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Bridging the gap between small farmers and big buyers

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(Read caption) Sarah Penn tosses a strawberry to her Boston terrier Nemo in the berry fields at Helsing Junction Farm near Rochester, Wash. Some farmers still struggle to sell their products to restaurants, universities, and other institutions, but one company is trying to help bridge the gap

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The Hudson Valley of New York has a long, rich history of agriculture, and currently boasts more than 5,000 farms that generate upwards of US$500 million in annual revenue. However, despite the regional growth of direct-to-consumer models such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets, small farmers may still struggle to bring their products to larger buyers, such as restaurants, schools, and other institutions.

Hudson Valley Harvest, the leading local food company in the tristate area (New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey), has grown to fill this niche. Paul Alward, a farmer of 10 years, co-founded the company in 2011 with three friends who met at farmers markets in New York. According to Alward, now the chief executive officer of Hudson Valley Harvest, the company “grew organically from the market system.” Embracing transparency, traceability, and sustainability, Hudson Valley Harvest serves food stores such as Whole Foods Market and FreshDirect, and universities such as The New School in New York City.

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When asked what a good food system looks like, Alward says, “I think it’s one filled with information. The most effective tool is information. Let the consumers decide.” To this end, the company emphasizes transparent labeling that not only identifies both product and producer, but also includes information on proximity and processing.

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Hudson Valley Harvest has grown from about 10 partnerships with farmer friends to more than 50 farms harvesting more than 6,000 acres. Seasonality and year-round availability were big challenges at first, but by embracing technology for frozen foods and reinventing infrastructure, the company has scaled their business model and achieved greater operating efficiency. “We found very early on that, as a start-up, we weren’t built for mainstream stores right away,” says Alward. “[We therefore] went to small independent stores where the owners were present.”

Another challenge was sourcing sustainable animal products. “Slaughterhouses aren’t close and they don’t always treat animals humanely,” notes Alward. The company only sources pasture-raised cattle, and the farmers use no preventative antibiotics or appetite stimulants. Furthermore, Hudson Valley Harvest does not source pigs from crate-based operations, and raises no veal at all.

Realizing that the local market was a significant revenue stream, more farmers began to participate, and the company could supply enough local food products to meet the demand of larger stores and institutions. To accommodate its growth, Hudson Valley Harvest moved to a new facility in TechCity Commercial Park in Kingston, N.Y., where the Hudson Valley Food Hub occupies a former IBM facility.

The company’s innovative clear packaging for frozen foods intrigued restaurants, since it allowed chefs and suppliers to observe the actual product, just as they would when buying fresh produce. According to Alward, “People are buying it for the flavor, [and] they are buying it because it’s organic.”

“Geographically, we are pretty close to where we want to be right now,” says Alward. “We want to concentrate on density.” The company directly employs 16 people, and hopes to expand job opportunities through further connections with small farmers and food processors in the tristate area. “We are slowly growing into New Jersey and slowly growing into Connecticut,” says Alward.

“We want to provide the best food experience that just happens to be local, just happens to be sustainable,” explains Alward. 

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Hudson Valley Harvest believes that local food can be scaled up and scaled out to support local economies. As their website implores, “pick up a bag, buy a bunch, or open a jar, and join our revolution.”