Appetite for growth

A new farm food hub gains traction with local eateries. The next big question: How to expand the system

By Emily Kubis

The farm-to-table coordinators of Nashville Grown started their nonprofit food hub with the simple plan of connecting local farmers directly to buyers. But the founders’ larger goals encompass nearly every angle of a comprehensive food system.

It is easier and cheaper for wholesale food purchasers in Nashville, and all over the country, to place single orders from large-scale distributors — think of well-known such as Sysco — than to make small purchases from several local farms. Consequently, the city’s produce often hails from several states away and local farms are excluded from the mainstream food system.

“Davidson County has enough farmland to feed all of Nashville,” reads the group’s website, “but almost all of our food comes from over 1,000 miles away.”

In September 2012, founders Sarah Johnson and Alan Powell stepped in as coordinating middlemen, working with farmers to aggregate their supply and with restaurants to serve their demand. The result is a Google spreadsheet filled in twice weekly by farmers with products and prices, from which restaurants and caterers can place orders and receive deliveries the following day.

“Rather than thinking about it as one farmer and one piece of land,” said Johnson, “it’s thinking about how groups of people could work together with a greater idea of what needs to be grown and how to distribute it.”

The majority of local produce comes from Bells Bend Farms, Bountiful Blessings Farms and Long Hungry Creek Farm, and is delivered to Nashville’s restaurants, mostly higher-end, “farm-to-table” eateries, including Flyte, Rolf and Daughters, Husk and Silly Goose.

“We’re listing produce while it’s still in the field, and then it gets harvested after it’s ordered,” Powell said. “It is as fresh as possible.”

On a lower price point is Nashville’s vegan restaurant, The Wild Cow, which is Nashville Grown’s second-largest customer.

“They’re at the forefront of local produce because they’re using every local farm they can,” said manager Nick Davis. “It’s a little more expensive, but it’s well worth the cost.”

Part of Nashville Grown’s mission, however, is getting that produce beyond restaurants and into community food providers, such as public schools and hospitals.

Food regulations in schools are one hindrance to that plan, but another is the organization’s capacity. The average Nashville Grown order size is only $130 and the system has processed only about $63,000 since September 2012, with the nonprofit keeping 13 percent of that.

Operationally, too, there are limits. Powell delivers food in his Subaru and the team rents a small refrigerator at the Nashville Farmer’s Market, which means a big influx of business could easily overwhelm Nashville Grown’s abilities.

“I think hitting our stride is kind of hitting our ceiling when it comes to what we’re able to do,” Johnson said.

Overhead costs and storage resources are just a small part of the food network puzzle, and Johnson and Powell say that if refrigerated trucks and large warehouses were dropped into Nashville today, they would go empty. The area’s farms are not yet producing enough product at the wholesale level and moderately sized restaurants are still buying out of state.

Producing the quantities needed for a large hospital or school system is a good distance down the road. Still, Johnson and Powell aim to build a comprehensive, local food infrastructure from the ground up — which means they’re doing the heavy lifting to find out just what that requires.

“The market hasn’t evolved yet,” said Don Leyrer, chair of the Nashville Social Enterprise Alliance. “They’re the pioneers, and they have to create the market. The guy that comes second has to do a lot less work.”

Increasing distribution is the nonprofit’s immediate goal, but Powell and Johnson see a bigger picture of what Nashville’s food system could be.

“We have a vision of Nashville in which everyone is eating healthy, local food, and farmers are getting a sustainable income from that, and our land is managed well,” Johnson said. “I would like this organization to keep growing and evolving and adding things until we see that Nashville.”

Lewis Lavine of Nashville’s Center for Nonprofit Management said the world of food-related nonprofits is very new, and opportunities are good. The nonprofit environment as a whole has seen an upswing since 2009 and 2010, he said.

“But the most successful nonprofits have one solid, strong mission, and they pursue that mission passionately and effectively,” Lavine said, advising that Nashville Grown accomplish one goal — distribution — before tackling the larger picture.

But for Nashville Grown’s leaders, the larger picture is an integral part of the distribution cornerstone. Without efficient land management, skilled farmers and ready customers, they say, production and sales will continue only on a small scale.

“We need our customers to increase order sizes, but for that to happen, there needs to be a greater diversity on the system,” Powell said. “It’s a juggling act.”

Nashville Grown has been hosting meetings throughout the fall with farmers and buyers, hoping to better fill the gap between what’s available and what’s purchased. Answering some questions on that front would mean taking some meaningful steps toward building a bigger ecosystem.

“We’re not just selling tomatoes,” Johnson said. “This is an important thing for Nashville.”