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Software Advice ~ Regional Food Hubs Face a Growing Need for Technology

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by Derek Singleton

The locavores are swarming and the popularity of local food is increasing across the nation. The number of farmer’s markets has more than tripled since the USDA started tracking these numbers in 1994 – increasing from 1,755 to 6,132. In 2010, direct sales from farmers to consumers increased to over $1.2 billion. And consumers aren’t the only ones with a rising demand for local food. More and more, organizations such as supermarkets, restaurants, schools and others are sourcing food locally.

To meet this burgeoning demand, local food distributors must scale up their operations from direct sales of small quantities to wholesale transactions. The problem, according to Michelle Miller of UW Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, is that “a lot of the mid-scale distributors, the logistics people who used to consolidate produce, have gone out of business.”

Local distribution networks, termed “food hubs,” are trying to fill that void. Food hubs are like farmers’ markets and distributors rolled into one. They surfaced to provide local farmers with the infrastructure to store, process, distribute, and market local food to consumers and institutions. The current demand for local food positions food hubs to expand their role in food distribution. However, they lack the necessary technology to manage operations on a larger scale.

Managing Through Low-Tech Means
Most food hubs are decidedly behind the curve technologically. Transactions are usually coordinated through a combination of phone, email, and fax. Everything from scheduling pickups and drop-offs to planning routes is handled in this manner. Managing transactions like this may be feasible for the moment, but it won’t work as food hubs expand. To effectively manage relationships with more customers and farmers, they’ll need more advanced technology. This will range from Internet databases for managing customers relationships to distribution software to manage logistics.

Luckily, technology solutions for food hubs are surfacing. Three promising ones are match-making services, Internet-based buying clubs, and distribution management systems. None of these technologies are exactly new – but their adaptation to food hubs is. Each product provides food hubs with a way to get their local produce out to the general market more efficiently.

Matchmaking Programs
Food hubs have helped farmers overcome the marketing obstacle by using online match-making programs that link producers to buyers. These match-making programs are interactive communities that function a lot like Match.com for local food. Local food lovers can log on and find their perfect peach in just a few clicks. There are two general types of match-making services: those that link buyers to local food, and those that add a distributor to the mix. Continue Reading →