with a unique set of challenges.

[ambient sound]

COLPAART: “I think what the cluster wants to do is help organizations like yours stay afloat...”

Credit Northern Colorado Food Cluster

GUBER: “I guess it just hasn’t been conveyed enough how you guys are going to do that.”

RUNYON: At an indoor winter farmers market, Ashley Colpaart tries to sell the newly formed Northern Colorado Food Cluster to a prospective member. Colpaart is the Cluster’s coordinator.

COLPAART: “Part of the purpose of the cluster is to have dialogue that maybe would not have been had before and talk about the constraints in the food system, but also the opportunities.”

RUNYON: Colpaart says one the biggest challenges in growing a food system is lack of communication. Farmers who run small operations rarely have the time to network, and bigger companies don’t see the benefit in working with smaller entities. That leads to a food system where only the big companies talk with each other, and vice versa for the small guys, leaving the crucial connections in the middle absent and unformed.

COLPAART: “A lot of the constraints on agriculture is who controls the middle parts of the distribution chain and the processing and manufacturing all of that’s happening by very large companies that are controlling prices and access points .”

SOKOLOVE: “I don’t know that the average person really cares about aggregating and moving produce in big trucks.”

RUNYON: Diana Sokolove is with San Francisco’s planning department. The city also has a food cluster.

SOKOLOVE: “It’s kind of an ugly back end side of the business.”

RUNYON: Sokolove says there’s real passion for local food, but few people are thinking about the middle -- how to make it more profitable for farmers and more accessible for shoppers. That’s where cities can come in to identify and fortify clusters. Becca Jablonski is an agricultural economist at Colorado State University.

JABLONSKI: “So I think having some of organization that’s helping to bring together different constituents who are all part of the same food system and helping to think through different opportunities, at any scale, is really important.”

RUNYON: Jablonski says city officials have a vested interest in seeing local food take off to support jobs and feed people. Other local food clusters in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon are also taking shape. But Jablonski says getting the local food movement away from just being cute, could mean a shift in what the word local even means.

JABLONSKI: “Is it just farms that sell at farmers markets directly to customers that are considered part of the local food system? Or are we talking about something much more broad? And I would argue that that broader definition is much more useful.”

RUNYON: And that broader definition includes the cute parts of the local food system... and the businesses that aren’t.

Luke Runyon, Harvest Public Media.