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FoodHub helped set the stage for connections

Like an online dating site for the local food trade, for nearly 10 years FoodHub helped connect farmers, ranchers, fishermen and specialty producers with wholesale food buyers in their region.
The online platform was retired in 2018.

After nearly 10 years of helping buyers and sellers connect and do business, the online platform FoodHub was retired in October, 2018, following a massive host server failure that crashed the platform. It was a devastating blow to the site, and one not easily fixed.

In considering the costs of rebuilding FoodHub our in-house software development and Food & Farms teams weighed its value and the highest and best use of scarce resources available to build robust and equitable regional food economies, eventually choosing  to retire the platform.

The decision to retire the site was not an easy one to make. Launched in late 2009, FoodHub was one of the earliest tools designed to connect farmers, ranchers and fishers directly with local chefs, restaurateurs and foodservice directors. The site grew to more than 6,000 members around the Pacific Northwest, including food producers and buyers of every scale and type, as well as a myriad of agencies and service providers who are keen supporters of local food systems. In 2014, the launch of the Oregon Harvest for Schools Portal on FoodHub made it a particularly important resource for school foodservice directors to find local farmers.

More than 6,000 farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and specialty producers have signed up with FoodHub.

In addition to being a tool used by chefs and producers to discover each other and develop new relationships, FoodHub has been a learning platform, focusing us more keenly on the priority needs of our regional food economy.

What follows is a brief synopsis of learning gleaned from FoodHub, and the work that has followed to continue supporting local food:

It takes more than tech

Local food is fresh and perishable, and most transactions still happen between human beings speaking directly with each other. Those relationships matter, local purchasing can be complex and idiosyncratic, and at the small scale, automation doesn’t necessarily help farmers and chefs solve problems together. What does help is creating space for producers and chefs to meet and connect directly. We’re still facilitating this work through the NW Food Buyers’ Alliance (NWFBA) and our annual Local Link event, a food show dedicated to connecting independent farmers, ranchers, fishers and wholesale chefs and foodservice operators. To be notified of other events hosted by the NWFBA, please email NWFBA@ecotrust.org.

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Local food needs to be harvested, cleaned, processed, packaged, insured and distributed for mainstream wholesale buyers to access it. We saw early on that right-sized processing and distribution infrastructure was a gap in building regional food systems that kept many relationships discovered on FoodHub from flourishing. In 2015, Ecotrust made a big investment in closing that gap with Redd on Salmon Street, a two-block campus in Portland that offers commissary kitchens, warehousing, cold storage, and distribution. Already serving an ecosystem of hundreds of independent producers and local restaurants and retailers, the Redd offers a number of services for producers seeking efficient pathways to retailers and institutions. To learn more about warehousing product at the Redd or buying from local producers, please contact B-Line Urban Delivery.

We need a bigger Ag of the Middle

FoodHub helped chefs find local producers, yet many of those producers didn’t meet the volume, processing, packaging, certifications, insurance, or other requirements of wholesale buyers. To really build robust regional food economies, we need more local product offered in a way that meets the specifications of mainstream food buyers like schools, hospitals and grocery stores. Too meet this need, last winter Ecotrust launched an “Ag of the Middle Accelerator” designed to help small, independent producers grow and professionalize their operations in order to serve larger buyers and make their incredible food more accessible to more people. Accelerator cohort members participate in two years of training and network building in business growth strategy, tax, accounting, legal, and marketing.

All of which is to say that Ecotrust’s commitment to building a healthy, equitable, restorative and prosperous local food system continues! If you’d like to learn more about any of the programs mentioned above, please contact avargas@ecotrust.org and let us know how we can help.

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A connection case study

At its height of use, FoodHub often helped new and beginning farmers grow and diversify their business. When Rachel Reister and her husband Jake, owners of Reister Farms Lamb in Washougal, Wash., started direct marketing their lamb, they sold nearly 100 percent of their product through farmers’ markets.

“FoodHub is a giant rolodex,” said Rachel.

The FoodHub Member Directory was a catalog of the site’s reach, listing more than 500 restaurants, nearly 230 schools, and more than 1,400 farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and specialty producers. Well known and loved members include the likes of BEASTCarman RanchTails & TrottersShepherd’s GrainPortland Public Schools, and the Oregon Food Bank.

Rachel searched for restaurants on FoodHub and found “a key list of clients who we shared common values with and wanted to sell our products to. The first restaurant we called responded.”

Now, that number is closer to 10 percent, as the Reisters have shifted to a direct to wholesale model and work with clients who buy product year-round, many of whom they found with FoodHub. In 2012, they attributed more than $35,000 in sales to direct connections they made using FoodHub, or referrals from FoodHub clients.

The farm now serves buyers who come back year after year. Rachel’s current client list includes Bon Appetit, a corporate caterer, the popular New Seasons Market in Vancouver, Wash. and Laurelwood Public House & Brewery in Portland — all FoodHub Members. Even with this success, Rachel said she would return to FoodHub week after week, looking for new opportunities to connect.

“Every time we make a growth jump, I log in and make a new prospect list and start all over again,” she said.

Even if producers weren’t using FoodHub to drum up 100 percent of their business, Rachel said the opportunity to use the powerful search function to define or discover their ideal audience was invaluable.

“The info that FoodHub has is more specific to the decision maker than what you find on a public website.”