Ag officials tour locally grown food hub in Durham

jporter@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2013 

— Two U.S. Department of Agriculture officials visited Durham Wednesday to see an example of an emerging business model for distributing regionally grown, mostly organic foods.

Durham’s Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) hosted Acting Agriculture Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse and Agriculture Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo for a roundtable discussion and a tour of the Pettigrew Street warehouse the company shares with other businesses.

The discussion, which was closed to the public and media, covered immigration, food safety, labor practices, and federal support for regional food systems and small businesses.

Afterward, Sandi Kronick, ECO’s chief financial officer, led guests through icy meat coolers and storage rooms stocked with cabbage, peanuts and sweet corn in the 26,000 square foot warehouse. ECO uses 10,000 square feet of the space.

The company, whose slogan is “your local farm to table connection,” markets and distributes food from nearly 20 farms across the Carolinas and Virginia to various retailers, including restaurants and food clubs. Eighty percent of ECO’s sales go back to the farmers themselves. The company also helps farmers who want to transition from conventional growing practices to organic farming.

ECO started in 2004 and relocated to Durham from Pittsboro in September.

“We think of ourselves as filling the organic-producer niche,” Kronick said. “We bought this (larger) property because it’s expensive to move and our growth is unpredictable. We’re an older company in this industry in North Carolina, and we’re learning to eliminate redundancy.”

Firsthand Foods, a company which uses a similar wholesale model for the distribution of ethically raised livestock, shares the warehouse space. Last year, it received a USDA-sponsored grant from the Small Business Innovation Research Program, intended to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector.

“The USDA and other federal agencies are investing in food hubs as an emerging business model,” Co-CEO Tina Prevatte said Wednesday. “It’s really an emerging industry.”

Firsthand Foods’ website says the company is using the grant money for “producer engagement strategies that strengthen local market opportunities for North Carolina’s pasture-based livestock producers.”

ECO gets deliveries four days a week and distributes foods to retailers within 48 hours. Turnaround can be as quick as six hours, Kronick said, and the warehouse keeps no inventory.

Alonzo said during the tour that ECO is well organized and asked Kronick what makes the operation successful.

“I think it’s because we work with a variety of new age farmers, who only farm organic,” Kronick said. “We also have the bread-and-butter cabbage and potato farmers. There are really few large-scale producers who are able to access wholesale markets. We give local farmers the strength to help them keep growing.”

Porter: 919 593 7884

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