More small-scale farmers saw the fruits of their labour land on plates at local restaurants this season with the launch of a new co-operative food hub.
Fireweed Food Co-op began operating its food hub — a product aggregator and wholesale distributor — in the West End in June. Over the course of two months, it has sold thousands of pounds of produce, meats and grains from nearly 20 Manitoba farmers to more than a dozen restaurants and grocers, said food hub co-ordinator Anna Sigrithur.
"Our goal is to boost up the supply chain a little bit, and get small to mid-scale farmers access into larger pools in the supply chain," Sigrithur said.
Fireweed runs its hub out of a 1,000-square-foot warehouse on Clifton Street that’s been outfitted with chillers and deep freezes, and plenty of packing and storage space.
Since 2016, the co-operative, formerly known as Farm Fresh Food Hub, has been working toward that end and building relationships with farmers interested in business-to-business marketing but not wanting to take on the extra administration or unable to supply buyers at scale.
"Typically our farms are operating at a smaller scale for social and ecological sustainability reasons — working predominantly hand tools or minimal farm machinery, working with organic or chemical free growing methods, working toward no-till growing methods and fair or better labour practices for workers on the farms," Sigrithur said.
"Our goal is to bolster the market for these small to mid-scale producers so that they can really survive and thrive without having to scale up and lose some of that sustainability."
In its inaugural season, the food hub is using a consignment model. It offers a catalogue of products, populated by what co-op members can guarantee, for buyers to order from on a weekly basis. Producers then haul their product on Tuesdays to the hub, where staff pack orders and deliveries are made the following day.
Local poultry, pork, beef, bison, grains, legumes, oil and seasonal fruits and vegetables are available, Sigrithur said. The co-op has also partnered with an Inuit-owned fishery in Nunavut to supply Arctic char.
Geert Hemelings, co-owner of Elemental Earth Gardens in Newton, said he would have eventually made the foray into supplying restaurants but his membership in the food hub has done away with the "social shmoozing" needed to land those deals.
"Fireweed is doing that for me and they’re very good at it," he said. "I really like that I don’t have to worry about all that and I can just bring my stuff to them and they can distribute it."
The food hub has also cushioned against lost revenue following limits on farmers’ markets brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, he said, adding product has been moving at a fair price too.
"I just hope that they grow and that they can cater to a lot of restaurants in Winnipeg, and maybe some grocery stores, because this is really great to have a way for producers to sell their product in bulk volumes," Hemelings said.
The co-op is currently looking for new buyers and collecting feedback on its website to help plan for next season. Striking a balance between supply and demand has been a challenge, Sigrithur said.
"Manitoban business is a conservative landscape, so it’s been challenging a little bit in that regard, trying to be an idealistic upstart," she said. "We hope to plan with our producers over the winter, and some bigger anchor customers and do a little more data informed matching of supply and demand."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.