How do local food growers and producers get their products into the hands of area consumers? The process can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, making it difficult for producers to keep up with the demands and turn a profit.
A Fort Wayne-based startup called Plowshares Cooperative Food Hub
is trying to disrupt the market with an innovative for-profit and co-operative model. It acts as a one-stop shop for producers to get their products to the market, addressing the transportation, aggregation, and distribution of local food products. In this context, "local" means products come from a 400-mile radius.
Project Manager and serial entrepreneur, Jain Young, is an active force in the company, and her local food roots run deep.
Back in the early 1970s, a cohort of about 100 families—including hers—started a buying club. At the time, she says you couldn’t find certain products locally in Fort Wayne, like peanut butter that didn’t have added sugar or fat.
“We would get together once a month, and each family would write down what they wanted from the warehouse," she says. "Then somebody would drive to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and bring the group order back."
However, before long, her group wanted to shop more regularly than once a month, so her mother opened Fort Wayne's original 3 Rivers Food Co-Op
grocery store on Broadway Avenue.
Young says the co-op was designed to be a one-stop shop for all things food, health, and wellness related, operating as a service to the Fort Wayne community. She worked there for some time and also served on the board of directors at various points.
Resident Diana Talor shops at the 3 Rivers Food Co-op at 1612 Sherman Blvd.
When the store moved to its current location at 1612 Sherman Ave., Young took on a more hands-on role. She learned about the ins and outs of purchasing, inventory, operations, and what it takes to keep the co-op running efficiently.
In doing so, she noticed a different gap in Fort Wayne's food sector.
“On Thursdays, the co-op receives deliveries from four different egg producers,” Young explains, “That means the bookkeeper writes 50 checks a week."
She wondered: What would happen if instead of working with multiple egg producers individually, all of the local egg producers had a warehouse or hub where the co-op could place one order, receive one delivery, and write one check?
With that, the idea for Plowshares
"The co-op would save thousands of dollars in labor, and if they're willing to pay a little bit more, they're still going to save money in the long run,” Young reasoned.
She notes that this model saves time and money for producers, too, allowing them to drop off their products at one location and reach multiple markets: grocery stores, restaurants, and direct to consumer purchases.
Rowan Greene, Young’s son and the Hub's Value Chain Coordinator, is now trying to get this innovative message out to several audiences.
Representing Plowshares, Greene shakes hands with Fort Wayne's Mayor Tom Henry, left.
Greene says Plowshares
has 15 vendors currently in the on-boarding process with another 30 in conversation. They are expanding their reach by catering to the institutional buyer, like local restaurants, with what he refers to as “value-added products.” For instance, a dedicated chef has come on board to make scalable products like bone broth that can be used as a base for soups.
Currently, consumers interested in purchasing products directly from Plowshares
can place orders online on a subscription basis to pick up at their warehouse at 1010 N. Coliseum Blvd., Community Harvest Food Bank’s north facility
Groceries that sell local food give farmers a market for their products.
While Greene is proud of the Food Hub's momentum thus far, Plowshares is not slowing down anytime soon, he explains. His vision is to advance local agriculture in Indiana by helping farmers diversify their crops beyond corn and soy, keeping more dollars local.
“What I really want to do with Plowshares is turn the $18 billion food industry and the $32 billion ag industry in Indiana into a $50 billion food and ag industry,” Greene says, adding that most non-commodity crops purchased in Indiana come from out of the Hoosier State or even out of the country. The ag industry encompasses all types of crops, farm services, and supporting government agencies.
While specialty food crops (like tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons) account for 1 percent of the gross domestic product of agriculture in Indiana, an acre of specialty crops (fruits and vegetables) is three times more profit-dense than the largest commodity crops (corn and soy).
Even the Indiana Department of Agriculture sees the value in specialty crops and offers a grant program
to support diversity in the state's agricultural industry. Greene sees potential in challenging the status quo.
"If we took land that's currently dedicated to corn and soy, and produced different crops, it would turn those two industries into a $50-billion industry,” he explains.