Moving the Food

Food is something that is so simple, such an everyday thing that we frankly don’t think very deeply about it.  But it is also such an integral part of our lives that it deserves gratitude and thoughtfulness. Of course, you may have a momentary or even lasting delight when your taste-buds are tickled with something wonderful.  You even snapped an Instagram picture to mark the occasion. Some of us even wonder where the raw components of the masterpiece came from. If you dig even DEEPER, you wonder about the inputs of the soil or animals that produced your food.  Piercing the historical layer, one may contemplate how anyone ever thought to combine ingredients, apply heat or ferment. What we often do not consider in our great wonder is a crucial link between our point of purchase and the farm. That link is distribution.


An idealistic view of food routes perhaps might be farm -> grocery but a quick glimpse of what that would look like showing us something that is a bit chaotic.  Imagine small trucks pulling in and out of a grocery store throughout the day and offloading a few small boxes of one thing or the other. Think about the time the farmer is taking to deliver these groceries?  Think about all the people who need to be fed.  So when I ask a local grocer to provide me with more local choices, I’m certainly not imagining a few small crates on a table in a corner of the store.  No, I imagine the abundance that I know exists in the world.  I like farmer’s markets but even there, can you imagine what it would look like if everyone bought their groceries at your favorite farmers market? I believe it could lose a bit of that charm.  My point is, there are a lot of realities about food consumption, retail, and distribution that need to be taken into account if we are to enact massive change.

Enter the “middle-person,” the intermediary, the go-between, the food-aggregate.  Food aggregation is an important concept in food systems that bring together produce (and sometimes also meats, dairy, herbs or other consumables) from multiple sources to create a larger and more consistent supply to meet consumer demand.  One of the best things about a Food Aggregate is that it is really serving two sets of people.  It serves people who eat food (just about everyone!) and it serves farmers.

Direct to Customer, Local Food Market, LV

While browsing some local Kickstarter fundraisers, I found a campaign for Local Food Market, Lehigh Valley who was using crowdfunding as a way to grow their food hub (a type of food aggregate model that tends to serve end consumers) operation.  This encouraged me to reach out to Nicole Shelly who is one of the owners. Her family has been on a journey that has taken them from a contemporary business vision of world impact to the perhaps more connective idea of sustainable agriculture.

Sixteen years ago, Nicole and her husband Steve Shelly left their desk job to do a farming internship.  They first operated an urban farm in Philadelphia and then moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2007 to start Godshall Farm, an “intensive market garden” (an extremely productive garden grown to sell at farmers markets).  When asked about their transformation, Nicole said, “We all have way more [than] we need, but we are not paying attention to the things that really matter like good health and care for the environment.“ and went on to say “The food system is out of balance.  The approach is “man conquering nature”. There are some parts of the system we can use, but overall the system should work with nature. The Green Revolution approach of using pesticides and herbicides to grow food is making people sick.“

Note: To help unpack the term \”green revolution,\” see this article by Daniel Pepper in US News & World Report.


The couple was invited to start a farmer’s market in downtown Allentown and branded their event Fresh Fridays by development company City Center, Allentown.  Like many outdoor (and indoor) market farmers, Nicole and Steve were challenged by the unpredictability of weather at a single weekday market which prompted them to start an online store delivering into Allentown. “That online part is what became our new business model for Local Food Market LV.  We were tired of farming, not having enough time for our family and running two businesses, so we combined the businesses and re-branded our farm into a food hub.  We also saw a major need for leadership and marketing for small scale farms in the Lehigh Valley as technology and how people want to get food is rapidly changing.”

The food hub model is not exactly new and there are many country-wide.  Lancaster County, where Forest Ranch is based, is the home of an impressive operation called Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-Op who declined our request for an interview.  It’s our understanding that LCCF serves a huge part of the northeast including major regional divisions of large grocery chains and high-end restaurants.  Food Aggregation is a fertile space with a lot of room for innovation.  That’s led to many successful examples for those willing to observe retail grocery and make positive adjustments and perhaps also for those who live in communities that have are close to a lot of population centers or have a potential customer base primed for this sort of thing.  We\’ve also seen these sorts of businesses come and go.  Nicole says that their food hub is unique because “…we come with a farming background. We have the trust of the farming community on our side and I\’m not sure we could make it work without that. I think the biggest challenge is the misunderstanding between the interests of farmers and their customers. We think we understand both sides, so we feel we can bridge that gap.” Grimly concluding, “I\’m not sure if we can make it work or not, but we are giving it a try.”

Big or rapid growth may not necessarily be the answer.  “…the more food hubs that develop and work together, the more effectively we can get local food to people.  Small farms can stay small and serve the areas right around them. Food hubs should be small also, but we need a lot of them. I don’t think one food hub getting huge and dominating is the way it will work.  There is a vision of a web of food hubs that cover every area.“

Nicole’s appreciation of Marketing is an opportunity to innovate within the food hub space. She plays with branding and ignores tired terminology that some people associate with difficult business models. “Some food hubs try to cling onto using the words CSA or farmers\’ market, but we feel those are kind of old fashioned concepts that we are trying to shake.”  The Market\’s delightful Instagram site features some stocked raw foods but mostly finished dishes, gorgeously prepared which allows her to excite the customer with the possibilities of their quality food.


Based on the variety and output of what Nicole refers to as “sustainable farms,” food hubs seem to be a real missing link providing a great service for farmers, from aggregating volume and diversity of products to taking care of customers and transportation, it is a great complement or alternative to other food sale models in the sustainable space giving farmers more time to plan and grow their food while regenerating the soil through their practices.  “Many farmers do not like marketing and social media. I enjoy those things, so it makes sense for me to not do growing, but to focus on marketing. I think that farmers are better off working together to create a product line of local foods that are available all year round and easier to get.“ She says that their farmers are grateful for another account that doesn’t involve a lot of work. While some farmers certainly enjoy the more social aspects of farming, \”Most of the farmers that I have contact with are happiest when farming and they want to focus on that.\”

Another important business skill is adaptation.  Local Food Market, LV asks their customers what they want and from there develop strategic changes as evident in their metamorphosis from what was not unlike a CSA to the online store featuring a system in which customers can choose what they get. They’ve also created a system where you can order and buy what you want, get what might be considered “specialty” produce and have one-stop shopping year round. While customers also want the lowest price, that’s not as negotiable if you want the whole package: a stable year-round market, food of medicinal quality, ethically and ecologically-sourced food and less transportation with more domestic jobs. People desperately need to change their view of what price really is and a regenerative future will require a less price-sensitive customer.  As Masanobu Fukuoka says in his important book, The One-Straw Revolution, \”Money is not the only price paid for Indulgences.\”


Says Nicole, “Our mission is to make local food more accessible in our area of the Lehigh Valley. We want to help farmers keep up with the methods big businesses are using to sell food. We want to raise awareness of what it is like to be a farmer and try to educate the public on why it is so hard to make a living doing it.  We also feel strongly that the type of food that local farmers provide can improve the health and lives of people.”

In addition to food hubs, I asked Nicole if any are some other non-farming business niches that people can explore so that they can be a part of the good work that is happening without necessarily farming? She suggested delivery service, composting service, prepared foods, marketing services, farming supplies, equipment rental, and gourmet butchering. (Read our Non-Farm Regenerative Business Series first installment here.)

The Regenerative Connection

Now, most of us have a basic understanding of how a food aggregate can create a more sustainable set of food routes and meet both consumer demand and the marketing needs of farmers.  But what about regenerative agriculture? A strong set of worldwide food aggregates is a crucial part of a regenerative future. This is because species diversity and a certain percentage of perennialization are important parts of reversing climate change by improving soil and water and also sequestering carbon.  Many regenerative farming methods such as agroforestry, silvopasture and intercropping are considered to have extremely high yields but are also very diverse. Both of those things are great! The problem that most farmers don’t have the time or energy to develop marketing chains for 50 different types of farm outputs. This is where the potential of linking regenerative farming and food aggregation comes into REALLY powerful play.

If I migrate my soybean farm into one that produces hazelnuts, chestnuts, black walnuts, black locust blossoms, raspberries, currants, pawpaws, leeks, shiitake mushrooms, squash, pears, persimmons, pork, lamb and turkey, what would that look like in terms of finding buyers for all these things?  Marketing channels are largely about relationships and from what we know about relationships, you have to invest time into them! And what we know about farmers is that if they aren’t interacting with their farm they aren’t growing or harvesting a lot. So you can start to see how food aggregates, someone who specializes in making and maintaining those buyer channels are SO IMPORTANT in the future of food production.


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